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Double second divisions

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Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

— Rudyard Kipling, “If”

Tom Fath, who owns FC Edmonton along with his brother, Dave, has a simple code when it comes to dealing with the media. If you ask him about things that he can control, he’ll answer. If you ask him about things he doesn’t completely control, such as league affairs, or the goings-on of other teams, he’ll give a simple “no comment.” With a smile.

So, in the latter part of 2016, as the second division of North America was in turmoil, Fath had been unflinching in his mantra; he said over and over that his team solidly backed the North American Soccer League.

He said that FC Edmonton’s ticket sales were up, that the club would play competitive matches in 2017, more staff were being hired and, well, look at the fact that the Eddies just gave coach Colin Miller a three-year extension.

Fath’s quiet confidence that all would be well with FC Edmonton had been derided by the Twitter hordes as being downright delusional. Whenever Fath said that he felt that the North American Soccer League will survive and thrive, he was lampooned as just another lower-division owner who, along with losing millions of dollars, was losing perspective.

But Fath was proved right, in early January, when the United States Soccer Federation decided to allow NASL to hold onto its Division-2 status, while also promoting the United Soccer League to Division-2.

FC Edmonton’s co-owner admitted after the vote was made that, while he had exuded confidence for months, he still felt relief when the league was granted a lifeline.

“I always felt that the was going to be the outcome,” recalls Fath. “But, until that decision is made, you’re never totally sure that it’s going to go a certain way.”

Going into the vote, the NASL has lost at least three teams, with more rumoured to go. The Ottawa Fury had left NASL, joined the USL, and affiliated with the Montreal Impact. The Fury will retain a few players that played with the club in its NASL days, most notably Canadians Carl Haworth and Eddie Edward. But, many more players have left, including Canadians Maxim Tissot, Mauro Eustaquio and Kyle Porter, and they will likely be replaced by Montreal Impact prospects.

Joining Ottawa in USL will be the Tampa Bay Rowdies, whose owner, Bill Edwards, soured on NASL after loans made to the financially struggling Fort Lauderdale Strikers weren’t repaid. Edwards had been a maverick since he bought into NASL; in 2015, he famously sacked coach Thomas Rongen just eight months after he’s been hired. Edwards told the media he didn’t believe in long-term plans to build franchises, that every year the Rowdies should be on a “one-year plan.” In 2016, he ordered the release of a video that displayed a series of what the owner felt were bad calls against the Rowdies, publicly attempting to embarrass the NASL and the Professional Referee Organization, which staffs the league’s games played on American soil.

Minnesota United, of course, is leaving NASL for MLS.

Rayo OKC was a failure, with the Spanish partners from Rayo Vallecano moving in halfway during the NASL season and sacking the front office. A black comedy was staged as owners squabbled over who actually paid for the team’s artificial turf surface, with minority American partner Sean Jones ordering the removal of a little less than half of the turf squares from the stadium. That franchise will not play in NASL in 2017..

“I think ‘tough’ defines it all,” said Edmonton-born Rayo OKC keeper Daniel Fernandes this past season, after he shut out the Eddies at Clarke Field, just yards away from the backyard where he first fell in love with the game. “It’s a new experience. But, at the end of the day, in football you are getting paid by a club and you have to grind through it — and do the best you can. It’s a experience, for sure no one wants to go through it, but you can only learn and nothing more. And hopefully, it doesn’t happen again.”

The Brazilian ownership group that had owned the Fort Lauderdale Strikers walked away in 2016. Paycheques were missed. The Strikers are not one of the eight teams that will play in the 2017 NASL spring season.

With so many franchises folded or out, NASL would need many waivers to keep its Division-2 status for 2017.

And, the New York Cosmos furloughed staff and released all its players, but a new investor, Mediacom magnate Rocco Commisso, was confirmed as a white knight who would help rebuild the club. The Cosmos confirmed they would continue immediately after the USSF’s NASL vote.

But, despite the dark clouds, Fath maintained that he felt strongly about the NASL’s business model, which allowed for each team’s ownership group to act independently.

The Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury will move their rivalry from the NASL to USL for the 2017 season. PHOTO: NASL

USL moves up

Meanwhile the USL, which has a mix of independent clubs, MLS-affiliated teams and full-on MLS reserves sides, had applied for Division-2 status, but it also need edwaivers as many of its teams, especially the MLS “B” sides, did’t meet the standards required by USSF.

The league got its wish.

“We are elated with the U.S. Soccer Federation’s decision to grant Division 2 status to USL,” said Fury President John Pugh in a statement issued by the club. “This decision further validates our position that the USL, the fastest-growing league in the world, is the best league for our club, our players and most importantly, our fans.”

But, sadly, the situation had soccer fans at its each other’s throats, with some openly cheering for one league to succeed and another to fail.

But, through it all, Fath remained resolute.

“I am still fully committed to playing in NASL,” Fath said.“The plan going forward is that the league will be playing in 2017.”

That confidence was echoed by his coach. Miller signed a three-year extension in December, and he said he wouldn’t have considered taking the offer from the club had there been any doubt about the team’s future.

Because of the lower-division uncertainty, many teams that spent 2016 in NASL were not selling tickets in the off-season. That isn’t the case in Edmonton— the team set a new off-season record for season-ticket sales.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN PLASTIC PITCH #11

What has emerged over the last couple of months is this: While the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, which owns the Fury, couldn’t wait to leave the NASL behind, FC Edmonton emerged as the league’s biggest, most unabashed backer. And the team still holds strong with the party line about the Canadian Premier League — that the Eddies aren’t interested.

Remember that the Faths are the only owners left remaining from the original group that launched NASL 2.0. They’ve endured some of the lowest average attendances in NASL, but they’ve also invested heavily into what’s regarded as one of the finest pro academies outside of MLS, an academy that has graduated players to the pro ranks in North America and Europe.

Even through the controversy, in Edmonton, the ticket sales were moving along at a quicker pace than ever before and sports fans and media were too busy paying attention to the resurgent Oilers to even bother noticing that the NASL jad real issues.

Peter Wilt, former president of MLS’s Chicago Fire and the NASL’s Indy Eleven, is fronting a bid for a Chicago NASL bid, and his company is also working to consult several possible expansion markets. He’s bullish on the league.

“Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I think that by the fall of 2018, we could have a 20-team NASL,” he said.

That is, if the NASL can find more people like Tom Fath.

“Tom, as an original NASL owner, he is a major proponent for the league,” said Wilt. “His temperament has been even-keeled. His common sense, his stick-to-it-ness, these are all the qualities we are seeing and, to be honest, what we are seeing from most of the people involved.”

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