By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 9, 2023) US Soccer Players – The USL Championship kicks off its 2023 season, its 13th in its current iteration, this weekend. Eleven matches across the country will raise the curtain, with 24 member teams in all pursuing the league title currently in possession of San Antonio FC. Next week the 12 teams of its third-tier sibling USL League One get their campaign going.
Both the W-League women’s platform and USL League Two, the pro-am summer competition formerly known as the PDL, begin in May, with a whopping 65 and 122 teams, respectively, from coast to coast. When you add in the hundreds of teams taking part in its Super Y League and Academy youth offerings, some 850 different teams across more than 200 clubs will play under the USL banner this year.
2023 marks both a new chapter in USL’s long, eventful existence and a welcome extension of established operating procedures. Thanks to a one-year extension of their broadcast arrangement with ESPN, both of its fully professional competitions will be easily available to viewers on the ESPN+ streaming service, plus seven USLC regular-season games and both leagues’ championship finals airing live on ESPN2.
The Championship bid farewell to three teams, the second teams of Atlanta United, LA Galaxy, and New York Red Bulls, and has shrunk significantly from its all-time high of 36 participating teams in 2019. That may turn out to be good news in the long run.
The usual annual turnover of new clubs arriving on the scene while others drop out has slowed. The “2 teams,” MLS reserve squads, now live almost exclusively in MLS Next Pro. The only USLC side with MLS links is Loudoun United, which retains a relationship with DC United but recently took on independent majority ownership.
That word, ‘independent,’ is now a key one for the USL. It now has a compelling story to tell in its own right. Outbound transfers like Kobi Henry, Hadji Barry, Jose Gallegos and Diego Luna have shown both players and clubs the level of talent that exists in USL and can draw mutually lucrative interest from clubs elsewhere. Rising USYNT defender Joshua Wynder is shaping up as another case study, having blossomed into one of the country’s top young prospects and a target for big European clubs via the conscious decision to develop at his hometown USLC club, Louisville City.
Sacramento Republic beat three MLS teams on its run to the 2022 US Open Cup final, the first lower-division side to reach that stage since 2008. That’s now a potent data point for the USL’s argument that the gap between the leagues is smaller than most perceive it to be. That will likely be a central pillar of the USL’s appeal for an automatic qualification slot or two in the expanded Concacaf Champions League set to take effect in 2024. President Jake Edwards alluded to such “conversations” in an interview with USSoccerPlayers.com last year.
As they turn their gaze further afield, USL leaders like Edwards have also gotten more comfortable with topics like promotion/relegation. As distant as any sort of implementation likely remains, their cultivation of so many rungs on the American soccer ladder gives them the scope to entertain the concept in a way that no one ever has here. The idea of a USL ‘ecosystem’ with shared resources and different solutions for different levels is intriguing. The organization’s return to the women’s space with the re-launch and dramatic subsequent growth of the W-League is a leading example, raising the possibility of fostering greater connections from the youth and grassroots sphere all the way up to NWSL.
In business terms, even with more than half a dozen of its biggest clubs or markets targeted by MLS expansion over the years, the vastness of the United States leaves plenty of territory for the USL. Flagship clubs like San Antonio, Phoenix, Tampa Bay, Sacramento, and New Mexico, among others, have made real connections with their cities and regions. League One offers an accessible stage for diamond-in-the-rough success stories like Forward Madison and Union Omaha. League Two and the W-League offer bridges between the youth and adult landscapes that few others attempt.
All cases underline where the most important work happens. It’s at the local level, with committed efforts to build brands and relationships and provide space for supporter culture to take root and thrive. Those in and around USL who spoke to USSoccerPlayers.com for this piece emphasized this facet. Diehards and journalists tend to give outsized attention to soccer geopolitics and league-vs.-league intrigue. The average fan cares a lot more about their in-stadium experiences and their team’s ability to tap into what it means to represent their communities with pride.
Meanwhile, over the past two years the Championship and League One inked collective bargaining agreements with their players. Expansion interest persists, with six projects in varying states of development. With MLS entry increasingly a multi-billion-dollar proposition, that can be expected to continue. The rising tide of soccer’s across the board relevance in North America heading towards the 2026 World Cup is well underway. For the USL, its stakeholders hope the foundation built along the way provides a launching pad for a bigger, bolder future.
More from Charles Boehm:
- The MLS seasons keep intensifying
- FC Cincinnati assistant Dominic Kinnear on “formation, freedom, ability, and then opportunity”
- Daryl Dike: Back on the grind and looking forward
- USMNT players and the 2022-23 UEFA Champions League, Europa League knockouts
Photo by Erin Chang – ISIPhotos.com