Why is the A-League stuttering?

by Michael Huguenin on Mar 14, 2012

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Since the A-League began in 2005, comparisons with the USA’s Major League Soccer have been made time and again.

As a relatively young league in a country where football has not traditionally been that popular, the MLS is in a similar position to Australia’s national league. The MLS has been around for nine years longer than the A-League and most people who have seen the American competition believe the A-League could do worse than follow in its footsteps.

One of the biggest success stories of the MLS has been its recent expansion and the impressive crowds and atmosphere in the Pacific North West. The Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders have set new standards in terms of coordinated support in the MLS. Watching Tuesday’s match between the Timbers and Philadelphia Union, it was hard not to dream about a day when similar scenes will be seen in the A-League.

So with such success in the MLS with expansion and crowds (both in terms of numbers and atmosphere), why is the A-League struggling in these areas? Have Frank Lowy and Ben Buckley not contacted their counterparts in the USA to get tips? If it’s so obvious to many in the Australian football fraternity, why isn’t it obvious to the leaders of the game?

Less than four months ago, Lowy was re-elected unopposed as Football Federation of Australia’s chairman for another four-year term. If the past month or so have taught us nothing else, it should be that a bit of competition in that election would have been ideal.

Lowy has done some fantastic things for Australian football and his work should not be underestimated or undervalued. But the Westfield tycoon is in danger of undoing a lot of that work as A-League expansion continues to splutter.

Clive Palmer’s behaviour warranted expulsion but Lowy’s statements at the press conference announcing that the FFA was revoking Palmer’s license were less than impressive. Lowy basically admitted there was no plan and that he didn’t know why Gold Coast United hadn’t succeeded. This is not good enough.

Lowy and Buckley have since betrayed a lack of ideas and solutions. It’s hard not to wonder whether it’s time for new leadership, although Palmer and his crackpot Football Australia concept is hardly the answer.

For better or worse, however, Lowy will most likely be in charge until the end of 2015. The 81 year old needs a plan and he needs to stick with it. He needs to take inspiration from both the MLS and the AFL to improve expansion in the A-League.

The three most recent additions to the MLS were all former members of the United States Soccer Federation’s lower leagues. The teams were also awarded their licenses around two years before they were expected to play their first games in the MLS. These two factors mean that Portland, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact already had a supporter base, financial investors and at least a semblance of club culture before entering the MLS.

The FFA has dropped hints that a Western Sydney franchise could be introduced next season to replace GCU but judging by the above, this would be a mistake. While the MLS’ blueprint could be used to argue the inclusion of current state league clubs, in Western Sydney the answer could be to start with a team in the National Youth League.

In a similar move to how the AFL ushered in their new teams, Gold Coast Suns and Greater Western Sydney Giants, the FFA could allow a Western Sydney entity to develop itself in the NYL for a season or two, while it searches for investors, finalises stadium deals and generally gets ready for the A-League. This would also allow the FFA to see how football supporters in Sydney’s western suburbs connect to the new club and test some ideas so that Western Sydney would be playing to decent crowds from their first game in the A-League.

Extra NYL sides would also provide more young Australian footballers with the opportunity to train and play in a professional environment, something that is badly needed. There was talk when the North Queensland Fury died that they could maintain an NYL team instead. The FFA rejected the idea due to funding but surely an A-League connection for that huge region of Australia would be fantastic for Australian football, plus it would make it easier if North Queensland was ever to develop an A-League club again in the future.

Lowy and Buckley also need to show similar fortitude to that of the AFL in terms of supporting expansion. The death of the Fury and the problems of GCU have exposed a lack of dedication from Lowy and Buckley. While Andrew Demetriou and his AFL army have basically stated that the Suns and Giants will not be allowed to fail, Lowy has just looked forlorn and put the blame on others as the new Queensland teams have struggled. It’s time for the Czech-born billionaire to put his dollars and his dentures in the same location.

In this time of uncertainty, and after a season that has been one of the best on the field, the FFA needs to make a statement that shows it believes in its own product. Lowy needs to step up and pledge to back GCU financially until other investors can be found. The A-League can’t afford to continue to lose clubs every couple of seasons and if the FFA believe Gold Coast can support a club, then they should keep the club running until it can stand on its own two feet.

The same commitment needs to be made to any future Western Sydney club, or any other club for that matter. It is not unrealistic for the A-League to eventually reach 14 clubs but Lowy and Buckley need to realise after the sagas surrounding the Fury, GCU and the still-born Sydney Rovers, that they can’t leave everything up to the clubs.

More support is needed.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @MichaelHuguenin