Ryan Knapp, the Co-owner of FC Buffalo in the National Premier Soccer League as well as the current PR Director for the six-year old, national amateur soccer league. My interest in the NPSL stemmed from the recent announcement that the New York Red Bulls would field an Under-23 team in the league's Atlantic Conference for the upcoming season. The Chicago Fire will also field an NPSL squad in 2010 as they did in 2009.
The NPSL was created by a few former west coast PDL team owners in the mid 00's, who wanted to operate in a league run with the clubs' input, rather than by a central league office. (sounds a lot like the new NASL offshoot from USL-1). Over the NPSL's first five seasons, the league expanded regionally to minimize team travel expenses; first to the midwest, then the southeast, and finally, the northeast. For 2010, the NPSL will boast 22 clubs, each playing 12 matches from May to July, with a "Final Four" championship in Huntsville, Alabama on July 30 and August 1st.
There are two main differences between the NPSL and PDL: First, the $5,000 team entry fee is a fraction of the USL-run PDL, where team owners must pony up $75k to enter the league. Second, there are no age limitations in the NPSL. Some clubs run their team as an extension of their youth development programs. Others' rosters are filled with players in their mid-20's. Some teams run out college players exclusively (College-age NPSL players, like the PDL, keep their college eligibility). The freedom to make the clubs fit the owners' wants (along with those low operating fees) is a big part of what makes the NPSL attractive, as well as the "one team, one vote" NPSL system, which determines league strategy & direction.
The NPSL's goal, according to Knapp, is to become the premier national amateur soccer league in the US. "We strive for longevity," says Knapp, who notes that the league lost only a single team from the northeastern region this off-season. The NPSL is affiliated with the womens' 65-team WPSL, which is nearly three times larger than the USL's W-League.
NPSL match attendances range from a few hundred per game to the low thousands. Chattanooga FC drew a league-high 4,300 fans on last July 4th, and all of the Tennessee club's matches drew at least 2,600 in 2009, a number that would rank well with many USL-1 clubs. However, in Chattanooga's stadium, fans can buy beer. Many of the league's teams play in high school and college stadiums.
While the NPSL has yet to produce an MLS-quality star, Bob Shuttleworth, former keeper for Knapp's own FC Buffalo is currently with the New England in an backup role.
So why should fans care about the NPSL? Says Knapp, "These are the kids that will be playing in the USL and MLS in the coming years. In many NPSL markets, the teams are the best level of soccer that fans can see live." Indeed, operating in markets like Huntsville, AL, Madison, WI, Sonoma County, CA, and Reading, PA, allows for cheaper operating costs, and a down home feel. With MLS continuing to expand by at least three teams in the next two years, odds are you'll see NPSL alums dotting MLS rosters in the years to come.