Three years after the formation of the new North American Soccer League, establishing legitimacy has transitioned to exponential growth as the league rides the surging tsunami of soccer's American popularity.
For the Carolina RailHawks and the five other founding teams of the NASL which remain in existence today, such rapid growth is highly apparent within the local community.
But, as evidenced by the three expansion clubs beginning their first full season in 2014 and the three more expected to join next summer, the NASL has become more than just a local-scale minor league conglomeration.
NASL Coming of Age
Few have seen the league's maturation more clearly than commissioner Bill Peterson, who presented his views Thursday at a media round table in Durham, N.C., hosted by the RailHawks.
"We've moved out of start-up mode to growth mode," he said. "I can sit down with an expansion candidate and...show them numbers and hard examples of where this league is working.
"It's no longer about selling a dream, it's selling a reality, and you can see the vision of where this is headed and where it goes."
Such a reality is on the verge of becoming more quantifiably obvious than ever before. At this time in 2013, the NASL consisted of seven teams. At this time in 2015, that number is likely to stand at 13—and rising fast.
The New York Cosmos brought tremendous exposure when they joined for the 2013 fall season and took the league title; the Indy Eleven (Indianapolis) and Ottawa Fury made their NASL debuts last weekend. Expansion teams in the D.C. suburbs (Ashburn, Virginia), Jacksonville and Oklahoma City will begin play a year from today.
"We have plans to continue to grow this league to 18, possibly 20 clubs," said Peterson. "We're involved in...five very serious conversations [about potential expansion franchises] and some others that could turn serious over the next few months."
The soccer world around Peterson and the NASL is lending a helping hand: Between increasing numbers of international friendlies and the upcoming World Cup, both the league and the sport are finding more and more time in the spotlight.
"We've also started to encourage the teams to travel outside of the country," said Peterson. "We've really started to view this as a global league." Three NASL clubs—Minnesota, New York and Ft. Lauderdale—played international friendlies this past offseason in England, the UAE and Haiti, respectively.
"There is a lot of commercial money spent in and around the World Cup so soccer in general gets a big audience the next few months," he added. "Our local clubs will try to take advantage of people talking about soccer, people watching soccer. New people introduced to it now need a home."
However, Peterson emphasized the importance of the league's self-pushed growth as the critical piece behind increased exposure. "Does [the World Cup] help? Sure. Is it something that really moves the league a lot? Probably not. You've got to enjoy the competition, but the Monday morning after it's over, you've got to get back to work again."
RailHawks Growing into Niche
The RailHawks continued to spread the NASL reputation and offered a peephole into the club's future popularity in the Raleigh/Cary market with their deep run in the 2013 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Huge turnouts at WakeMed Soccer Park led the squad to wins over MLS sides Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA as Carolina advanced to the quarterfinals.
Club president Curt Johnson summarized the franchise's development since its 2007 inaugural campaign on Thursday. "We have clearly stabilized the organization, professionalized the organization," he said.
Aaron Davidson, a representative from Traffic Sports USA (which owns both Carolina and fellow franchise Ft. Lauderdale), conveyed even higher ambitions. "Our goal is to be first division at some point. Clearly I believe...we have to be the best pro soccer team in our market. We've got to figure out how to make this team one of the best teams in North America."
The clear next step is a rise in attendance. WakeMed Soccer Park added an upper terrace prior to last season that increased capacity to 10,000, yet the RailHawks averaged just a hair over 4,700 fans per game within the NASL (both Cup match crowds were much bigger).
"The sweet spot for our league today is exactly the size of that stadium," said Davidson. "But we've got to start filling it on a week-in, week-out basis..."
Attendance does seem to be trending in the right direction. Season-ticket sales are reportedly up for the fourth straight season, and the Triangle Soccer Fanatics group was likened by Johnson as "an organization that can grow as big as anything we see in Portland or Seattle."
More seasons like 2013, when the RailHawks went unbeaten at home, will certainly help as well.
"We want these game days to be celebrations of the sport," said Johnson, "...where the passion level for the sport rises: you see more people in orange, more people in our merchandise, more people that care deeply about the result."
2014 Season Full of Opportunity
From both the RailHawks' on-field perspective and the NASL's big-picture point of view, the summer ahead and the soccer that will abound in it is a tremendous reason for excitement.
Carolina tied 1-1 in the first-ever professional soccer game in Indianapolis in front of a crowd of 11,048 last Saturday. New York routed Atlanta 4-0 in a rematch of last fall's championship game, while Minnesota downed San Antonio 2-0, Tampa Bay tied 1-1 with Edmonton and Ft. Lauderdale, which travels to Cary for the RailHawks' Saturday home opener, won 2-0 over second new expansion club Ottawa.
"The competition on the field, which is really the most important thing to us, even last week in the opening, was very competitive," said Peterson. "You could see where the teams have improved over last year and the quality they have."
These are stirring days for the NASL indeed.
"We're at this really interesting tipping point that is mirrored throughout the country," said Johnson. "The expansion of attendance, the level of play, expansion within leagues...it's really exciting to be a part of it."