This morning, after the Puerto Rico Islanders inadvertently leaked the press release on their website, the North American Soccer League finally made it official. They are going to a split-season schedule. The 2013 NASL season will start in late March or early April, with the championship game coming in early-to-mid November and a multiple-week break in July. The winner of the games from the beginning of the season until July, and the winner of the games from July until the end of the season, will play in a single-game championship on the spring schedule winner's ground.
The NASL press release promotes this as bringing "more excitement and meaning to each of our regular season matches for all of our teams throughout the year." This is impossible by definition. Two teams will make the playoffs, the other six to seven will have nothing to do. At this point of the NASL season, six teams have everything to play for while only two (Atlanta and Edmonton) are out of the running, and even they have a sliver of hope left. By this point in a split-season schedule with two teams making the playoffs, half the league would be making vacation plans.
I realize they use this format in the Mexican leagues, but in Mexico they have a healthy professional soccer culture from top to bottom, plus the last-place teams have the threat of relegation as well as the promise of a championship to play for late in the year. In the NASL, FC Edmonton might as well start playing local high schoolers and Rick Titus for all the difference it'll make. And that's without considering how many fans will come out on a snowy November evening to watch some soccer.
Because that's the other half of it. David Downs is quoted as saying "the new format takes into consideration a variety of factors including fan and player comfort in our many warm-weather cities." No doubt it gets pretty hot in some NASL cities in July (average highs of 31 in San Juan, 32 in Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, and 35 in San Antonio). But the late games will be murder to fans and players in their cold-weather cities.
In Edmonton, in November, the average high temperature is zero degrees Celcius. In Ottawa it's 5.3, which isn't so bad, but they also average 21.9 centimetres of snow. Blaine, Minnesota can count on a by-no-means-balmy 5.1 degrees and 22.4 centimetres of snow, although of course the Minnesota Stars already have one foot in the grave.
When the Canadian Football League's Grey Cup is played in prairie cities in November it's rightly viewed as half athletic competition, half endurance contest (and the Grey Cup is played as often as not under a roof for that exact reason). And that game doesn't involve teams from Texas and players from Trinidad and Tobago trying to kick a ball through driving snowdrifts.
This schedule change is at best pointless and at worst maddening.
Firstly, if the NASL is worried about fan and player comfort in their warm-weather cities this isn't the way to solve it. July is a hot month in Puerto Rico and the southern United States but August is even hotter; by almost a degree in San Antonio. Players will be given three weeks off on account of the uncomfortable weather then be thrown into even less comfortable weather. In exchange, they will be expected to literally no-kidding this-will-actually-happen play in the snow in Edmonton, Ottawa, and possibly Blaine.
Moreover, this format will turn off the very casual soccer fans the NASL's business model relies on attracting. People who view the Mexican league as the be-all-and-end-all of soccer aren't likely to watch the American second division just because they adopted the same schedule; casuals and soccer moms will need to figure out how their team can make the playoffs before learning that it doesn't matter; they were eliminated with a month and a half left in the season. A similar format is used in a number of minor North American baseball leagues so I have seen that exact discussion at old Edmonton Cracker Cats and Capitals games, followed invariably by either the league or the team "suspending operations".
Possibly the NASL could try to reduce the number of snow games by having their three cold-weather cities mostly play on the road late in the season, but it's hard to finesse a schedule so three teams aren't getting chilly. One team would be easy; two or three teams in a nine-team league for several weeks is asking a lot. Moreover, it would be just as easy to reschedule the hot-weather cities in August (the weather in San Juan is humid torture for about six months, the Florida teams generally don't have it that badly; only San Antonio really has something to worry about in July and August).
Most likely, this announcement is two things. It's further confirmation that the NASL sees their destiny to the south, the old Holy Grail which has enticed and ultimately rejected every league since the first soccer ball arrived on this continent: pick up more teams in Florida, Texas, and other warm-weather climes, while the traditional second-division powerhouses closer to the Canadian border are left to struggle on.as best they may. And it's an attempt to make the NASL look "different", look more like "real soccer"; not for any actual competitive purpose but purely for its own sake.
This is just the sort of gimmicky move the old A-League loved but the current NASL has done a good job of avoiding. Let's hope it doesn't become a trend.