The Cosmos’ next opponent, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, reminds us of a nice thing the three, soon to be four, NASL teams in Florida have going - the development of local rivalries. For sure you don’t have to be geographically close to develop a rivalry, rivalries develop in many ways - the Celtics/Lakers rivalry is a strong example that close proximity isn’t necessary. But nonetheless, being close makes it easier for burgeoning fan bases to interact and follow each other’s clubs. You can see this in the growing friendly banter between the supporters of the Strikers and Rowdies in recent years and this year joined by the Armada supporters as well.
What does this have to do with Glashow Celtic? Ok, follow my tangent for a second here. All that talk about Florida’s rivalries got me thinking about the rumors of a NASL expansion in the northeast. First it was Hartford, and now possibly Boston, but either one would have the potential to be a great local rival for the Cosmos, because of the already existing sports rivalries between New York and New England – in particular Boston. And this is the last piece in my thought chain tangent - thinking about Glasgow Celtic putting a team in Boston then leads one to the unavoidable question of - is it a good idea for clubs from foreign countries to put teams in US leagues at all?
In the recent past this has happened a number of times, most notably Chivas’ team in LA and Manchester City’s expansion into the New York market. There was also the short lived Crystal Palace Baltimore that played briefly in the current NASL and the Dayton Dutch Lions (linked to Holland’s professional league) that played in USL Pro until last year. Beyond these fully professional squads, there have been various amateur clubs throughout the country incorporating aspects of foreign clubs into their names and claiming links to foreign clubs - one recent innovation that doesn’t involve naming is being used by some clubs like NPSL’s Greater Lowell United that claims to have its players train with Watford, an English League club.
You might notice right off the top that, except for Manchester City’s one year old New York City FC franchise, none of the others are around anymore - or they are small amateur clubs that have yet to enjoy strong market penetration. Clearly, the history of foreign aligned soccer teams in this country is not encouraging for the likes of a Celtic USA - or even Rayo Vallecano USA (the other current rumor out there involving NASL is that La Liga's Madrid based Rayo Vallecano will be operating a club in Oklahoma City).
But like all things, just knowing the end of the story doesn’t tell us much about how or why they failed. A surface level look at these teams makes it hard to put forth a simple explanation for that applies to all the failures. Crystal Palace Baltimore was said to have hit financial problems because the parent club in England fell into bankruptcy, but there have also been reports that it was largely owned and operated separately from the parent club and the name was basically just a licensing agreement, no idea which is the truth. Then you have Chivas USA which began strong but ultimately fell apart as the franchise’s ownership engaged in behavior that alienated fans and tragically lead to MLS buying the team so that the league could divest itself from the ownership group. And then there was the Dayton Dutch Lions, no idea what happened to them frankly, and truthfully, why would anyone put a professional team named after an amorphous concept like Dutch soccer in Dayton, Ohio? I just don’t get this one at all.
To recap, Chivas seems to have been mismanaged, Baltimore underfunded, and good luck explaining Dayton. Point being these clubs failed for different reasons, none of which can be reduced to merely having been owned by a foreign club. So where does that leave us?
The motivation for foreign clubs is clear – they are trying to expand their brand. You see this happening all over the world as established clubs are taking greater roles in developing markets either through summer playing tours or even direct ownership and/or partnerships. Possibly the biggest examples are Manchester City’s expansion into Australia and MLS and RedBulls purchase and rebranding of multiple clubs throughout the world. The financial motivation for this is clear, but what do they bring to the table for the average American soccer consumer?
So far foreign owners haven’t had a great track record, but the truth is that teams like Celtic and Rayo have invaluable soccer knowledge in the form of player development and training that they can offer. There is no reason to discourage them from bringing that knowledge to American cities. But the failings cannot be ignored if they are not to be repeated. Assuming the necessary amount of capital is present, the largest failing seems to have been an inability to understand and navigate the local markets – fortunately, this need not be insurmountable. Like all businesses trying to expand, well prepared foreign clubs could benefit by finding and cultivating local contacts. It seems that Manchester City has learned this lesson and has benefitted greatly from its partnership with the New York Yankees – there is no arguing that the off the field results have been positive thus far.
Closer to home, there is an argument to be made that the Cosmos have taken a similar path as well. True, the Cosmos are not a foreign club entering the US market, but the similarity lies in the foreign ownership that has brought the Cosmos back. This ownership group has relied heavily on staff with deep local ties, from management, to coaches, and all the way down to a large contingent of New York area players on the team. This wealth of knowledge in the local market has been invaluable to the Cosmos’ progress in their uphill battle as a second division club trying to penetrate a sports market that is not accustomed to following lower division soccer - a wholly foreign concept in the US sports landscape.
Like most things in life, the devil is in the details. The best club, with the most brand recognition, and the greatest coaches in the world can come to your neighborhood, but if they don’t manage to make a connection with the local fans they will not succeed for very long.
That’s right, it’s complicated. But one thing is for certain, as long as the United States soccer market continues to grow it will draw interest from foreign clubs looking to expand their brands and there is no reason to discourage it. There will be clubs that make this transition successfully, the reward for the first teams to do it may be huge – for them and the talent they can develop here.
Is it too much to ask some of those teams are close to the Cosmos? It would be nice to have someone close to beat instead of always to go Florida for road victories.
Would appreciate any comments or thoughts about the potential investment of foreign clubs in the NASL. Thank you.