By Tony Edwards – San Jose, CA (Mar 17, 2015) US Soccer Players – In front of a capacity home crowd, Seattle’s Sam Garza came on as a second-half substitute and scored in the 69th minute, putting the Sounders into a lead they wouldn’t relinquish and sending the crowd home happy.
Ah, but sharp-eyed readers already know we’re not talking about the MLS Sounders, but rather Ezra Hendrickson’s Sounders II. They defeated Preki’s Sacramento Republic FC 4-2 in both team’s season opener. The capacity crowd we’re talking about is 2900 at the Sounders Starfire Complex, not the NFL stadium the parent team calls home.
In fact, if you just took a very quick glance at Sacramento’s early-season schedule, you might think they’d entered MLS already. During the first three months of the season, they play two teams that aren’t MLS reserve sides (the Orange County Blues and Oklahoma City). I’m already looking forward to the visit of the Tulsa Roughnecks.
Misplaced nostalgia for 70s-era NASL aside, you have to be wondering what the independent USL owners are thinking. The 2015 season is all about topflight clubs fielding reserve teams. The scope of the league has changed. If you’re an indie club, where is your focus in a new era for lower division soccer? It’s probably right where it’s always been, doing everything you can afford to do in promoting your team. Even if that means doing it without the help of a parent club.
I’ve spent time in Pittsburgh’s very nice soccer stadium. The Riverhounds put on a good show, have a great location, and no other professional soccer for hours each way (Columbus and Harrisburg). Yet the headlines on the Riverhounds website are: Hounds emerge from bankruptcy and Hounds hire new coach and president (that’s one of each, not the same person doing both). Pittsburgh is going about the 2015 season with no MLS affiliation. They are one of only four teams in the league and the only one in the Eastern Conference without an MLS connection. Tulsa, Orange County, and Colorado Springs are the others.
Ostensibly, this gives a team like Pittsburgh “more budget control and flexibility”. In reality, it means you’re looking at competitive imbalance. MLS clubs can and already are putting first team players in their USL lineups. These aren’t the kind of players normally associated with USL rosters, and it’s a safe assumption the four independent teams won’t be keeping up.
By this point, we’re all well aware that league designation is its own issue. The NASL is the second division, but they need a West Coast club. USL – dropping the Pro from its name for 2015 – is the third division, but they have the MLS affiliation, the national footprint, and no reason not to apply for second division status. Then there’s the very good question as to what this even means for a pyramid without promotion and relegation.
So, in 2015, what exactly is the USL? It’s a 24-team league where a third of teams, and most of the teams in the Western Conference, are the property of an MLS parent club. Like the minor league baseball model, they’re focused on developing players for that parent club. It’s a 24-team league where 12 of the teams have MLS affiliations, which means those teams are balancing different needs on a roster while ostensibly trying to win. Then there are the four franchises selling the game-day experience, a bigtime friendly, or a US Open Cup run… or something.
Selling minor league entertainment is nothing new for an American sport. While the era of every developer promising a minor league baseball stadium in return for a sweetheart tax deal is thankfully passed, so too are the days of soaring minor league baseball franchise values and cities willing to foot the bill for a new stadium. The fact that not every metropolitan area needs a professional baseball team is also true of soccer.
All of the ‘II’ franchises in the USL have some built-in advantages. Players, a playing philosophy, rivalries, an existing fan base, and an MLS season-ticket base, among others. All of this groups under what it means to belong to a bigger organization. I’m sure clubs like the Sounders and Timbers ownership would like to see their stadiums full for USL games, but really, anything helps. If you’re the Colorado Springs Switchbacks, however, a late April snowstorm is probably bad news.
While selling minor league entertainment isn’t new, what is new is a mixture where all the teams in a particular league may have different goals. While I tend to believe the USL’s application for division two status is most about telling NASL franchises they should consider joining USL than it is about the quality of play, you don’t have to squint too hard to call it a statement of ambition. That raises a broader question. Do all of the USL franchises share this ambition and, if so, how many will be along for the ride?
Tony Edwards is a soccer writer from the Bay Area.
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