When the Philadelphia Union announced yesterday that the club would be launching an expansion side in USL to begin play in 2016, it was more than the beginning of a new franchise. It was also the beginning of the end of a relationship with the Harrisburg City Islanders. The formal affiliation between the Union and the City Islanders will be terminated at the conclusion of the current USL season.
The relationship between the City Islanders and the Union started in 2010, the same year that Philadelphia joined MLS. When the groundbreaking partnership between MLS and USL was announced in 2013, interleague affiliation was already old hat for the two clubs. In the last six years Harrisburg has benefited from the services of several loaned players from the Union, including Jimmy McLaughlin, Eric Ayuk, Raymond Lee, Eric Bird, Dzenan Catic, Zach Pfeffer, and Antoine Hoppenot. In 2016 and beyond, Philadelphia will be sending players to its yet-to-be-named USL club in Lehigh Valley for development in a competitive match environment.
The dissolution of the affiliation with the Union has resurrected questions regarding the future of the City Islanders in USL, a league whose standards appear to be rising almost as quickly as its geographic footprint is growing. There is some validity to those questions. Harrisburg is the second smallest metropolitan statistical area among the 24 teams currently in the USL. Skyline Sports Complex, the current home of the City Islanders, has long been the object of ridicule due to the condition of its field and facilities. There is also uncertainty about whether the current ownership group has the resources to continue to field a competitive side and the qualifications for USSF D2 sanctioning.
It would be a shame if one of the USL’s more historic clubs (the City Islanders were founded in 2003, claimed the USL-2 championship in 2007, and appeared in two USL PRO finals) was forced to fold or self-relegate. Thankfully, the recent news has not been all bad, and there are reasons to have faith in Harrisburg.
Despite being one of the smaller markets in USL, Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal recently named Harrisburg-Hershey as one of the top 10 minor league markets in the United States. Among the cited reasons is the percentage increase in attendance at minor league sporting events kept pace with the increase in the area’s population growth.
After openly flirting with new markets for the franchise, the City Islanders appear ready to make a go of it in Harrisburg. The club has applied for a grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to assist with cost of constructing a new stadium on City Island. Reckless Challenge has reported that USL CEO Alec Papadakis all but confirmed that the necessary funding for a new stadium has been acquired.
With respect to new investment, the same Reckless Challenge article quotes Papadakis as saying, “New ownership will be coming in as well.”
Harrisburg thrived as a USL club prior to the Union. With major concerns addressed, or about to be addressed, there is no reason to think the City Islanders cannot thrive after the union.