APL must become A-League springboard
101 Have your say
Most Australians who follow Major League Soccer don’t do it for the football. They do it because of a hope that, one day soon, that’s where the A-League will be.
We’re so jealous of where the United States is at, and how their professional league has gone from strength to strength.
Once the A-League rides out these recent years of turbulence, the plan is to follow their lead almost exactly. For now, we’re living vicariously through them.
They have 19 clubs – soon to be 20. Not all are perfect, but there’s direction and momentum. We’ve got 10, following the death of three. The latest is an exciting contingency plan.
They have Beckham, Keane, Henry and now Nesta. We’ve got Flores, Carle, van Dijk and Fred. No disrespect to those last four names, but for the A-League at the moment, the marquee ruling is just a salary cap loophole.
They have an organised, structured football pyramid, with their professional league on top and the grassroots on the bottom. The North American Soccer League (NASL) sits underneath the MLS and, while there’s no promotion or relegation, it underpins the top tier brilliantly.
Fortunately, at least here, Australia isn’t far behind.
One of the most important stories to come out of the off-season is the news that there is a second tier restructure on the way, which will give birth to the Australian Premier League (APL).
We won’t get a national second division, which is what the NASL is. Australia is far too big, travelling costs far too much, and it’s hard enough trying to keep the A-League afloat. The US is a little bit ahead.
What the APL is supposed to do is to make sure all the state leagues are on the same level. It’s about ensuring that no club slips behind certain benchmarks in professionalism and administration.
It’s a good move. But that can’t be just it.
The APL has to give Australian football more than just better state-level football, or else this is another missed opportunity.
Looking back to America, the last four teams to join the MLS – Vancouver Whitecaps, Portland Timbers, Montreal Impact and Seattle Sounders – all started out in USL First Division, the predecessor to the new NASL. Interestingly, three can trace their roots back to the old NASL (we’re talking back in the Pele days).
You can bet your bottom dollar that, aside from a proposed New York City franchise and possibly Orlando, the NASL will be MLS commissioner Don Garber’s first port of call when it comes to expansion.
The San Antonio Scorpions are in their first NASL season. They’re currently top of the table and average 8000 fans per game. They’re also building a new stadium, thanks to the generosity and determination of real estate millionaire Gordon Hartman.
Give them time and an incentive to develop, and they will surely become capable of becoming an MLS team, following in the footsteps of the ‘Caps, the Timbers, the Impact and the Sounders. They’re just one example.
The NASL is a springboard for the MLS – a level where aspiring cities can have football while building for the future.
That’s what the APL should aspire to be.
The next round of A-League expansion is a while away yet, but the groundwork should start now. Any forward-thinking organisation has at least a five-year plan.
Australia obviously can’t do as the US has done – we will have no national second division. And they’re a much bigger country, far more advanced in football terms than we are.
But we will have new state leagues, under the one banner, which are being built for the sole purpose of improvement.
The A-League simply can’t approach the next round of expansion the same way it has done in the past – that is to say, pick a new city or region, give them a license and just throw them the keys.
That proved a disaster for Townsville, and I’m still not sure the full story has been told when it comes to Clive Palmer and the Gold Coast.
Learning from these mistakes is paramount – as is learning from what has worked abroad.
It can’t be a closed shop approach anymore, particularly given the complaints of those behind the Canberra bid after their claims they were completely ignored for western Sydney.
Eventually, Townsville and Gold Coast will want to have their A-League teams back, and the APL should be the way to do it.
Both will almost certainly get APL Queensland licenses, but they should be granted to parties that, at bare minimum, share the desire to get back into the A-League. If it can be done, involve potential investors. There is talk of this happening on the Gold Coast already.
This would also be a terrific way for Canberra and the NSW South Coast A-League bids – if they’re still around, that is – to channel their energy. Build a fan-base. Start preparing a youth development network.
Create an identity, and let it sink in for a few years. Then go to the A-League. Don’t just expect it to happen in year one.
Don’t forget South Melbourne, Sydney Olympic or Marconi – these and the rest of the former NSL clubs still harbour aspirations to play at the highest level possible.
The APL benchmarks are for what clubs must do at a bare minimum. But every club should also be told that if they want to do more, the sky is the limit. Bring your ambition to life.
A club like South Melbourne – four-time national champions, by the way – is already doing that, by tackling digital media and promotional activities in a way that no other state-level football club is. Why stop them?
They have a terrific home in Lakeside Stadium – indeed, some of these old NSL clubs own their own stadiums. That’s going to be key going forward. So dangle the carrot, provide the incentive.
If they’re still around in 15 or 20 years, and if we’re all over the old soccer/new football divide, and if they can present a compelling enough case for them to become a small but sustainable A-League club with a living, breathing fan-base, then let them in. The same goes for the rest.
If they never make it, then where is the loss? All we will have are better state-level clubs.
Like the NASL, the Australian Premier League simply has to be more than just another brick in the football pyramid. Otherwise, we may be doomed to repeat history. We can’t afford that.
Vince Rugari is an Adelaide-born journalist who cut his teeth on the sporting graveyard that is the Gold Coast. He fancies the round ball and the Sherrin, and used to be a handy leg-spin bowler before injury curtailed a baggy green push. He is a Port Adelaide fan by birth, as painful as that has been recently. He's now sports editor of The Area News in Griffith, NSW.
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