By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 16, 2018) US Soccer Players - Last week the USL marked the conclusion of its eighth season of existence. On the field, they got a hard-fought championship final between Louisville City and Phoenix Rising in front of a packed crowd at the University of Louisville's Mark & Cindy Lynn Soccer Stadium. The home team edged Didier Drogba & Co. 1-0 in a dramatic match worthy of the occasion.
Or was it actually the league’s 20th year of existence? That's if we count the league's previous identity as the “USL First Division,” the top tier of the “United Soccer Leagues”? Perhaps it’s more accurate to also include its incarnation as the “A-League” from 1995 to 2004. Should we include the era of “USISL,” which takes us back to 1991 but comprised three different names which all shared that same acronym?
When you finally get your head around all these letter combinations, there's another one. In 2019, the USL becomes the "USL Championship". A recent rebrand places it at the top of a wider USL pyramid that also includes “USL League 1,” the new third-tier league, and “USL League 2,” formerly known as the PDL.
What’s in a name, anyway? All this is not to tease or mock the USL, a resourceful and highly resilient entity run by hard-working people. It occupies a crucial, if easily overlooked, role within the American soccer ecosystem. It also points to some deeper questions and doubts for the second division, even as it appears to be in the midst of the most prosperous period in its history.
The USL Championship will field a whopping 36 teams in 2019, while League 1 will debut with at least 10 teams, possibly more. That’s a far cry from where things stood seven years ago. After the 2011 season, USL Pro had dwindled to a mere 11 teams. A motley crew it was, ranging from the ill-fated Antigua Barracuda experiment to ever-present old-timers Charleston Battery to future MLSers Orlando City. It was a grim moment. Many suspected that USL would face the same demise like so many of the other lower-division entities that had come and gone before it.
Then came the affiliation with Major League Soccer in 2013. That's the game changer that brought MLS’s own struggling reserve teams into the league and put USL and MLS on a shared path. Whether you see that marriage as a practical route to synergy, a plot to crush the competing North American Soccer League or both, there’s little doubt that it worked. Well, up to now, at least.
Partnership with MLS brought financial and structural stability and an injection of young talent and franchises to USL. In return, the top division got a much-needed proving ground for rising prospects. As it turned out, they also got a very useful pool, and laboratory of sorts, for aspiring expansion clubs. As USL grew, NASL’s rebellious approach fell on hard times, then fizzled, forcing its architects to return to the drawing board. This week they rolled out the latest product of that process, a pro division of the semipro NPSL that plans to launch next fall.
As USL president Jake Edwards explains it, the consolidation of the past few years is all part of a long-range plan dubbed “Destination 2020” that sought to strengthen the league as it heads towards a new decade.
“It was about focusing on the clubs and bringing the right ownership groups behind the clubs,” Edwards told WRAL’s Neil Morris earlier this year. “It was about improving the venues we play in and starting to set the table for the others areas of the business that we needed to focus on, such as investing in the broadcast and digital/social programs, investing in the quality of the players coming into our league, and a whole host of other things.”
That bullish outlook also helps explain the pyramid rebrand, an identity shift for an organization that envisions itself steadily climbing towards an ever-brighter future. There’s truth in that. The MLS relationship might well have headed off USL’s demise. Half a decade down the line, however, the toll it would take is clearer to see.
Young players pass through on their way to greener pastures and bigger stages. A steady stream of member clubs use the league as a launching point to the topflight, or at least hope to. The USL has become a transient place, a stopover point.
FC Cincinnati was the class of the league this season, packing in record home crowds and winning the regular-season title, the USL Shield, in dominating fashion. Now they’re off to MLS. The same will occur with Nashville in a year’s time. Someday Sacramento, another pace-setter, may do the same. The same happened with Orlando, Portland, Vancouver, and Montreal. In similar fashion, standout USL players like Tyler Adams, Aaron Long, and Daniel Steres tend to move up and out quickly. Given that environment, it’s noteworthy that the exploits of the charismatic Drogba, still doing work at age 40, have brought so much attention and relevance to the league this year.
Perhaps that’s just the nature of life as a second division. USL has mostly embraced the equation, selling itself as a place to court MLS and its clubs. Certainly, there are worse brand identities than that of a spirited proving ground. However, in many places promotion and relegation provides a clear and mostly objective system by which to climb. MLS described its current expansion phase as a limited window that will sooner or later close for good. Even if their skyrocketing expansion fees make it clear that’s not happening all that soon, the eventual loss of that upward mobility could turn out to be a reckoning for USL.
Of those 11 participants who took the field back in 2012, only two, Charleston and Pittsburgh, will compete in the USL Championship next year. Long-running members like the Richmond Kickers and Rochester Rhinos have elected to self-relegate to D3, citing steady costs and diminishing returns. Even the Battery, long a model of lower-division sustainability, was recently hit by rumors concerning their immediate future. Ironically enough, that chatter erupted not long after their chief owner spoke publicly of the value of pro/rel in the long term. Like a snake shedding its skin, it’s hard to tell what’s left of the old when so much is constantly new.
Bus stops, elevators, airports – transit points are a necessary aspect of life. Such an ephemeral existence is far from the pro soccer ideals of community, tradition, and history. If USL is to find a lasting identity, it may need to look deeper.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Romain Gall and the latest USMNT roster
- Toronto FC’s arduous 2018
- A new Hall of Fame faces American soccer’s generation gap
- The USMNT's October leads to another pivotal moment
Logo courtesy of USL