NASL made it official this week, announcing an expansion team is coming to Orange County to begin play in 2018. The announcement is significant, not only for confirming previous reports from this year that an expansion announcement to Southern California was imminent, but because it finally happened. NASL-to-Southern California has been a rumored proposition since essentially the NASL rebooted in 2011, and after expansion to other places, expansion teams elsewhere (Oklahoma, Virginia) that never got off the ground and teams that did in fact launch but failed to stick around, the league is coming to our neck of the woods.
The team, to be majority owned by local businessman Pete Capriotti, is reportedly — though not confirmed by the NASL’s expansion announcement this week — working with local UPSL side LA Wolves FC, and a new report this week claimed Wolves boss Eric Wynalda is in talks to become the head coach of the new NASL team. While the league said the new team’s name is still up in the air, it seems like a good chance the LA Wolves brand, used in the original NASL in 1968, will be revived.
The expansion team has an agreement to play at Cal State Fullerton’s Titan Stadium, a well-known soccer venue in Southern California, a place where essentially every single pro team has played at once or twice over the years, and in the past even a venue for international games. Titan Stadium fits about 10,000, a good number, although the amenities are pretty spartan.
So now that we know it’s coming (assuming everything proceeds apace), what does this all mean locally?
Perhaps the primary question is: Will it be successful? It’s worth asking, as the pro soccer boom continues in the region.
To go alongside the longstanding LA Galaxy, 2018 will feature the debut of another expansion team, MLS’s Los Angeles Football Club. In Orange County itself, USL club Orange County SC has doubled down on their ties to an OC brand and is in the process of building a permanent new home in Irvine. LA Galaxy II offers another pro soccer option in the area, as the MLS side’s reserve team of course also plays in USL.
And while we’ll have to see if the other rumors come to pass, there are more on that front for pro soccer expansion. NWSL rumors have swirled for Los Angeles, and NASL itself is also rumored to be expanding to San Diego. Add in the MLS expansion application for San Diego, which looks like a decent bet to come to fruition at this stage, and the USL team coming to Fresno next year, and the Southern California picture looks as busy as it’s ever been.
So in a busy landscape, will NASL survive and thrive? Like any new venture, it’s up in the air until we see how it goes and how the venture is run. Remember, just a few short years ago MLS shuttered a local team for possibly historic mismanagement in Chivas USA, and previous decades’ examples from the original NASL show teams came and went in this region pretty frequently.
But there are a few factors that, again, assuming this team will be run well and with enough resources, could help set it apart from the rest of the pack.
First is the location. Again, Titan Stadium won’t win any awards in the luxury department, but it’s a solid venue for watching soccer and it’s pretty easy to get to. Throw in the separation from LA and Carson, and the most immediate competitor as far as fan attendance should be Orange County SC. There should be enough people in the area to pull in decent numbers for both teams, but both sides will have to do the work to get those people out.
Second, one assumes NASL tickets will be cheaper than those generally offered by the Galaxy or LAFC. Leagues have certainly jumped all in on the supporter culture and targeted young adults over families in recent years, largely to their credit. But the fact remains that a large proportion of a fan base will ultimately be families, and as prices shoot up on the MLS level, the second-tier leagues ought to take advantage and offer more family-friendly prices to bring the whole gang out. If that happens, there should be a good number of families who will want to take in a game (or maybe even a season’s worth of games) without breaking the bank.
Finally, while NASL barely escaped an existential crisis in the offseason, it is undeniable that the differentiation from MLS and USL should attract a group of fans in on that factor alone. NASL is set up differently from the other pro leagues, something that nearly ended the league as a few teams’ unsustainable spending spiraled out of control without better safeguards in place. But with Chivas USA’s mismanagement and ultimate demise turning a number of local fans off MLS altogether, a new team with an identity apart from MLS may be very appealing indeed. How many of those fans are out there? That’s the multi-million dollar question for the new NASL team.
It’s clear that for the popularity of soccer in Southern California, the region was under-served by pro soccer and so the current boom is a good corrective. Hopefully, however, all teams coming in will be sustainable and capable of success for the long haul.