Ottawa Fury FC’s place in the North American soccer landscape
Ottawa Fury FC, in its short history, has been around the block of North American soccer. Founded in 2011, they played their first match three years later in the North American Soccer League (NASL). Currently, in its second season competing in the United Soccer League (USL), Fury FC is the official USL-affiliate of the Montreal Impact. And before that, Major League Soccer (MLS) flirted with creating an expansion team in Ottawa but opted for bigger markets back in 2008.
The North American soccer landscape is a unique hybrid of European and American sporting sensibilities. Soccer is an international sport with its roots all over the world and in North America, it is growing rapidly. Fury FC is evidence of that growth as soccer clubs continue to pop up across the United States and Canada.
Still, debates about grassroots soccer, player development and the structure of professional soccer leagues in North America continue. Fury FC is at the centre of these competing ideas as they search for consistency internally and externally.
A central talking point for soccer pundits is whether MLS should adopt the promotion/relegation (pro/rel) system. Like other North American sports leagues (NHL, NBA, MLB) MLS is a closed league that is composed of franchises, which differs substantially from the way soccer leagues are organized around the world.
In other parts of the world, soccer leagues utilize the pro/rel system, a system in which clubs move between different tiers depending on where teams finish at the end of each season.
Both systems have their pros and cons, but it is believed by many that if North American soccer is going to be successful globally at the club and international levels the pro/rel system would be fundamental to that success.
The main obstacle to implementing the pro/rel system in North American soccer is the dominance of MLS. Existing MLS stakeholders do not want to jeopardize their investment by risking dropping down divisions from relegation.
It’s without a doubt that MLS is thriving as a soccer league, especially considering the popularity of the other major sports in North America. MLS continues to grow with three expansion teams (Los Angeles FC, Minnesota United FC, Atlanta United FC) joining the league in the past two years and expansion teams coming to Miami and Nashville in the coming years.
Don Garber, the MLS Commissioner, has said before that he wants MLS to compete with the top soccer leagues in Europe one day. MLS teams are currently attracting top-tier talent and are developing strong fanbases that pack 70,000-seater stadiums but that success hasn’t filtered down to the lower levels and hasn’t materialized in international success for either the United States or Canadian Men’s National teams—both teams failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
NASL and USL
Some argue, despite the success of MLS, the sport in North America is not in great health.
The NASL, the league that Fury FC left in 2016 to join the USL, is temporarily on hiatus because of court rulings and disputes with the U.S. Soccer Federation and MLS regarding the pro/rel issue. Many teams from the NASL have since joined the USL like Fury FC or unfortunately have had to discontinue operations like FC Edmonton. The closed league system that the MLS currently favours has caused turmoil and instability in the NASL and USL.
The USL partnered with MLS and is now MLS’s official development league, akin to what the AHL is to the NHL. Most teams in MLS have a USL-affiliate team or a reserve team that competes in the USL.
Going forward, the positives that come from this structure is, hopefully, a stability. With this stability, Fury FC can grow strong roots in the Ottawa soccer community and develop the passion for the sport in the city. On the other hand, the structure doesn’t promote widespread growth and instead will allow for the bigger markets that compete in MLS to dominate the landscape.
Ottawa Fury FC place in North American soccer
Ottawa Fury FC has experienced it all coming from humble beginnings as a semi-professional club. With little signs of MLS adopting the pro/rel system, Fury FC will most likely continue as the Montreal Impact’s developmental team. Even with the best intentions from ownership, upper management and the coaching staff, Fury FC will inevitably plateau as a club: it is hard to image Fury FC games ever filling the 24,000 seats at TD Place or garnering national media attention.
MLS’s insistence on remaining a closed league will stunt the growth of the sport in smaller markets like Ottawa. Nonetheless, the infrastructure in place in North American soccer is better than ever. Ottawa born and raised players, like Jamar Dixon and Monti Mohsen, continually praise the mere existence of the club saying that there was nothing like Fury FC when they were growing up establishing themselves as talented youth soccer players.
Fury FC is still a young club and their impact on the soccer scene locally is still unquantifiable. But, it is locally where Fury FC’s impact will be felt the strongest if they are successful in developing a strong club culture.
If the North American soccer hierarchy prevents Fury FC from growing upwards, it's important to create strong roots in the community and deliberately build Fury FC into something distinctly Canadian and unique to Ottawa.