With the announcement of the genesis of Swope Park Rangers KC, the official number of teams in the USL has swollen to 30. Twenty-eight of those teams are now set to compete in the league next season. Barring an unexpected event, 28 seems to be firm and fixed for 2016. With this in mind, the time seems right to begin to speculate about conference alignment and scheduling.
With 28 teams, it would make sense to maintain the Eastern and Western Conferences created for the 2015 season (14 teams each), or double the number of conferences to four (7 teams each). Anything else results in an unequal distribution of teams in each conference, and StP promotes symmetry wherever possible.
There doesn’t seem to be a straightforward and satisfactory way to divvy up the USL map into four equal conferences. This is why StP proposes that the league sticks with East and West for next season. Given that the league desires to move toward regional play in a national league, it would not be surprising if the USL somehow found a creative way to bisect itself again to arrive at four conferences or divisions.
The Mississippi River provides a convenient dividing line between USL Eastern and Western Conferences in 2016. It would mean Saint Louis FC would make the switch from east to west. The Western Conference would also welcome expansion sides Rio Grande Valley FC and Swope Park Rangers KC. The only other change to the left half of the map would be the subtraction of the Austin Aztex, who have suspended operations for next season.
The Eastern Conference would also lose one club while gaining three. The loss would be the defection of Saint Louis to the west. The new additions would include FC Cincinnati, Bethlehem Steel FC (does anyone really think another brand will be chosen?), and Orlando City B.
Two 14-team conferences also lends itself nicely to the scheduling format that the league adopted in 2015. USL has stated that the schedule will expand from 28 to 30 regular season matches in 2016. If each team plays a home-and-home series against all other teams in its conference, that leaves four additional matches to be played against neighboring clubs. Stop us if this sounds familiar.
Although some of the geographic rivalries that developed in 2015 seemed rather contrived, familiarity does breed contempt. For this reason, StP supports the notion of extra matches against nearby franchises. Allow the more closely bunched teams to play more often, and a legitimate beef will likely develop between fan bases that can easily travel to away games for an airing of grievances.
If StP’s forecast comes to fruition, it will be a case of things staying the same the more they change. It is at once familiar and new.