Philadelphia Fury seek NASL move with potential partners in Spain, Dubai and Las Vegas
A consortium of investors from multiple countries is coming together to try to bring an expansion franchise in the second tier North American Soccer League to a planned new stadium at Rowan.
`By now you've heard about Spanish club SD Eibar's trip to the Philadelphia region over the weekend, and its 1-1 draw with the fourth-tier American Soccer League's Philadelphia Fury on Sunday at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.
Eibar didn't just come here for an end-of-season cool down. It came here because Spain's soccer establishment is looking to establish beachheads in America, both for commercial and player scouting purposes.
It appears that officials from the Liga de Fútbol Profesional, which runs Spain's venerated La Liga, have decided the best way to do that is by partnering with investors who want to launch expansion teams here.
And the Philadelphia region is right in the crosshairs.
Investors from multiple countries are coming together to try to bring an expansion franchise in the second tier North American Soccer League to a planned new stadium at Rowan.
The potential ownership group isn't entirely solidified yet, nor is there any official deal in place for Rowan to be the team's home. So far, there have only been preliminary negotiations between the team and the university. But the pieces are definitely in place. Here's what they are.
The point man locally is Matt Driver, a familiar name on the Philadelphia-area soccer landscape. He is perhaps best known as the founder and first head coach and general manager of the Philadelphia Independence. He was also the technical director for the former South Jersey Barons of the USL. Before coming here, Driver was an assistant coach for Major League Soccer's New England Revolution in their early years.
These days, Driver is the owner of the Fury and the CEO of the ASL. The Scotland native's goal is to use the ASL as a player pipeline for his NASL team. That team would carry the Fury brand into the NASL, restoring a famous name from the league's glory years in the 1970s.
Driver bought the Fury trademark a few years ago ago, with the intention of using it on a professional team sooner or later.
"I wanted to bring back the Fury - I didn't want that to escape," Driver told me. "I didn't want it just drifting in the background."
A revival of the Fury would be news enough on its own, but it's only the tip of the iceberg. The plan is for Driver to be joined by two groups of foreign investors. One is expected to be a Spanish team, which could be Eibar. It would become a further stop on the envisioned player development pathway.
The other is an as-yet-unnamed family in the United Arab Emirates - Dubai specifically - which will bring the big money needed for this NASL team to make a splash.
Although Driver has clearly laid the groundwork for a NASL franchise bid, he told me more than once that he has yet to make an official overture to the league.
"We see the NASL as a great part of our vertical integration system - it would be the perfect avenue for us to look at," he said. "There's nothing concrete… I haven't gone to the NASL yet and said I would like to apply for a NASL franchise. Would we like to see that? Absolutely."
The person who brought all these parties together is Daniel Kinsella, a Delaware County expat who now works for the Sarasota, Fla.-based company Global Fútbol Partners. It is a relatively new firm, with offices in Las Vegas, Beverly Hills and Madrid. Former San Jose Earthquakes executive Greg Jamison is its CEO.
GFP aims to provide consulting services for European and other global soccer teams that wish to make connections in the United States. And not just with NASL teams - I understand Kinsella has had multiple clients involved in recent months with potential MLS expansion markets.
An outside observer might call Kinsella's firm a matchmaker, or even a broker. He insisted to me in multiple conversations that both terms are inaccurate, though he also said GFP aims to have an equity stake in the NASL Fury.
"[GFP] was created for the purpose of strategic advising - we're giving them the advice that they're following," Kinsella said. "It's not just Eibar, it's other clubs in La Liga and one club in the [English] Premier League that we're going to announce."
Driver told me that he has had "provisional discussions" with Kinsella and GFP. Kinsella, however, has plans that seem far more than provisional.
Kinsella confirmed that Eibar's trip here was part of an overture to the Fury. His hesitation to say anything more stems in part from recent turmoil in Eibar's front office. Club president Alex Aranzabal resigned last month, citing differences with the board of directors.
Whether the Spanish team is Eibar or not, Kinsella said his vision is for that team to "have an ownership stake in the [NASL] team. They would not own the team outright, but they would be part of it, and the direction of the club on the field would come from [there] and maybe another partner team… in a different league - it wouldn't be in La Liga."
Yes, you read that right: Kinsella sees the Spanish club that partners with the Fury having control from afar over the NASL team's technical direction.
Kinsella made it clear that "we're doing NASL whether Eibar is in it or not," and that "all the on-the-field training protocol decisions are made by" whatever Spanish team comes along, "or the management that the club has selected."
I talked to Driver after talking to Kinsella. He put the brakes on the idea.
"Until I have a partner and I've got a contract, that's not going to be discussed," Driver said. "At that time, there will be a discussion I'm sure. But until then, nothing will change… A guy could come in tomorrow and write me a check and I'd say before cashing that check we'd have that discussion."
That doesn't mean Driver's entirely against the idea, though.
"If someone wants to change that, there's going to be a price," he said. "I want to work with whoever - but whoever's got to be in alignment with the philosophy and the direction we're going in. And if it's not, that relationship is not going to go ahead."
Kinsella and Driver agree on this much: NASL team would build its roster with top players from ASL, then the Spanish club would have first dibs on players from the NASL roster. Here's how Driver explains the model:
Kinsella sees a development path not just for the Philadelphia region, but in other parts of the United States as well.
"We're going to take other clubs to other cities - it's a targeted effort around the United States," he said. "The idea would be to target a city and then surround that NASL potential city with several ASL teams, so they're a pod," he said. "Put the ASL there first, and then we attempt to have a NASL team there, partnered with a European client from a player development standpoint."
In other words, Kinsella would copy Driver's model for the regional league he has on the East Coast into other American markets, and put a NASL team at the center that would draw players from those ASL teams.
Now comes the fun part. The NASL team would pay transfer fees to the ASL teams for players, and subsequent sales to European teams would result in sell-on fees and training compensation fees. Start adding all that up, and as the saying goes, you get real money.
Specifically, Driver gets real money. And he's not afraid to admit it.
"Absolutely," he said when I asked him whether there would be transfer fees involved in the development setup. "That's a vertical integrated system that would be integrated unparalleled anywhere in the world… Why can't I benefit from that a business and my partners benefit from that as a business? The USA is the next Africa - we've got all the components, but we're discarding these kids at 21 or 22."
Even those in the American soccer community who hold their noses at any mention of the NASL would likely acknowledge that Driver's idea couldn't come to fruition within MLS' framework - even including MLS' partnership with the USL.
"There's too many restrictions around MLS right now, the single entity and a lot of things," Driver said - not with any malicious intent, just as a statement of fact.
"It wouldn't allow us to do what I would like to do," he continued. "MLS is its own structure, and I think it works for them. But from what I'm looking at doing, it wouldn't work for us right now."
Driver knows from experience, too. He has worked with MLS to secure visas for non-American players who've been cast off by MLS teams, so they can play in his league.
He has sent players he's developed to multiple MLS clubs, including the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Philadelphia Union.
"At the youth level, I've sent a ton of players over to the Union," Driver said. I've told them at any time they can come for players I've worked with. Do I think their program is a good program? Absolutely. They've got the funds, they've got the exposure, they've got the mechanism in place to create a higher profile for that player. Go do it."
The ASL has some 300 players spread across 10 teams in the northeast United States. They might not all be good enough to play at a higher level, but quite a few are diamonds in the rough.
"What are we doing with American kids when they get out of college here? Are you telling me the draft picks up the best players?" Driver said. "The NASL and MLS are looking for finished products. The [other] kids are going into corporate, every day life… They have an interest in playing. Some of them have more than an interest. Some of them want to chase the dream."
Take Fury goalkeeper Chase Clement, for example. The 26-year-old son of former Flyers star and current NHL broadcaster Bill Clement has, according to Driver, drawn interest from European clubs as prestigious as newly-crowned English Premier League champion Leicester City.
"An agent who works with several of the top clubs in the Premier League [including Leicester] made an inquiry about Chase," Driver said. "We have three or four teams interested in him after that performance [against Eibar]."
Why would the team play at Rowan? For one thing, Driver knows the landscape there. The Fury have always been based in South Jersey. They will play at Rowan's 5,000-seat Wackar Stadium this year, after spending their first two seasons at Washington Township High School's Tom Brown Stadium.
Yes, that's the same Wackar Stadium which was only sparsely filled for Sunday's Fury-Eibar game. It's a turf facility with gridiron markings, and for all the work stadium staff put in to covering up the lines, they were still clearly visible on a globally-distributed television broadcast of the game.
But a significant plot twist is forthcoming. Rowan's board of trustees recently gave the green light to begin planning construction of a 10,000-seat outdoor stadium and 5,000-seat indoor arena a few miles west of the school's main campus, near where Routes 322 and 55 intersect.
It's the school's intention to try to bring other sports teams to the venues besides its own, in particular minor league ice hockey. A franchise in the National Basketball Development League, which serves as the NBA's minor league, is also a possibility.
The stadium and arena would be constructed as one big building, with a retractable partition that would create an amphitheater-style concert venue. The whole thing would be surrounded by a number of soccer, baseball and softball fields that could host youth tournaments. Topping the complex off would be a 340-room hotel and 100,000 square feet of retail space.
It is an ambitious project, to be sure, but you can hear the cash registers ringing already. And Rowan does not lack for ambition, as its enrollment and finances have grown considerably in recent years. Two years ago, the school considered moving its athletic programs up to the NCAA's Division I level. If this development comes to fruition, such a move could be considered again.
Although the Rowan trustees' vote took place a month and a half ago, the approval hasn't been publicly announced yet. Rowan spokesman Joe Cardona gave me details after I was tipped off by a source involved with the NASL project.
"We've talked about a stadium complex out there for a while - there's been plans on and off over the last decade," Cardona told me. "We've done a couple things over the last year to make it easier for someone to develop... There's movement to allow for the building of a complex out there."
Cardona added that "there's still a little bit of due diligence being done." But he confirmed that the trustees' vote "approved the concept of an athletic complex."
Financing would come from a mix of university and private investment. Not all the money is assembled yet, but if that happens, the development will proceed.
The private side of things is being spearheaded by Sahben, an Australian property developer.
"If all goes as planned, we hope to be able to proceed with our work by the early spring of 2017," Sahben spokesman Ashley Donlan told me, though he cautioned that "there is much work to be done before that occurs."
Overall, Sahben is optimistic that the project will happen.
"This is a major project, in size and scope, and if successful, it will have great benefits for the region and for the university," he said. "The development requires no capital contribution in any way from Rowan outside of the fact that we are using their land."
When would the NASL team start playing? Considering that global media rights magnate Riccardo Silva took Miami FC from launch to the field in less than a year, the runway can be short if desired.
Driver isn't quite sure what the timeline would be. He's more concerned with getting the right people involved with the bid.
"I have to find somebody who has the net worth to be able to carry the team, because I don't," he said. "I make everything work for my own business from my own funds. I need bigger sponsors, and I've got some great sponsors [now]. They understand what I'm doing and have bought into it. But I've got what I've got. I need more sponsors, I need guys with deeper pockets and who share the vision."
There are also contingencies to worry about if the Rowan development project falls apart for any reason. Should that happen, Kinsella told me his company would be interested in stepping in to build a stadium on the site.
"I think potentially we could look at that site, because it's been approved to build something there," he said. "Investors are interested in sports, but they're interested in development. That's where they make their money. At Global Fútbol Partners, that's our big thing: advising, and then locating the capital and the partners they need to make these projects go."
Kinsella added that the venue of his dreams might also be near the Parx Casino in Bensalem, or sharing Temple University's new football stadium - though he isn't convinced that will get built.
(That said, Kinsella isn't alone in imaging that Temple stadium hosting a professional soccer team. It will surely be turf, though, and that would be a major sticking point.)
For now, Rowan is the aim. So let's say everything goes according to that plan. At some point, the Fury group will have to gain approval from the NASL's existing owners and investors. What will that take?
The expansion fee is an easy part. I'm told it's around $5 million - just a fraction of the $100 million that MLS commands.
But here's a hard part. The NASL is still close with Traffic Sports, the Brazilian-American sports marketing firm that was famously indicted in the U.S. government's investigation of racketeering in soccer across the Americas.
As I and others have written before, Traffic Sports helped launch the NASL back in 2009 by spearheading its breakaway from the USL. Former Traffic Sports USA CEO Aaron Davidson, also indicted by the feds, chaired the NASL's Board of Governors for many years. Traffic used to own multiple teams in the league, and at various times kept others afloat. It also did the league's marketing.
While Traffic no longer owns teams or does the NASL's marketing, it still owns an equity stake of Class B shares in the NASL's parent corporation. This gives it a say in some league matters, and expansion is reportedly among them.
NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson told EmpireOfSoccer.com's Dave Martinez in January that the league was in talks with Traffic to have it sell that equity stake, and get out of the league's business entirely. But it is my understanding that said sale still has yet to happen. Until it does, the specter of Traffic's law-breaking will still hang over the NASL's head.
I asked someone involved with the Fury project whether Traffic's continued relationship with the NASL is a problem for the investment group. That person insisted to me on not being identified out of a desire to not risk relationships with other entities at the NASL, MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation.
"I'm not a real big fan of that whole scenario," the person said. "What's happened with Traffic has not been good... And I know [with] Traffic, everything is all controversial with the FIFA stuff. But I hope that stuff will go away and we could help create [new] ownership of the league in many ways."
I then asked whether project would be affected if Traffic doesn't give up that equity stake in the NASL.
"Not necessarily... The NASL gives you kind of the flexibility to kind of be your own team in a lot of ways," this person said. "Obviously, playing in that league structure, you can be playing in front of 20,000 people or you can be playing in front of 1,500 on a bad night on the road."
The key thing for this person is the U.S. Soccer Federation's standards for club owners' financial resources. The most recent revision, made in 2014, raised the bar significantly.
"This whole new net worth scenario for the owners will keep it in place for better future owners to be in, because they're going to have to have the money to support the team," the person said.
Among the many subjects covered in the above conversation was the fierce rivalry between the NASL and MLS, and the various corporate entities that invest in each league.
The NASL and many of its clubs famously dislike MLS' single-entity model, preferring a less rigid structure that allows more freedom to make and lose money. There are also differences in the leagues' philosophies about what the right way is to develop American soccer players.
It probably won't surprise those of you who follow that rivalry to hear that this person involved with the Fury project had some strong views on the matter:
I asked this person if that meant the NASL is going to apply for Division 1 sanctioning, and if so, when:
The NASL-MLS rivalry plays out well beyond the confines of marketing firm board rooms and U.S. Soccer policy manuals. From coast to coast, salvos are routinely fired in markets where both leagues have staked out territory.
Earlier in this piece, I noted the quick birth of Riccardo Silva's Miami FC. It's widely understood that the club's speed of development was fueled by wanting to get on the field before David Beckham's proposed Miami MLS expansion team could do so. It also might not be a coincidence that Silva made his move just a few months after his global sports marketing agency, MP & Silva, lost the international TV distribution rights to Major League Soccer.
A few months ago, a group of investors in San Francisco launched a NASL expansion team that will play at fabled Kezar Stadium, which sits in the heart of the city. That's much more easily accessible for urban fans than the San Jose Earthquakes' home, which sits some 50 miles to the south.
In Chicago, beloved former Fire general manager Peter Wilt is leading an effort to resurrect the famed Sting nickname for a team that aims to play in Soldier Field before building its own stadium elsewhere in the city. Wilt's old team has struggled to consistently draw fans from downtown Chicago and its soccer-mad northern suburb, creating an opportunity for the NASL to exploit.
Most famously, the New York Cosmos have long relished jousting with the Red Bulls and New York City FC, whether on the field in the U.S. Open Cup or off the field in social media. The Cosmos have also made a point of signing major European names toward the ends of their careers, such as Spain's Raul and Marcos Senna. They made even bigger splashes this year by signing Croatia's Nico Kranjcar and Venezuela's Juan Arango and Yohandry Orozco.
If the Fury project comes to fruition, a new NASL-MLS rivalry could play out on the banks of the Delaware River. But it might surprise you to learn that Driver doesn't want there to be animosity between the clubs.
"If we ever got into the NASL, my first call would be to the Philadelphia Union to say how can we work together, or how can we work to not harm each other? They might not have an interest, but at least that would be my approach," he said. "I'm not here to fight with people, I'm not here to fall out with people… We're going to make some mistakes along the way but we don't need to burn bridges. I don't see why we have to be against MLS; I don't see why MLS has to be against the NASL."
Driver added that he wants people on his ownership team who share his perspective.
"It's great to have the Philadelphia Union in our backyard," he said. "They do a great job as far as getting people to games and giving people what they want to see. I wouldn't look at someone who would think that we could even compete against the Union. What we do is completely different from what the Union does."
Kinsella agreed that the Fury and Union would complement each other. Or at least he did when I first raised the subject with him.
"The region is big enough for two soccer teams," he said at first. "The Union are in a different league. They're in a bigger league. We're not trying to compete with them. The idea is that Union fans would come to our games, too, and our fans would go to Union games. It's not a zero-sum scenario."
A few moments later, though, he offered some remarks that were less conciliatory:
It's an open secret in American soccer circles that the NASL has wanted for some time now to capitalize on the Union's longstanding problems with drawing hardcore soccer fans from central Philadelphia. Driver's ambitious project intends to give the league its first formal chance to do so.
Is the NASL interested in Driver's group specifically? League spokesman Neal Malone told me: "It's our policy to reserve comment as far as the expansion process is concerned. We're in a number of discussions at the moment, but we keep those private until an announcement is made."
If the interest is there, would a NASL team in South Jersey win over fans that the Union haven't? And in Glassboro specifically, where public transportation access is even worse than it is in Chester?
I put both those questions to Kinsella. He agreed that they're valid, especially the one about transit access, admitting that "you don't get a lot of the real, true fans" without that.
He knows the lay of the land here because of his local roots. In our multiple conversations - all of which took place before the Fury-Eibar game, which drew only a few hundred fans - we discussed the matter multiple times.
Here are some of Kinsella's remarks on the subject:
It's worth repeating here - and indeed emphasizing - that there is no official deal in place for this ownership group to come together, nor is there an official deal between said ownership and Rowan University. But the pump is being primed, and in a big way.
"This was a showcase to show off Philly," Kinsella told me. "There's no rhyme or reason for [Eibar] to play a ASL team. We think there's an interesting partnership that can be formed between the ASL, La Liga and the NASL."
Driver presents himself as an idealist in search of some pragmatists who can help make his plans become reality. He called his work as the ASL's commissioner "dreaming, being a visionary, to motivate potential team owners and get people to buy in" to the league.
"There's a lot of unselfish owners that we've got in the ASL that have bought in," Driver said. "If somebody wants to buy the Fury off me and let me go do things for the league? Go ahead and knock my socks off and make me and offer. I'm not doing this for the ego, but sometimes you've got to walk the walk."
Driver also offered a warning: if you want to join his effort, you aren't going to make money quickly.
"I joke with potential investors in soccer saying, 'You're going to be a millionaire. Start off by being a billionaire,'" he said. "It'd be great if GFP and someone like Greg Jamison came along and said, 'Matt, we want to partner with you and we've got the power of bringing in European clubs to help take it to the next level. We have foreign investment, we have this and that, we can build stadiums, we can get behind you.' I need to bring in people that see the vision and believe in it."
By now, you have probably figured out what I first realized when Kinsella first emailed me a week ago to introduce himself. This story is not just about bringing a new era of the Fury into a new era of the NASL. It is about the Philadelphia region being thrust into the most significant battle on the American soccer landscape right now. If the Fury do come back to life, and if they are able to live peacefully alongside the Union, it truly will signify a new direction for what a number of observers have termed "the Cold War of American soccer."
We will find out in the coming months and years whether Driver and Kinsella's project succeeds or fails. Either way, the potential is there for something spectacular to happen.
Staff writers Jonathan Lai, Erin McCarthy and Mike Jensen contributed to this report.