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.