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Is failing to prepare, preparing to fail

by Paddy Higgs on May 24, 2011

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For a while, the word ‘expansion’ was en vogue for the A-League. But like side-snap tracksuit pants and Hootie and the Blowfish, expansion’s time on everyone’s lips proved fleeting.

The winding up of the North Queensland Fury and dipping crowds around the league have relegated the issue down the FFA's priority list.

But it should remain a matter never far from the thinking if the A-League is to stay a vibrant and engaging entity, and Australian football's powerbrokers need only glance across the Pacific Ocean to see why.

Major League Soccer in the US welcomed two new clubs this season - the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Portland Timbers - taking the number of franchises to 18.

It seems a far cry from 1998, when Florida clubs Tampa Bay and the Miami Fusion went under to leave the league with just 10 teams.

The Whitecaps began life in the MLS with a 4-2 win over Canadian rivals Toronto FC at Empire Field in front of 22,592 supporters.

Portland had to wait four games and almost a month of the new season before they played at home, but have been supported by capacity crowds of 18,627 in every game at JELD-WEN Field since.
They are figures to send any A-League fan an envious shade of Shrek-like green.

But how can this help our national league?

Expansion needs a new direction. Giving new entrants to the A-League just one season to put both the off-field and on-field structure of club together - all the while attempting to engage a community - is simply not enough time.

Take the Timbers and the Whitecaps. Both are hardly new kids on the block, having first kicked a ball in anger during the 1970s.
It meant an existing identity was already there by the time the two clubs were awarded MLS franchises in March 2009.

Two full seasons in the continent's second tier after their licences had been granted further established a platform before their MLS debuts in March.

Their stories have a moral Melbourne Heart director of football John Didulica could not miss on his trip to the US in April, during which he met MLS staff.

“One of the great steps the MLS has taken in managing expansion is to give clubs greater lead-in time. It’s simply invaluable, particularly in three key areas: developing a football team, ie coaches and players; developing meaningful local connections with fans and businesses; and developing the club’s administration and operations.

“At Heart we had six to nine months to effectively nail those three massive undertakings from a nil base. While I think we did a good job, the results for the MLS clubs have been staggeringly successful.
"By the time Portland, Seattle et al played their first game, they had several years lead in and were able to build every aspect of the club to fever pitch. Each team that has gone this path has been sell-out after sell-out."
So when it comes to expansion, perhaps looking back for the future may be one place to start.

The FFA made a conscious decision to move away from ’old soccer’ in their establishment of the A-League, wary of the problems that had dogged the NSL for many seasons.

Shunned for their ethnic ties and exiled like disgraced kings, former NSL and now state-league clubs had to swallow their pride.

Returning them to the fold when expansion again becomes an option for the FFA should not be discounted.

The issues that discounted them initially will need to still be addressed. Poor crowd behaviour and racial rivalries have no place in the A-League.

But Sydney clubs United and Olympic, South Melbourne and Melbourne Knights and the Wollongong Wolves are all among the clubs with the existing structure and a loyal supporter base to be considered.
Would they be prepared to toe a strict line drawn by the FFA after years of neglect? It is certainly worth investigating.

Or, like Didulica suggests, perhaps new entrants could be introduced as a National Youth League side first, allowing them to address the three key areas he earlier alluded to.

"With the benefit of hindsight, admittedly, maybe the NYL should be used to develop not only players, but clubs," he said.

"It won’t solve all the challenges a new club or the A-League faces, but it allows for trial and error and for the building of confidence and momentum. Particularly in a new market like Townsville, building via the NYL makes significant sense.”

So let not the word 'expansion' become a dirty word. All it may need is a little tweaking.