NASL coming to Northern Virginia

November 5, 2012

The site of Monday’s ceremony introducing Northern Virginia as a North American Soccer League expansion club did not take place on the parcel of land — or even in the town — where the team’s future stadium will stand.

The location was a chilly soccer park across a dark road from a small airport in one of America’s fastest-growing counties, Loudoun. And that seemed appropriate because the unnamed club, which is scheduled to begin play in 2014, will represent an area that is in Washington’s backyard but a burgeoning market of its own.

“The growth of the county, the demographics of the county, the affluence of the county, it will sustain itself,” said Bob Farren, chairman and founder of VIP Sports & Entertainment, which led the bid. “If anyone comes to Loudoun County from elsewhere in the area to support our team, it’s a bonus because everything works within this region itself.”

Farren’s ownership group, Loudoun Professional Soccer LLC, has a deal to play in a stadium that will be constructed in Ashburn, nine miles north of Dulles Airport and 30 miles west of Washington. Once details are finalized, the project would take less than a year to complete, he said.

The venue will have 5,500 permanent seats and accommodate about 10,000 spectators. The playing surface is artificial turf.

The soccer team will share the stadium with the Loudoun Hounds, a minor league baseball team owned by VIP. Farren hopes to also attract small-scale international soccer matches as well as college and youth events.

The Virginia team would become the second NASL club to share a major market with an MLS organization. (The New York Cosmos, based on Long Island, will begin NASL play next year.)

MLS is on the top rung of the U.S. soccer pyramid. The NASL is on the second tier with teams in Tampa Bay, Fort Lauderdale, Minnesota, San Antonio, Edmonton, Atlanta, Puerto Rico and Raleigh. Ottawa will join in 2014.

“It wouldn’t necessarily be the strategic vision of the NASL to go up against MLS in every market,” NASL Commissioner David Downs said. “But you can safely say that where the Cosmos are playing versus where the Red Bulls are in New Jersey, it’s not a major conflict — maybe for hearts and minds, but for people in the region, New York and Washington can sustain NASL and MLS teams.”

United does draw a large percentage of its fans from Virginia, people who might be tempted to avoid transportation issues into the city from the outer suburbs. However, United has a loyal base and offers a higher caliber of soccer.

An NASL team in the area would appeal in the same way as minor league baseball — Bowie, Frederick and Hagerstown in Maryland, plus Woodbridge and now Ashburn in Virginia — in a region that includes MLB’s Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles. 

“While we welcome the NASL club to the area and wish them success, we don’t expect a minor league team playing in Loudoun County to bring about a negative impact to our business,” United spokesman Doug Hicks said.  “In particular, we have great working relationships with [youth organizations like] Loudoun Soccer Club and Ashburn Soccer Club and expect that to continue to develop in the years ahead.”

Farren once served as United’s sports and entertainment insurance broker and counts United President Kevin Payne as a friend.

“I feel there is enough meat on the bone for everybody to enjoy this,” Farren said. “It’s for Northern Virginia to have an alternative and not have to drive through traffic. Now we have got something within a few minutes of our houses.”

Mark Simpson, a former United goalkeeper and assistant coach, is Farren’s director of soccer operations. Simpson plans to create an academy system and will oversee the search for a head coach. He said he has had some initial discussions with potential candidates, but with the inaugural season more than a year away, a decision is not imminent.

As for the makeup of the roster, Simpson said he has already had preliminary conversations with MLS clubs, most notably United, to take some of their young players on loan. The team would also aim to sign locals to complement a squad with college and international signings as well as players from MLS or third-tier USL.

“We realize who we are,” Simpson said. “We’re not going to pretend to be anybody we are not. We hope to be a complement to D.C. United and other MLS clubs. We want to be able to take their best development players, keep developing them and play them in real games and in real atmospheres.”

Other notes:

*The Virginia group is conducting an online contest to name the team. A short list of finalists will come out next month and the winner named in early 2013.

*The NASL is close to finalizing the entry of another expansion team in 2014, believed to be Indianapolis, and is eyeing the West Coast for future locations. Sacramento, San Diego and Phoenix are in the mix, Downs said.

*With Downs planning to step down in the coming months, the league has narrowed its search for a new commissioner to three. No names were revealed.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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Matt Brooks · November 5, 2012

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