The North American Soccer League will move to a four-team playoff format called The Championship while retaining its split-season format with spring and fall campaign winners advancing to playoffs, the league said Thursday.
Playoff participants will be comprised of the winners of each season, plus the two teams with the best overall records over the course of both campaigns. The winners of the spring and fall seasons will host the semifinals, with the top overall points leader getting the top seed.
The spring season starts on April 12 with four matches.
If the same team wins both seasons, then the team with the second most points over the course of the two campaigns will host the other semifinal. In previous campaigns, the league championship saw just the winner of the spring and fall seasons squaring off in a one-game playoff.
"Spring champion and fall champion are very important to us," said NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson Thursday during a conference call with reporters. "It puts pressure on our teams to go out and play 90 minutes every week. We think that delivers the most excitement to our fans.
"What we’re doing by adding these two challengers is obviously keeping more teams in play longer, so it adds some excitement."
Peterson added that the spring season winner would have more of an incentive to keep playing for the top seed, instead of cruising through the fall season knowing that a spot in the final is guaranteed. He also added that the playoff competition will take place at the end of the fall season, although Peterson stated that the league might decide in the future to reset its calendar so that it is more in alignment with FIFA’s calendar.
In terms of potential expansion, Peterson added that while the league has plans to move to 18 teams, he does not anticipate that the playoff format will include more clubs as the NASL grows.
"The vision or plan is to never expand beyond that format," he said. "We really do believe that with the spring and fall season, we don't need to admit half of your league into the playoffs. It just takes away from importance of the regular season to us, and allows [the risk of] too much mediocrity into your championship game."
In recent years, the NASL has occupied an awkward space in the continent’s soccer pyramid. The league is ostensibly the second division in the U.S. and Canada, yet has been forced to engage MLS on a limited basis, as more and more markets have teams in both leagues. There have also been instances of competition for players as well, including the recent battle for Jamaican youth international Andre Lewis, who was signed by the NASL's New York Cosmos before being loaned to the Vancouver Whitecaps of MLS.
In the past, Peterson downplayed talk of direct competition.
"[The level of competition] is starting to change a little bit now when technically we were in New York before they made that (New York City FC) announcement," said Peterson. "Now, they’re talking about Minnesota and Atlanta and San Antonio and other places, Miami. I can’t follow it.
"I think every market is a little bit different. I think in some cities we feel very comfortable that we can continue doing what we’re doing and growing the way we’re growing and that there will be no adverse effects to what we're trying to accomplish. Other cities, they're trying to figure that out but it’s a little difficult because (MLS is) not very clear -- not that they have to be -- on what they're doing or where they're going. There seems to be some NFL alignment with teams and stadiums. If that’s the way they’re going, that might not affect us at all. That’s the opposite direction of where we’re going."
Peterson indicated that the league is looking to add more teams in the Midwest and on the west coast of the U.S., and is currently in discussions with potential ownership groups in San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Two markets on the east coast are also vying for expansion teams, he said.
"We don’t have a timeline," he said. "I’m fortunate that the owners have said, 'Take your time and make sure we get the right owners in the right cities.' It's hard to handicap expansion, and what we won't do is create any false timelines, or put ourselves in a corner where we have to make decisions."