USL

USL’s growth spurt

Soccer in North America is in the middle of an expansion boom, from Orlando to Vancouver and everywhere in between. All four tiers of US Soccer have expansion teams preparing to enter the fray, and when you look at a list of recently added teams, it shows incredible growth in recent years. It’s staggering to consider that Orlando, San Antonio, Edmonton, Oklahoma City, Sacramento, New York, Indianapolis, Ottawa, and Arizona have all started new teams in either the NASL or USL Pro since 2010. Los Angeles has seen both the Blues and Galaxy II begin play in that time, and Oklahoma City has plans for an NASL side in the works.

And neither league is content with stopping there. When you include the NASL’s pending Virginia and Jacksonville teams, and USL’s Tulsa and Colorado Springs sides, that’s 16 new teams between the second and third division leagues, all either beginning play or announcing their intent within a little more than the past four years.

Rise and Fall

On the one hand, this is an amazing success. The fact that everyone wants a piece of the soccer pie outside of the MLS all of a sudden is a sign the sport is here to stay, and more and more communities having access to live soccer is fantastic to see.

On the other hand, the speed of this expansion can be a bit worrying. Those of you familiar with your US soccer history know how well the original NASL and their bout of rapid expansion fared.

In the same 2010-2014 period, nine teams have folded between the NASL and USL Pro. If we were to not include the five Caribbean teams that have folded (Puerto Rico United, Puerto Rico Islanders, River Plate Puerto Rico, Sevilla Puerto Rico and Antigua Barracuda), who had their own unique financial challenges outside the purview of US Soccer, that leaves us with four: VSI Tampa Bay, FC New York, AC St. Louis, and Crystal Palace Baltimore. We nearly saw the collapse of the Phoenix Wolves, but the USL and a new ownership group were able to intervene and save the team, newly christened as Arizona United.

Major league ambitions

So, what does all this mean for the USL? Many of these clubs are out to prove they’d be prime candidates for MLS. With only two slots left until we hit Don Garber’s goal of 24 teams, many of these teams will be left out of the top flight league. Will fans still support their newly found hometown heroes without the prospect of MLS on the horizon? And what direction will the USL go to ensure stability? The answer seems to lie in Los Angeles.

LA Galaxy II is the most recent entry into the USL Pro. The USL and MLS have come closer and closer together in recent years, culminating in last year’s MLS Reserve League/USL Pro inter league play. With the founding of LA Galaxy II, we’ve seen a radical new direction the league could be taking. Becoming something closer to a traditional American minor league would certainly fit with commissioner Tim Holt’s goal of creating the “best possible lower division professional soccer league.” In a recent article on MLSsoccer.com, Holt guessed somewhere between 15 to 40 percent of USL Pro’s teams will be owned by MLS clubs by 2020, in what he sees as a 30 to 40-team league.

Before Nike sold USL, teams would rise and fall in the old USL first division with some regularity, and the second division was even more turbulent. Could a more traditional minor league system be the answer to the stability question? New York Red Bulls have already announced they intend to have a USL Pro team in place by 2015, and several other clubs have been hinting at beginning a USL Pro side of their own. LA Galaxy II could mark the beginning of a radical new era in US Soccer.

What does it mean for Harrisburg?

So, what does this new 40-team USL Pro look like, and what does this mean for Harrisburg’s future? I see two possible outcomes.

They could end up mimicking the old USL-1 and 2, though hopefully with a more stable set of teams. With an upper league comprised of the most competitive 20 and no promotion or relegation unless it’s out of financial necessity, Harrisburg would probably end up in the USL 2, where it was before the NASL schism. This is especially likely given that many of the USL 1 teams would be owned and operated by MLS clubs, if Tim Holt is right.

While all that could happen, a second outcome is equally as likely: one league, split into two or more conferences. A focus on regional matchups would cut down on travel costs, promote local rivals, and possibly even make it more feasible to see traveling supporters for more clubs. At 40 teams in the USL, two 20-team leagues would work well. In this format, Harrisburg stays at the third division level and sees way more of Richmond and Pittsburgh than they do of Sacramento or Orange County.

In either scenario, the Union will probably try to keep pace with their rivals as MLS invests more and more into the USL. So look for more and more young talent coming Harrisburg’s way as Hackworth and Co. push to keep up with the likes of NYRB’s USL side, or DC United’s Richmond Kickers partnership.

And there will be plenty of players for the Islanders to try out, because if there’s one thing the Union coaching staff have shown they can do consistently, it’s sign young talent. Whether it’s through the draft, homegrown development, or the international market, the U have shown a consistent desire to pack their locker room with youth.

The future for Harrisburg City looks bright. They’ve made it through some turbulent times in soccer’s history in the US and have come out the other side poised to be a top side for years to come. In a league that will increasingly become about youth talent and player development, Harrisburg is situated in one of the greatest soccer hotbeds in the nation, with a set of tremendous connections in place thanks to it’s partnership with the Union. If all goes well, Harrisburg could become the blueprint for the next great leap in American soccer.

7 Comments

  1. Nice debut, if a little lost in the shuffle of other events. Where is the talent coming from for all these new teams in the lower leagues? Is it primarily American college grads? Or are more lower-level internationals coming over to play in these leagues now?

    • Will Lipscomb says:

      There will be foreign players that would normally sign will lower leagues straight out of HS. The problem is if they get hurt, no marketable skills. Luke Mulholland is the future. Went to college and played his way into the MLS. But he still has a degree if it hadn’t. Late bloomers can always play D2 NCAA. Then PDL/NPSL with club agreements for training. Proper marketing and engagement with local sources, deep talent pools to fill expanded leagues. MNUFC has 5 Brazilians active. Think of Brazil like the Dominican Republic is in baseball. Lots at A ball only a few in MLB. Other countries will follow.

    • Harrisburg has done a very nice job of locating young international talent for several years now. Some come through the college ranks, but an increasing number has come from overseas. This season, the City Islanders feature Clesio on loan from Benfica, Edinho Junior was released by Blackburn, Jose Barril is awaiting his clearance but came up through the Real Madrid academy. Barril trialed with the Union, as did Yann Ekra who returns after initially signing with Harrisburg from Europe. Toss in the likes of Sainey Touray and Tiyi Shipalane over the years, and many of the team’s stars have been young internationals.

  2. Compounding this, in a situation that I’m not sure whether or not is unique to Harrisburg, is the return of the indoor game on a viable basis in the last couple of years and the rise of minor league soccer as a potential year-round professional sport, too. The Harrisburg Heat rebooted two years ago and played their first two seasons in the PASL at the equine arena of the Farm Show Complex. They’ve drawn similar crowd sizes to the City Islanders there in that time (about 1,800 per game) and will be moving into the Farm Show complex’s much bigger main arena for the 2014-15 season, which is where the old Heat played. Making things even more interesting for next year is the USL’s pulling the plug on the MISL, sending teams like the Baltimore Blast and the Milwaukee Wave to the PASL and bringing back some old rivalries (Harrisburg/Baltimore was a big one back in the early and mid ’90s).

    Those of us who are old enough can remember a time, before MLS, when indoor soccer was how the game survived as a professional sport after the collapse of the NASL. It survived in places like the Farm Show’s main arena and the old HersheyPark Arena, where the old Harrisburg Heat and Hershey Impact drew crowds rivaling those the Hershey Bears in ice hockey.

    We’ve already seen some players from the City Islanders also suit up for the Heat during the winter, and that’s a really exciting development if it means that more and more players will be able to cobble a decent living out of playing in minor league circuits year-round, outdoors in the spring and summer and indoors in the winter. Could we eventually see partnerships evolving between USL clubs and indoor teams sharing the same locality, and having that somehow integrate with MLS player development as well?

    • Pat Glavin says:

      Thanks for the comment! I think we could see partnerships between MLS and Indoor teams, though that looked more likely with the MISL in play due to their being run by the USL. The only thing is, if PASL and MLS teams eventually start partnering, I don’t think it’ll be for player development. There may be some cross pollination between coaching staffs. But, I think that if we use Europe as the example for where Indoor fits into the greater soccer ecosystem, it may end up being more of a retirement league.

      Actually, would playing Indoor professionally take away a college players’ eligibility? I’m almost completely sure it would, but if it didn’t, it could be an interesting opportunity for some players.

  3. Will Lipscomb says:

    The some PASL organizations already have youth academies with outdoor U teams. Now some are starting to field NPSL/PDL sides. I write for Stoppage Time Soccer about the lower tiers. Just started series about local clubs from both leagues. European clubs also have other types of sport teams under the same name. Supporters attend all the games through the year. Indoor rivalries carry over to the outdoor game. Choices are good. It also helps when the question of a new stadium comes up. Politicians find it hard to say no to kids.

    • New stadium is key for the City Islanders’ long-term life. Without it, they might not make it. With it, they gain even more potential. This has been a very good team for a while now, they play attractive football, win games, and are run like a family (by a family). But they have a tiny market and limited resources. A stadium will enable them to draw more fans and maximize revenue from other events there (everything from concerts to high school events).

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