Jacksonville on short list of possible cities to get an expansion team in the NASL
League to hold board meeting on the topic July 25 in Dallas
By Clayton FreemanMark July 25 as a possible red-letter day on Jacksonville’s soccer calendar.
That’s when the North American Soccer League is set to hold a board meeting on expansion — a meeting that could mean the return of a professional soccer club to Jacksonville after a 15-year hiatus.
Last Wednesday, NASL commissioner Bill Peterson announced that Jacksonville was being considered for an expansion team that would begin play in 2015. Barring an unforeseen setback, Jacksonville’s bid is expected to come up for a vote at the meeting in Dallas.
Strong support for four major matches within the last 14 months — U.S. men’s and women’s games against Scotland, an MLS preseason contest and Wednesday’s game between Mexican clubs Tigres and Cruz Azul — bolstered the city’s case.
“Those are all different matches, all different demographics. And each one of them has been successful in its own right,” Peterson said. “So when you put all of that together, and say, ‘Could you put a professional team that’s made up of almost all of that… Could it be successful?’ Yes, absolutely, because you see it during those games. So that was absolutely a contributing factor — not on its own, but it definitely played a role.”
Peterson indicated that Jacksonville fared well in key criteria for expansion prospects — market size, fan support, local government, venues and ownership.
That last category is the role of the Sunshine Soccer Group, formed in May. The group’s chief executive officer is Mark Frisch, executive vice president of Beaver Street Fisheries. Dario Sala, a former goalkeeper who played over a decade in MLS and Argentina, serves as president.
Peterson said the group satisfies the league’s financial conditions.
“They meet all those requirements. There’s no questions there,” Peterson said. “There’s a lot of intangibles as you look at a potential ownership group. … So far, everything’s been checked off the list. I feel pretty good about it.”
Frisch, a lifelong Jacksonville resident, said the enthusiasm of area fans should enable a soccer team to thrive.
“I see the potential,” he said. “We’re a great sports city with a passionate fan base for all of our sports teams.”
If Jacksonville makes the cut, area coaches, fans and players envision a bright future for the team.
“I feel like they’d get a lot [of interest], because we have so many people here in Jacksonville,” said Jay Bolt, the Times-Union All-First Coast boys player of the year at Bolles and a UNF signee. “Soccer is growing and growing and growing, and if we get a higher-level team, it’ll bring in even more interest than we already have here.”
Still to be determined is where the team would play. The four previous matches were at EverBank Field.
The city’s last professional soccer venture began in 1997, when the Jacksonville Cyclones spun into town from Tampa Bay and set up games at Mandarin High School. The Cyclones played in the A-League, at that time the second tier of U.S. soccer, and endured a whirlwind of coach and player turnover before folding at the end of 1999.
The NASL began action in 2011, taking the place of the old USL First Division and absorbing several of its clubs. Eight teams are participating in 2013, and the league is set to add franchises next year in Indianapolis, Ottawa and Ashburn, Va.
With the exception of Oklahoma City, also invited to the July 25 meeting, Peterson did not specify other candidates by name, but he said that “six to eight” cities were being explored for expansion in the future.
“The league was going through a start-up phase, and now we’re going through an expansion phase,” he said. “We’ve got three teams coming on next year, and we’re looking at teams for 2015. We’re trying to find the right markets and the right owners.”
Although they are one level below Major League Soccer, NASL clubs are fully independent of MLS. Thus, the affiliation arrangements familiar in minor league baseball, in which clubs are closely linked to develop players up the ladder, wouldn’t be a factor.