Welcome to the NPSL
While it has a surprisingly long history, soccer as a culturally relevant thing is a recent development in the United States.
That makes it particularly interesting, especially in the levels below the corporate and packaged, Disney-fied version practiced by Major League Soccer—a single-entity, closed league that is essentially one corporation owned by some of the richest people in America that operates soccer franchises. While it may have been the only way to launch a sustainable professional soccer league in the United States, the truth is that the strength of soccer culture comes from the strength at more humble levels.
That is why I follow the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL).
The United States Soccer Federation recognizes only three official divisions of soccer. The NPSL is not one of those division yet such is its quality that it is regularly lumped with the Premier Development League (PDL), another amateur league, as US soccer’s “Division Four.”
Overwhelmingly, NPSL clubs are amateur. Much of that is driven by NCAA regulations, which state that American college athletes cannot play on a team that has even a single professional player without losing their eligibility. Given that so many of the committed, fit, talented are college players, it is the rare exception that fields a professional team.
<<Previously, there was a salary cap for the professional teams in the league that kept them, at best, semi-professional. But then, as with pretty much everything in American soccer, some influential people met behind closed doors, the policy was quietly dropped with no announcement or public vote, and three former NASL (Division 2 professional) were welcomed into the league. Surely, the rules were not bent just because the league’s President is employed by the New York Cosmos, formerly of the NASL, but no other explanation has been offered to date.>>
Still, and thanks to the asinine NCAA regulations, the level of play is surprisingly high.
The league has approximately 100 teams in it from all over the country and given the vast size of the United States, the league splits itself into four Regions, East, South, Midwest and West, and each region into sub-conferences.
This division keeps travel reasonable in terms of cost and time on the road. It also helps to manage the schedule for a league that operates in the few short months of the university summer break (May - early August).
Each region makes its own playoffs rules, but typically it is the top one or two teams in a conference that qualify for a regional tournament. The winner of each region is the league’s “final four” and play national semi-finals and then the final to determine the national winner.
THE EAST REGION
The East Coast is a breeding ground of soccer talent, and there are a number of powerhouse teams in the region, including the defending national champions Elm City Express from New Haven, Connecticut.
The top team in the region, on the field and off, is the famous New York Cosmos. With the disintegration of the NASL, the Cosmos Cosmos needed a place to play. They found it in the NPSL where the fully professional team, including former US National team midfielder Danny Szetela, is swatting away any and all competition. They are the current favorites for the national title.
Another team making waves on the field is FC Motown from Morristown, New Jersey. They have a number of former professionals and top Division 1 college talent and could beat more than a few professional teams.
Off the field, Kingston Stockade FC from Kingston, New York have become champions of the cause of promotion and relegation behind the hard work and “thought leadership” of owner Dennis Crowley, the founder of Foursquare. He has given a national profile to the team, championed a cause that has seen them become the darling of soccer fans across the country, and his funding and hard work has seen them get results on the field and more than 1,000 attending each game.
THE SOUTH REGION
Chattanooga FC are one of the pillars of the NPSL, and they were memorably insulted by MLS and SUM honcho Don Garber despite drawing over 14,000 fans to their NPSL National Final match against New York Cosmos B. They still draw in the thousands upon thousands, though this year on the field they have not been as strong as usual.
While Inter Nashville, who made waves in the U.S. Open Cup this year lurk, the on-field quality this year is in Florida. Two former NASL teams in Jacksonville Armada and Miami FC have legitimate Division 2 professionals in their ranks, but don’t forget about U.S. Open Cup darlings Miami United who are among the class of the league on the field, winning games for fun in their garishly Miami kit.
THE WEST REGION
This has been a growth focus for the league, but also for competing leagues (the PDL and UPSL). There are premier teams in this region, with former PDL national champions Kitsap Pumas in Washington, and, as you would expect with the talent in California, with San Francisco’s El Farolito and San Diego’s Albion Pros.
The favorable weather allows the Western teams to start their season significantly earlier than the rest of the league and, as a result, they can often seem somewhat separate from the rest of the NPSL. Additionally, possibly driven by the region’s expensive, sprawling cities, none of the teams in this region have been able to make a national impact from the perspective of fan support. That isn’t to say that they don’t draw, but it is to say that there is a lot of room for growth in this area.
THE MIDWEST REGION
Partially because it is where I live and partially because of the rich supporter culture and vast difference in background, funding and approach of the clubs, I am a Midwest Region partisan.
Along with Chattanooga FC, the jewel of the NPSL is Detroit City FC and their loud, raucous, social media active, supporters led by the supporters group The Northern Guard. Le Rouge are always a top team, certainly in terms of their 5,000+ average gate, though they play in a viciously competitive conference and aren’t a certain lock to make the playoffs. In fact, this year, they will need results to go their way to have a chance to make it.
Ann Arbor FC and Grand Rapids FC from Michigan are currently favorites to make the playoffs from the conference, beating out Detroit City. This duo was originally rejected in their application to join the league and, instead, they started their own league, showed proof of concept in terms of big attendance numbers and a great on-field product. They were admitted the year after and the league the founded lasted for a few years before merging into the new United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) before this season. American soccer is ridiculous its counter-productiveness, it’s true.
Ann Arbor won the conference last year and are the favorites to win it again. They are likely the best team in the region.
>> The process for joining the league is somewhat murky, though I have pieced together an understanding of it from documents that can be found with some digging. The keys to it, however, are an entry fee now rumored to be around $20,000, a stadium agreement, and the acceptance of the teams in your geographic area. As with everything in US soccer, it’s undefined just enough so that the powers that be can get their way.
The region stretches from Buffalo, New York to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and while Michigan is the heart of it all, FC Buffalo are entering their 10th year and are part of a strong league that includes Erie Commodores from Erie, Pennsylvania and Cleveland FC, the re-born former national champion AFC Cleveland.
Then, there is the North Conference which is centered around Minnesota’s Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and, in this conference, the club that brought me to the lower division game: Minneapolis City SC.
The club, affectionately called “the Crows” or “the Grumpy Cats”, is perhaps the banner club for lower division soccer as proof point of the emerging independent soccer culture in the United States. The Twin Cities are home to MLS side Minnesota United, their almost-built new stadium, and their massive advertising budget and yet, in the face of all this, this club stands as a sort of “against modern soccer” advertisement supporter owned, they call themselves a “DIY club” and while they don’t have the gate that some of the others do they are firmly one of the elite NPSL clubs.
They didn’t buy that distinction with on-field success, though they did have a player from last year’s team move on to MLS side New England Revolution, but rather through their punk rock social media presence and willingness to share financials and advice for how to build an NPSL club.
Despite a behemoth club in their backyard, in an expensive major media market, they have been able to thrive due to a voice that is unique and an earnest willingness to fight for a particular point of view of soccer.
This ‘radically transparent’ club is top of their conference with three matches to play, two against the second and third placed team. If there is one thing that a short season delivers, it’s drama.
I invite you to check them, or any of the NPSL clubs, out during these final two weeks of the season.