Last week, the United Soccer League announced its intention to form a new division three league to start play in 2019.
But USL just shed its third division classification less than three months ago, at least on a provisional basis.
Meanwhile, the USL’s PR team has cranked out several publicity pieces emphasizing its status as the largest second division league in the world.
What’s going on?
The USL D3 league may be the opening gambit of a USSF move to absorb the healthy NASL remnant and once again have one D2 league in the pyramid, along with one D3.
Player development downgraded
Recall the two-year saga of the division two promotion finally achieved three months ago. Among the rumors was an alleged incompatibility between D2 status and the player development sides. Eleven such are wholly owned by Major League Soccer teams and at worst, excising the incompatibility would cut USL nearly in half.
Judging tentatively by the content of stories put out by various USL communications staffers so far this year, the USL head office seems to have decided to downplay its old player development theme. Perhaps the publicity shift reinforces USL’s new second division image, but nearly half the league has that old focus, including the Bethlehem Steel, who remain clearly lasered at its bull’s eye.
The NASL factor
USL remains in direct competition with its fellow division two entity, the North American Soccer League, whose death was avoided last January only by two things: The New York Cosmos finding a new owner and the league itself buying and running the Jacksonville Armada. Currently, NASL has seven ownership entities and is effectively forced to quickly find an eighth.
NASL is also allowed to have eight teams this season, but must have four more by next. An NASL Chicago team launched by longtime executive Peter Wilt should be one of the four, but that leaves three more to emerge in less than a year.
The USL’s deja vu back to division 3 might lead to the uncertainty of NASL’s future.
United States Soccer Federation meetings about division two certification, the NASL’s survival, and the USL’s promotion last December sparked unconfirmed reports that the USL rejected a merger with the NASL. But that obvious solution did not happen, indirectly making the reports credible.
At least 11 MLS teams are attending the meetings of USL ownership. NASL’s departed leadership had hostilely confronted MLS several times, once allegedly spurning an MLS offer to merge. MLS votes in USL decision- making might well have had no interest in reviving a dying enemy.
But the USSF might not want that demise, as it didn’t want to face the question of why would a growing sport face the death of a well-known professional league. The USSF may want the USL to serve as a soft landing for the NASL should that resurrected venture falter. But to achieve that soft landing, the USSF would have to change MLS minds.
“Follow the money”
A possible mind-changer could be saving money.
The minimum standards for division two status impose expensive new requirements on former D3 player development clubs, and some may want relief. Were such relief granted, it might secure future survival opportunities for interested NASL clubs and avoid bad press.
A new USL division three both available to player development sides who want lower expenses and attractive to other new ownership wanting in on the action would be a bright sign. Roster asset value for sides leaving D2 would drop, as would advertising sponsorship revenue. But those costs are less than new stadiums and new ownership net worth minimums.
NASL comments last December suggest eight teams as the minimum necessary to make a league work. Creating a successful product takes time, as proven by the histories of NASL’s Indy Eleven and its desired Chicago team. NASL appears to have only eleven months to find three more teams to fulfill USSF’s soon-to-be-required minimum of 12.
A few cost-cutting USL player development sides, plus a few PDL and USPL ones interested in upgrades to full professionalism, and an additional totally new entity or two easily achieves start-up size for a D3 league. But to keep USL division 2 as the largest second division soccer league in the world, replacements for those dropping to D3 would have to be found.
There will be rejects from the current applicants to fill the last four available MLS expansion slots.
- St. Louis FC’s failed stadium-funding referendum likely makes it the first such reject. But St. Louis FC is already in USL and presumably will stay there.
- Seven other expansion applicants to MLS are also current USL members, and an eighth applicant will join USL next year.
- Of the final three MLS applicants, two are healthy NASL sides and only one is actually brand new.
Those two healthy NASL sides point to a probable source of the needed USL departure replacements. But if the NASL cannot find the final three candidates needed for its own survival in division two, as seems quite likely, and if previous MLS opposition to merging NASL into the USL-MLS alliance can be muted, there are as many as five healthy, functional NASL sides that will need a place to play even if Edmonton desires a future, separate league in Canada.
That’s a lot of moving parts, but the battle for the future of minor league soccer in the U.S. and Canada is proving quite the shell game.