When Minnesota United announced that they'll be leaving the North American Soccer League for Major League Soccer last Wednesday, many took that as bad news for the NASL, assuming that this was the first domino to fall as the league began a downward spiral. I don't believe that's the case at all, however, and actually find myself more excited for the future of club soccer in the United States after the announcement than I was before.
First and foremost, the rapid rise of the MLS-bound club is a wonderful success story for the league. The history of Minnesota United officially began in 2009, when the struggling Minnesota Thunder were dissolved and the Minnesota Stars were formed. Despite the 'clean slate', the Stars picked up right where the Thunder left off, with woeful attendance and little reason to believe they'd ever be a success either on or off of the pitch.
Following the 2010 season, the Stars were taken over by the fledgling NASL, who were set to begin play the following spring. Attendance showed a slight bump during the league's inaugural season, before jumping to an average figure of 2,651 during the 2012 campaign, nearly double the figure from the NSC owned 2010 season. Following the 2012 season, the Stars were sold to current owner Bill McGuire, and renamed Minnesota United.
Under McGuire's ownership, United's attendance dramatically increased in each of the next two seasons, and the club began to improve on the pitch as well. In less than four years, United went from a club on the verge of bankruptcy to one that MLS wanted, enough so that they chose to poach the established NASL side over a bid involving NFL ownership, and the brief, successful history that came with it.
For fans of most NASL clubs, knowing that the league will eventually lose one of its better clubs will hurt. The ideal outcome for the NASL would have probably been MLS choosing expansion to Sacramento or Las Vegas, where there would be no competition between leagues. There's no getting around the fact that when United departs following the 2017 season, the league will feel the loss, both in terms of the quality of the on-field product on display, and in terms of the great things the club was doing off the pitch.
That said, MLS has likely done the NASL a favor for the next three seasons, by putting the national spotlight on division two soccer in Minnesota. While the club will likely look nothing like it does today three seasons from now, interest, especially local, will increase because of the announcement. There's little reason to think attendance won't rise significantly, both at home and on the road. I'd also expect a significant bump in the number of people streaming United matches, as the added exposure will certainly have people tuning in to watch.
United States soccer fans as a whole should also be pleased, as the fact that MLS decided to 'promote' an existing and successful club instead of simply creating a juggernaut to crush it should be looked on favorably. While fans of clubs in both leagues seem to revel in the failures of the other, the reality of the matter is that a successful NASL is good for the US soccer landscape as a whole. While the Cosmos were the club garnering all of the national attention until Wednesday's announcement, clubs like the San Antonio Scorpions, Ottawa Fury, and Indy Eleven have shown massive promise since day one. Armada FC look like they've already built a tremendous following, and the work done by the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Fort Lauderdale Strikers this winter has me extremely excited for next weekend.
Minnesota United were a club on the brink of folding until the North American Soccer League stepped in, and just four seasons later, they've come so far that Don Garber and company prefer them to NFL ownership. They should continue to help the Division 2 league grow for the next three seasons, and hopefully they'll increase mainstream exposure to some of the NASL's other success stories, while continuing to develop their own. While there's little doubt that MLS will benefit when they add one of US soccer's biggest success stories, there's no reason to think this won't help the NASL as well.