The history of USL traces back to the late 1980s and meanders through a labyrinth of ownership groups, name changes, league mergers, and levels of professionalism. Even the most recent chapter of the league’s saga is characterized by variation and adaptation. The onset of the current decade was marked by the exodus of several teams to form the second incarnation of the North American Soccer League, which resulted in USL combining its two professional divisions into one league and settling for third division sanctioning by the United States Soccer Federation. Since that tempestuous time, USL has rebounded, doubling in size to 24 clubs and brokering a crucial partnership with Major League Soccer.
At the outset of this season, the league unveiled the “USL Rising” slogan, and it is difficult to argue against the confidence expressed in that branding. Investors appear to be clamoring for the rights to place expansion franchises in new markets. The quality of play has increased from top to bottom in the league. USL has positioned itself to be recognized by USSF as a second division professional league in the near future. USL is arguably enjoying the most successful period in its history.
The recent successes of the burgeoning league are due in no small part to the efforts of those who run USL from its headquarters in Tampa. Jake Edwards, who assumed the helm as USL President after Tim Holt resigned prior to the 2015 season, has been described as one of the architects of the league’s plan for long-term strategic growth. Scratching the Pitch solicited his explanation for why the league has been able to grow so quickly following the schism in 2009 and the league’s vision for its own future.
“I believe there are several reasons for the growth we are experiencing in the USL. Certainly, on a macro level, our sport continues to grow on and off the field. The number of soccer-specific stadiums being built; the growing attendances we are seeing in MLS, the USL and at international exhibition matches; the investment being made by owners and sponsors; the quality of the play and players in the U.S. and Canada, and of course, the swelling numbers of supporter groups,” Edwards said.
He continued, “Against this backdrop of growth, the USL has focused on building a commercially viable and economically sensible business model that continues to attract experienced ownership groups that bring their experience of operating teams in major and minor leagues in the U.S. and abroad. The quality of the ownership we attract and their commitment to investing in stadia and growing the sport in their communities is what makes this league truly great, and has helped attract more and more like-minded owners to our league.”
One of the biggest developments in the last five years was the partnership that was brokered between USL and MLS ahead of the 2013 season. The agreement provided MLS ownership groups the ability to stand up their own teams in USL or form affiliations with existing independent USL franchises. Now in the third season of the partnership, MLS clubs are fully participating, and the impact on USL has been substantial.
“The partnership between the USL and MLS has been a great example of two independent professional soccer leagues working to help grow the game across the United States and Canada,” stated Edwards. “The partnership with MLS has delivered tremendous results in a short space of time. Players have seen huge benefits from playing in front of passionate fans against seasoned professionals in the USL. For the USL clubs, the affiliations provide huge value, in addition to having impact players join the teams. MLS has been a great partner and we look forward to the evolution of this model.”
The relationship between the two leagues has raised the USL’s profile and increased the level of interest across the continent. More and more media outlets, both mainstream and independent, are providing coverage of the league to an audience that continues to grow. The potential to move to up to MLS has certainly been tantalizing for potential players and owners alike.
The response to the infusion of MLS into USL has not been unanimously positive, though. Some detractors have used social media outlets to bemoan the partnership, claiming that USL is being reduced to little more than a reserve league for MLS.
When asked to respond to that criticism, Edwards commented, “That is not a characterization that we have been hearing. We operate the most professional and competitive league under MLS.”
The assertion that USL is assuming an identity as an MLS reserve league is baseless in light of a few facts. The overwhelming majority of the minutes played in 2015 have been recorded by players under contract to USL teams, not MLS. The number of independent ownership groups still doubles that of MLS ownership groups in USL. The ratio of independent to MLS-owned teams does not figure to change substantially as the league continues to expand.
Continued USL expansion is something that is to be expected in the foreseeable future. It is no secret that a handful of teams will be added to the existing 24 for the 2016 season. Before resigning his position with the league, Tim Holt told American Soccer Now that USL could be a 40-team league by the end of the decade.
The pace at which USL is growing is staggering. It is easy to conceive that the league will soon reach the upper limit of the number of teams it can sustain. Ultimately, the market for professional soccer in America will help decide what that number is, but StP wondered if USL is considering what the limit might be.
“We don’t have a specific number in mind, as there are still many attractive markets that would sustain high-level professional soccer,” Edwards replied. “Our growth, however, is part of a strategic plan to build a national footprint while creating a regionalized competition model. This is important because it builds club rivalries and produces an exciting and competitive environment for our players and fans.”
As USL continues to add expansion franchises and incrementally increases the number of MLS-2 sides, the league remains in a state of transition. It is something that is necessarily implied by the “USL Rising” theme. Among the most noticeable changes that have already been implemented are variations in the regular season schedule and the creation of separate conferences based on geography.
At some point in the future, a steady state will be achieved. Edwards was prompted for the vision of what USL will be when the transition has ended.
“We have the opportunity and the responsibility to continue to raise the standards of our league both on and off the field. With honesty, integrity and professionalism in our sport, we will take our brand of professional soccer to markets across the U.S. and Canada to grow the soccer fandom, raise the value and profile of the sport and our clubs, and provide the pathway for our players to reach the very highest levels,” Edwards said.
Pundits and fans of the league have made a frequent exercise of speculating with regard to how the league will be structured in the future. The three most popular hypotheses have been based on the league’s rapid expansion and partnership with MLS.
One interesting idea is that USL will eventually split into two separate professional leagues, akin to USL-1 and USL-2 prior to 2010. Some have offered the fantastical notion that this would be the opportunity for a system of promotion and relegation to be introduced into American soccer.
“That is not something we are considering at this point,” Edwards plainly stated.
Another proposed theory is that the MLS-2 teams will eventually split from USL to reform their own reserve league. It is a theory that Edwards tacitly dismissed by his refusal to speculate.
The third concept is the one supported by StP. The thought is additional conferences will continue to be created within a single league as franchises are added. Eventually, USL will be an extremely large national league competing in small regions with a national playoff determining the champion. Not only has USL begun to embark down this path, but the structure of USL PDL, the United Soccer Leagues amateur league, provides precedence for it.
When asked if USL planned to increase regional play through the addition of conferences, Edwards referred back to his previous statement that “part of a strategic plan [is] to build a national footprint while creating a regionalized competition model.”
All of the recent growth and success has been achieved while USL has been operating with USSF sanctioning as a third-division professional league. Despite thriving in the third division, USL has stated its intention to be officially recognized as a second division league. What is the impetus for that recognition?
Edwards explained, “We have been operating at or above that level for some time, and moving to Division II is the natural progression as we continue to grow the league. Given the significant investment our owners continue to make into their clubs and communities, they, along with the players and fans, have earned the right to all associated benefits that Division II sanctioning may bring.”
Whether or not USL is eventually sanctioned as second division remains to be seen. In the mean time, the league continues to bring competitive professional soccer to thousands of fans in new and old markets across the continent. A strong USL is both an indicator of the health of the of soccer in America and a means through which the popularity of the sport can be multiplied.