Before Fury FC’s last game of the North American Soccer League (NASL) season against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers on October 29, the Fury announced their game would be the last in the league. The Fury will be playing in the United Soccer League (USL) starting in 2017.
Fury FC President John Pugh said despite the change, fans won’t see the quite the player turnover that was experienced after the end of last season.
“We will have a large number of players returning. Right now it’s really as if we were at the end of our expansion season in year one. We’ve built a foundation on which to build. We know what pieces we’re looking for for next year, and we’re hoping to find that Midas touch that we had in year two.”
Fury FC has 9 players so far signed to return from the 2016 squad, including Canadians Carl Haworth, Jamar Dixon, Eddie Edward and Andrew MacRae.
With signs of instability in the NASL, earlier reports of talks with the USL, and rumours of a Canadian professional league starting up in the next few years, many fans wondered where the Fury might end up playing (if at all).
Pugh says the USL provided an attractive alternative to the NASL:
“I think it was an element of mutual attraction. We were wanting to investigate what our options would be, so perhaps it was us that initiated [talks with the USL]. We looked at their vision, and it was more in line with the vision that we share. We want to share a vision where the objective is to be profitable. The USL is committed to building successful franchises on the field and in the books. There is a central owner of the league. It’s much more of a traditional franchise model, where each individual franchise is left to work in its own market, develop its own fanbase, and so on, with the assistance from the league itself.”
The USL is currently the 3rd tier professional soccer league in North America, however an application is being reviewed by the United States Soccer Federation to promote the league to the 2nd division. The league has seen tremendous growth in the last few years, growing from 14 to 31 teams. In 2013, the USL signed a partnership deal with Major League Soccer (MLS), in an effort to improve player development on the continent.
USL President Jake Edwards said the conversation started when it was clear the MLS “reserve league” it had organized wasn’t giving young players the help it needed.
“The 17-to-20 year old player who was coming into the system but not quite able to bridge the gap into the first team. There was no place for these player to play, really. They needed to be playing in a professional league. We looked at how we as two separate leagues could come together to work on and try and solve this problem. The ultimate goal was to affect the development of those young professional players. Three years into this partnership we’ve seen a number of players who have moved from USL into MLS, and we’ve seen some established MLS players coming into the USL.”
“It’s been a 3 year project so far, some things have worked well, some things haven’t. And so, we are evaluating all areas of it and will continue to look to improve upon it.”
One aspect of the USL that gives some worried fans the perception of a “farm team” league is its affiliation program with MLS teams.
Says Edwards, “All leagues loan players, but this was about creating an affiliation where it’s more of a specific relationship between two clubs. So an independently owned and operated club could have more of a formal relationship with an MLS club. It doesn’t restrict them from working with other clubs, but that [will be] their primary partner.”
While many teams in the USL are either MLS reserve teams or have affiliation agreements with MLS teams, Pugh doesn’t see this as an option the Fury needs to pursue.
“One of the reasons we moved to USL is that we see it as a place where we can find stability and sustainability. In the first instance, that’s what we’re looking for in our new league.
There is no high level Canadian professional league right now. Would we join one if one were established? That would depend on whether or not the league would be good for our fans and good for our franchise. That’s kind of impossible to say right now. But one of the reasons that we did make this move is because we think this is the best move for our fanbase and for our franchise. The same rules would apply.”
Edwards supports the idea of a professional league in Canada, but despite some rumours, the USL has not been involved in any of these talks.
“The rumours of a league are true. There seems to be gathering momentum. I’m certainly not involved in those discussions. I don’t know if that’s going to happen by 2018. Certainly [Canada] is one of the biggest countries in the world that doesn’t have a professional league of its own, so it certainly needs one, and should have one. We absolutely fully support that. I think it is critical for the growth of the game in the country, and the development of homegrown players, and the national team’s future success.”
“No we’ve not been asked to play a role. We haven’t approached anybody about playing a role at all. If there’s a way that the USL can support the growth of the game in Canada, we’re certainly here to help, if there’s anything we can do to help. But we haven’t had any direct conversations about it at this point.”
For now, Pugh sees the move to the USL as a way to make sure Ottawa will have a professional soccer team for years to come.
“What excites me the most is that this solidifies professional soccer in Ottawa. We’ve played three seasons in the NASL, that was a great place to play our foundational years. This is a move that we’ve made for the long-term, and it’s going to enable professional soccer to be here for many years to come and thrive. That’s why we’ve made these moves. Stability and sustainability, and attractive soccer are the three things we want to bring to the city.”