Analysis

OSEG backs winner with Fury FC move to USL

Later today, Ottawa Fury FC will play its last game in the North American Soccer League. The team announced Wednesday it's be leaving the NASL for the United Soccer League starting in 2017.

Failure not an option for ownership group that's committed to seeing soccer succeed in Ottawa

Ottawa Fury FC's Paulo Junior is hoisted into the air by teammate Carl Haworth after scoring against the Vancouver Whitecaps during the first half of Amway Canadian championship semi-final soccer action in Ottawa on Wednesday, June 1, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Later today, Ottawa Fury FC will play its last game in the North American Soccer League.

The team announced Wednesday it will be leaving the NASL for the United Soccer League starting in 2017. The move has some fans worried, but most just aren't sure what to think. If you fall into either of those camps, here's what you need to know.

Having played three seasons in the NASL, a league that has tried and failed to parlay its heritage as the continent's original pro league into big crowds, it appears team owners Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group preferred to get going while the going was good.

Ottawa Fury FC's Eddie Edward, shown here in a game versus the Carolina Railhawks on July 27, 2016, hopes to inspire other local players to rise to the professional ranks. (Steve Kingsman / Freestyle Photography)

First, a little background. The NASL, in both fan support and on-field quality, is a step or two removed from top-flight Major League Soccer. But despite all the indicators suggesting its futility, the NASL insists it hopes to one day rival MLS. That's a lofty aspiration considering its middling fan base, the loss of three teams in 2017 and the uncertain future of some of the struggling clubs that remain.

It's true, on any given day an NASL team could challenge an MLS team on the pitch. Remember the Fury's thrilling battle with the Vancouver Whitecaps in this year's Amway Canadian Championship? But beyond the odd, glorious blip, there remains an undeniable gap in quality and depth between the two leagues, never mind the high-priced 'designated players' currently elevating MLS's stature.

Dose of reality

The NASL's marquee franchise, the New York Cosmos, struggles to draw more than 3,000 fans on any given night despite dominating play in the past couple of years, including a championship win in 2015 against the Fury.

Compounding attendance woes, the Cosmos play out of a 12,000-seat multi-purpose stadium at Hofstra University, way out in Hempstead, New York. Hardly a marquee venue.
Ottawa Fury's Marcel de Jong, top, and Vancouver Whitecaps' Matias Laba collide during first half semifinal Canadian Championship soccer action in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday June 8, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Three of the NASL's four best-supported teams are leaving next season. Minnesota FC is off to MLS, while the Fury and Tampa Bay Rowdies are going to the USL. If that doesn't speak volumes about the state of affairs within the NASL, there's also the upward trajectory of the USL that cannot be ignored.

Average attendance in the 29-team USL stands at about 3,400 per game, compared to the 12-team NASL's crowds of about 4,700. The leagues might swap attendance figures in the next two seasons though as the USL gains two of the NASL's largest fan bases — Ottawa and Tampa Bay — on top of two other expansion teams, Reno and Nashville. 

The NASL, on the other hand, will feature just 10 teams next year, even with the addition of the San Francisco Deltas.

Quality soccer

Perhaps the biggest sense of worry among Fury fans stems from fears that the move could yield an inferior product. Again, the fears are unfounded.

The notion that the NASL is a second-tier league and the USL is a third-tier league is fiction, and soccer's governing body in the United States is being asked to raise the USL's status during the off-season.

The phenomenon of players cross-pollinating all three leagues, year-in, year-out, should be proof enough that the USL can hold its own on the pitch.

But if you take the results of recent head-to-head matches between NASL and USL teams in open cup competition, it's the USL that has the edge.

Close ties to MLS

Add to that the USL's close, even symbiotic, relationship with MLS. Each MLS team must have a USL affiliate, with no fewer than eight MLS teams, including Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, fielding their own reserve teams in the lower league.

This farm system is almost as effective as a promotion/relegation model, with MLS teams looking to develop players who are eager to show their skills on the bigger stage. This direct feeding tube of talent from USL to MLS could starve the NASL of young, dynamic players. 

Maxim Tissot, born in Aylmer, Que., says professional soccer academies like the one run by Ottawa Fury FC will help improve the quality of players produced locally. (Steve Kingsman/Freestyle Photography)

We haven't begun to discuss the financial advantages the Fury will gain, but really, the average fan shouldn't be concerned with that stuff. There's also a debate raging within Canadian soccer circles about the possibility of a Canadian professional league, and what role the Fury might play in its eventual creation. It's all speculation disguised as insight.

In the end, the Fury's ownership had a clear choice in the short term: either bet on an improbable turnaround and stay with the NASL, or join a league whose close partnership with MLS makes it an almost certain winner.

"The USL's goal is to be the top second division in the world and we are thrilled to be part of it," said Fury president John Pugh. "We're excited to be joining the fastest-growing soccer league in the world."

You have to take Pugh at his word when he says this move to the USL is the best way to ensure pro soccer continues to flourish in the nation's capital.