What might stand in the way of Division 2 sanctioning for the USL?

Photo: Chris Luczkowiak

Tom Via, Communications Coordinator for Bethlehem Steel FC, has told PSP the Steel are planning to play their 2017 USL home schedule at Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium. Steel followers of strong memory will recall that the original 2015 announcement indicated the arrangement was for one year, although both parties seemed informally optimistic about a longer-term future.

That news leads directly into the status of the USL at the start of the new year, a continuing thread followed carefully in PSP’s Daily News Roundup’s attention to the questions surrounding the status of the NASL and the issue of divisional sanctioning. While the third division USL is undergoing a period of rapid expansion, the future of the second division NASL has been in question.

The USSF was expected to announce a decision regarding sanctioning early in December but that decision has repeatedly been postponed. Recent reports suggest an announcement will be made by the end of this week with the NASL retaining Division 2 status. Should the NASL retain Division 2 status and the USL remain Division 3, what criteria did the USL fail to meet to satisfy Division 2 sanctioning requirements?

The Division 2 criteria

What follows assumes that the most recent United States Soccer Federation Sanctioning Standards available in the public domain still apply (as published by Indy Week in September of 2014 and also available at and via this PDF download).

What follows also assumes no further additions to USL from NASL, given the references on Twitter indicated in PSP’s Daily News Roundup on Dec. 30, 2016. There is nothing official yet to corroborate the assumption, of course.

The four sanctioning criteria are given below, together with a “best-of-the-abilities” summary of the pertinent USL data.

City size

75% of the teams in the league must play in metropolitan areas of 750,000 people or more. Greater metropolitan statistical areas as compiled by the census bureau apply, not local political boundaries, since economics governs this criterion not politics. (Rio Grande Valley FC’s market crosses the river into Mexico, for example.)

26 of the 30 USL teams that will be competing meet the population size requirement of 750,000, or 87%. 87% is larger than 75%.

Four USL teams do not:

  • Charleston Battery (744,526)
  • Colorado Springs Switchbacks (697,856)
  • Reno 1868 (579,668): New expansion side for 2017
  • Harrisburg City Islanders (565,006): One of USL’s old originals, the City Islanders are located in the smallest greater metropolitan statistical area in the USL

The Lehigh Valley, home of Bethlehem Steel FC and otherwise known as the Allentown–Bethlehem–Easton, PA–NJ Metropolitan Statistical Area, the 69th largest in the country, had a population of 821,623 as of the 2010 Census.

The USSF has reportedly discussed making its division-sanctioning requirements more stringent than those of 2014 Sanctioning Standards. For example, Division 1 metropolitan areas must double to 2,000,000 from 1,000,000. But those new proposals have apparently not yet come to a vote, perhaps because the NASL threatened an antitrust lawsuit against MSL and USSF when word of such a change was first leaked; federal courts reportedly do not like qualification criteria targets that change during an antitrust process.

Geographic location

75% of the teams in the league must lie with the Eastern, Central and Pacific Time Zones since they encompass most of the major population centers of the USA.

26 of the 30 lie within the three designated time zones (ET, CT, and PT), or 87%. Again, 87% is larger than 75%.

Here’s the ET, CT, MT, and PT distribution of the 2017 USL teams.

  • ET: 14 teams – the entire Eastern Conference (unless St. Louis switches East to balance the conferences)
  • CT: 6 teams – Oklahoma City, Rio Grande Valley, St. Louis, San Antonio, Swope Park (Kansas City), and Tulsa
  • MT: 4 teams – Colorado Springs, Salt Lake, Phoenix, and Reno (new expansion side)
  • PT: 6 teams – Los Angeles, Orange County, Portland, Sacramento, Seattle, and Vancouver
Stadium capacity

A minimum stadium seating capacity of 5,000 is required for all stadia. Only 19 of the 30 — 63% — have stadia with seating capacity of 5,000 or better. 63% is much smaller than 100%.

11 stadia do not seat 5,000. Eight of those 11 in deficit are home to USL teams owned by MLS teams.

  • Toronto FC II (2,000): Planned expansion to 5,000 by 2018
  • LA Galaxy II (2,000)
  • Orange County (2,500): Independent affiliate of LAFC beginning in 2017. Owner has proposed a new stadium of up to 10,000
  • NYRB II (3,000): Planned expansion to 5,000 by 2020
  • Orlando City B (3,500)
  • Vancouver 2 (3,500) Has additional 5,000 non-seated capacity
  • Swope Park/KC (3,557)
  • Pittsburgh (4,000) Independent MLS affiliate, has sufficient future expansion potential
  • Charlotte (4,300) Independent MLS affiliate
  • Seattle 2 (4,500)
  • Portland 2 (4,892)

Locally, both Harrisburg, reportedly playing all 2017 home games at the Senators’ FNB Field (6,187 capacity) and Bethlehem, playing all 2017 home games at Lehigh’s Goodman Stadium (16,000, although only 8,000 are made available), exceed USSF requirements.

Full marks to the Union’s Stewart-Albright-Curtin-et al. for finding a qualifying stadium, as well as avoiding direct competition for ticket sales with the first team. Orlando and Swope Park from the 2016 entering class did not do as well.


Individual financial details are not matters of public record and are kept private by USSF and the parties involved.

The requirements are:

  1. Annual Performance bond of $750,000 (pooled bonds guarantee financial capacity to finish the season should emergencies arise).
  2. Ownership has the capacity to operate the team for at least three years.
  3. One principal owner has at least 35% of the team, has the authority to bind the team, and has a net worth of at least $20 million, exclusive of his/her interest in the league and /or the team and the value of his/her primary residence.

Because this information is not publically available, it is difficult to determine a significant number of USL teams fail to meet the financial requirements necessary for the league to meet Division 2 standards. However, a comment by then USL President Tim Holt in a 2015 interview by’s Jonathan Tannenwald after the Division 2 reclassification attempt was first announced indicates that financial viability requirements needed remedial work in some cases.


The business side of USL wants better revenue opportunities with advertisers. If the league can say it is “Division 2” rather than “Division 3,” it should get them.

USL more than satisfies the USSF city size and geographic distribution requirements.

Holt’s contention in the interview that MLS had nothing to do with the USL decision to seek Division 2 status is reinforced by eight of the 20 MLS teams in 2016 having to spend future money to upgrade their USL affiliates’ stadia. LAFC would have to do so as well. A bloc of nine clubs in a 23-team MLS in 2018 would presumably have significant influence in league affairs.

While MLS may have had nothing to do with the USL’s Division 2 bid, MLS-owned teams could play a big part in the USL failing to achieve Division 2 status.

Stadium capacity appears to be the sticking point

USL stadium capacity does not meet USSF standards: 11 of the 30 seating capacities are below 5,000.

Nine MLS affiliates, or 82% of the 11 deficient stadia, are below standard and are the heart of the problem. Eight of those nine are owned by MLS teams.

Six of the nine (NYRB II, Seattle 2, Portland 2, Vancouver 2, Toronto II) joined USL for the 2015 season or before (LA Galaxy II), the year the Division 2 initiative was publicly announced. Their stadia plans may have preceded the USL announcement. Orlando and Swope Park knew of the bid for Division 2 sanctioning as they were planning to enter in 2016. LAFC began its affiliation to the already-operating Orange County Blues only weeks ago.

Orlando City’s and LAFC’s “stadium-building monies” are currently constructing their first team stadia, circumstances that might call for some USSF flexibility. Further mitigating the overall USL seating capacity deficit, four other USL teams have planned or potential capacity sufficient to meet USSF’s requirements: Toronto, NYRB II, Orange County, and Pittsburgh. The first two have the plans already made, the third has announced an intention, and the fourth already understands the potential. As well, Vancouver 2 has room for five thousand extra ticket holders in its stadium in non-seated areas — like beyond the outfield fence at Phillies Spring Training — but this violates the USSF requirement for individual seats.

It is likely that the remaining five MLS clubs owning USL teams -– LA Galaxy, Orlando City, Sporting Kansas City, Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers – would have to pledge to USSF that their affiliates’ USL stadium capacities will be increased to the standard in a concrete, timely manner if the USL Division 2 sanctioning is to occur.

Pittsburgh, and Charlotte presumably would plan to seek annual waivers. Pittsburgh’s expansion capability is described as conceptually possible but dependent on increased ticket demand. Additionally, major expansion would involve construction cranes interfering with public highways during construction. Charlotte’s current stadium is part of a larger soccer field complex run by volunteers (which made field maintenance a matter of some delicacy during Steel FC’s game there last summer). A hoped for move to American Legion Memorial Stadium, part of the team’s MLS aspirations, would satisfy capacity requirements but is dependent on extensive renovations of the 80-year-old facility.

If the USL fails in its bid to achieve Division 2 status, it may be that the deficient stadium capacities of a significant number of MLS-owned teams proved to be the problem.


  1. James Lockerbie says:

    Very interesting read, can’t wait to see Ussf’s final decision

  2. Excellent article Tim! The stadium concern always seemed to be the issue since the announcement, notably for Harrisburg when they were playing at Skyline Sports Complex. Given how large the USL has gotten (in terms of teams), Division 2 status really can be that step up that helps state-side soccer have a great continuity of levels for players to progress. Hopefully with some of the economy rebounding, they can find a way to make this happen in the next several years!

  3. One small correction. Reno is in the Pacific time zone rather than Mountain. Also, while technically Mountain time, stays on standard time the whole year which means that from mid-March to early November (i.e. the whole of the USL season) their clocks match those of the west coast teams.

  4. Honesty compels the acknowledgement of editor Ed who thought to look at Charlotte’s MLS expansion bid, a logical action that did not occur to me until after he did it.

  5. This article in my mind justifies my opinion. A D2 league should not have reserve teams. The reserve teams and smaller USL teams like Harrisburg and Pittsburgh should stay together. The independent USL teams (Cincinnati, Sacramento, Louisville, San Antonio, Rochester, etc.) should look to move up into D2.
    Hopefully the NASL can get their crap together and provide a solid base for these teams to grow.

    • Maybe what you’re suggesting would be a USL I and USL II, where USL I is the teams you mention above and the still financially viable NASL teams and USL II is the MLS farm teams plus smaller USL clubs.
      I don’t see why having MLS farm teams in D2 would be bad, unless your goal is to implement pro-rel in the future. Wouldn’t MLS clubs want the players they’re developing playing against the best possible competition?
      I don’t see pro-rel working in the US/Canada. What is most likely to happen is a player development structure similar to what exists in Baseball and Hockey, where the individual player works their way up through the system.

      • Having MLS farm teams is bad because it encourages owners of the real teams from spending money. The farm teams want to win, but there are there to develop players primarily. Because of that the other owners can get away with not working at hard at maximizing the quality of their play (ie not spending $ on players, coaching, or team infrastructure)

  6. Given that the D2 championship game was played in a 2,150 seat stadium last year, it seems shortsighted of the USSF to be making this decision primarily on stadium capacity.

  7. Scott of Nazareth says:

    Great read Tim!

    Not sure if they want it or if its even allowed, but maybe Lehigh and the Union could one day put lights up at Goodman Stadium.

    Better yet a soccer stadium along the Lehigh river downtown…

  8. Lots of great reporting tonight by Brian Strauss on the decision. The more I read, the more convinced I am that USL and NASL should merge and divide the combined league into two divisions with clubs that meet d2 criteria placed in that league. Work a plan for pro/real of some kind that will make it easier for smaller clubs to compete and grow later. Barring that, I don’t see how an 8 team league (best case scenario right now) is even viable. It appears a lot of this decision is hinged on a bit of coercion on the part of the would-be Cosmos buyer who says he won’t buy he club unless it plays in NASL. I don’t think it makes any sense to place NASL as a sole d2 league just for that reason, if true.

  9. So I knew USSF lacked a spine but really? BOTH?
    Then again without pro/tel—which forcibly implemented now would wreck fragile gains soccer has made in US in last 15_20 years—what is point of separate divisions 2&3?
    After all, decision is temporary,right?

  10. Tim…excellent article. Thank you.
    Question…can usl prosper if 11 mls owned teams are pushed out of d2 status?
    The separation makes sense as mls teams as we saw with Steel have entirely different mission.
    These mls teams became a true minor league perhaps playing friendlies but not influencing usl standings or maybe separate standings. It avoids many complications like say a Bedoya or BWP doing “rehab” to boost the USL side standings, or like Steel not caring a whit like they did this year, etc.
    Usl would still have 19_20 teams plus next year pick up remains of nasl if that fails this year to become viable…and fath brothers paid off to let nasl expire without endless lawyer welfare cases.

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