For a number of years, lower-division professional soccer has struggled to survive in the United States. Questionable ownership and a lack of funding have caused teams and leagues to appear and quickly disappear.
However, the new commissioner of the North American Soccer League, which includes FC Tampa Bay, thinks his league has a formula for success.
When NuRock Soccer Holdings bought the United Soccer Leagues in 2009, nine teams, including Tampa Bay, broke away from the organization and founded a new incarnation of the NASL.
The NASL and USL then engaged in a power struggle to be sanctioned as the country's official second-division league, operating a level below Major League Soccer. The end result was a 12-team hybrid league operated by the United States Soccer Federation for the 2010 season.
This offseason, the USL decided to operate as a 15-team third-division league, leaving the NASL as the lone second-division league.
David Downs, the new commissioner of the NASL, is happy with the eight-team league he supervises.
"What the league offers is a chance for fans to come out to stadiums in their local communities and see the top professional team in their market playing in a very intimate setting at a very affordable price," Downs said. "It's a pretty cool atmosphere and a pretty high level of play."
Downs, previously executive director of the bid committee that unsuccessfully tried to bring the FIFA World Cup to the U.S. in 2018 or 2022, has been making the rounds since taking control of the NASL in March.
So far, he has visited five of the league's eight stadiums, with visits to two more scheduled for this weekend. He was in St. Petersburg on April 17 to visit Al Lang Stadium and watch FC Tampa Bay play the Puerto Rico Islanders.
"Support-wise, I would say (FC Tampa Bay is doing) terrific. I thought the chanting and the drumming throughout the game made it a very enjoyable atmosphere," Downs said.
As a whole, Downs is impressed with the local support the NASL teams have received in markets as small as Cary, N.C., and as large as Atlanta.
"Fan support has been terrific," he said. "We're averaging roughly 4,000 in attendance per match, and more importantly, I've been very pleased by two things. No. 1, how many of the fans are housed in gear and in scarves and with faces painted — these are real supporters — and the other thing I've been pleased to see is the pleasant diversity of the crowds that we see."
Though the league is small and is likely to remain so next year, gradual expansion is the goal for the NASL. The Montreal Impact will move up to MLS next season and be replaced by the new San Antonio Scorpions franchise.
"We don't see ourselves in competition with MLS. We see ourselves as the top of the pyramid in the individual markets we're in," Downs said. "San Antonio is joining the league and is not a market with an MLS franchise, and I think there are many, many more of those markets out there."
He would like the league to have 12 teams four years from now and eventually increase that to 16, but Downs stressed that expansion can only happen if the right ownership groups and franchises are found.