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In what’s becoming something of a new tradition, the United Soccer League (USL) has timed its mid-year meetings around a flagship match.
Or at least, it should have been on paper at the start of the season. Louisville City are the epitome of success in USL, reaching the conference final at every time of asking. Phoenix Rising are a perennial contender, save for this season, where the team simply looks lost.
While the attention might be on the field on Wednesday night, it certainly should be on the boardroom as well. From Tuesday until Thursday, meetings are being held that could impact each of the professional levels that USL oversees.
So what does the league have on its plate?
USL continues to grow
Just last week, New Orleans was announced as the latest side to enter the Championship. They’ll kick off play in 2025, while also adding a side in the women’s USL Super League.
That announcement — of professional football coming to Louisiana — came just days after the announcement of a new League One side in Santa Barbara.
It’s clear that USL is remaining on the offensive and trying to expand its footprint. That’s needed: Both USL leagues have actually been shrinking slightly in the past years, primarily due to an exodus of MLS reserve sides from the independent ranks.
So how far does expansion go? With League One barely into double digits, there’s certainly room to continue to grow. But can the Championship continue to grow exponentially, especially with MLS looking slow down its own expansion process? And if so, where next?
Are the “SoccerWarz” returning?
Of course, that expansion looks something like a bounce back, following contraction over each of the last few years. The main reason behind that? MLS teams pulling their reserve teams out of the USL setup and creating their own league: MLS NEXT Pro.
MLSNP is a development league, and it’s trialing a lot of outright weird things. Serving red card suspensions against the team you wronged? Strange. Forcing injured players off the field for three minutes? Frankly, it seems unjust and a non-starter for wider implementation.
So it’s benign, right? Just taking out a few of the weaker sides in USL?
That would be incorrect.
Just recently, Huntsville, Alabama, signed up to join MLSNP as a reserve team for Nashville SC. That’s something of a blow to USL, as Huntsville was a market that the Tampa-based league was eyeing up. Of course, we also can’t forget the conversations over where Spokane’s new team would play, too.
Yes, there are strange rules. Yes, most of the teams are reserve squads, and we all know that there’s nothing a genuine football fan wants to see more than their side taking on a group of teenagers playing for some random team ending with a “two.” But with lower costs associated with shedding the wage bill to another entity — something we’ve seen Las Vegas Lights do to good effect in the Championship — there’s something that could prove attractive to new investors.
So where do we go from here? In the semi-anarchic world of lower league soccer in the U.S., where leagues battle out not just for supremacy but outright survival at times, the future is almost always unclear. USL may feel at its most stable for years, but there are always some small cracks lying under the surface — as is evidenced by multiple clubs folding in recent seasons.
So how do you react to a league that could threaten your own position? Will there be a race to expand the footprint as far as possible, potentially going too far in search of claiming new ground? Will there be a return to what social media — half with glee, and half with terror — has dubbed the “SoccerWarz”? Will there be a race to take over the footprint everywhere? Or will something else entirely happen?
Will USL implement promotion and relegation?
It’s something that’s frequently teased, but do we really see it coming?
Promotion and relegation are the bedrock of the sport across the globe, and in many ways, it’s certainly looked as though that was growing increasingly likely for USL to attempt. From the first mention, though, it’s simply felt somewhat like a collection of soundbites.
So is this a serious plan? And if so, where’s the momentum? With a new TV deal on the horizon, and the threat of another chapter of the “SoccerWarz” looming, is it time to do something bold?
TV deals in the near future
Speaking of TV deals, USL’s run with ESPN is nearing its end. So what comes next?
Over the past couple of years, ESPN’s coverage of the sport has been slowly chipped away at. MLS has now departed for AppleTV. International football is being moved around, with FOX picking up major tournament rights and Warner Media claiming the U.S. national teams. Will ESPN look to hold on, or will someone else swoop in?
It’s worth noting that, besides access, it’s likely there won’t be huge changes to the USL broadcast experience regardless of channel. At present, VISTA Worldlink in Florida produce matches regardless of network, and that’s a separate discussion to have.
So where will USL end up? That might be uncertain, but one thing’s for sure: A few well-watched matches on ESPN this year, where the league even outdrew some MLS games, could prove a solid boost.
USL Super League incoming
The USL W-League season is coming to an end. That competition marks the first foray back into the women’s game since the demise of the original W-League back in 2015. Next up, though? It’s the Super League.
The Super League is an attempt to launch a true professional second tier in the U.S. women’s game. At present, teams below the National Women’s Soccer League boast semi-professional status at best.
It’s being launched with lofty goals. Parity with USL Championship sides will certainly prove far from easy, especially given that the difference in financials between top-flight NWSL and USL-C is not vast.
The Super League is led by Amanda Vandervort, a Tucson native who previously headed up the women’s football branch of FIFPro, the global players’ union. Can she ensure that they live up to the hype that they’ve built? As we tick closer toward the fall 2023 launch, we should start to see a little more of what that league is made of.
For Rising, a new club governor
Just looking specifically at Rising, this week marks the first time that William Kraus has represented the club as its governor.
Appointed to the role just last week, Kraus is a long-time investor in the team and certainly has respect from some elements of the fanbase. But he’s becoming a board member as the team finds itself on a downward trajectory in a variety of ways, plus the league is facing some difficult decisions as well.
Already, the new club governor has publicly backed under-fire coach Rick Schantz in an interview with Arizona Sports, while also suggesting that the club’s preference is to remain at Wild Horse Pass for the foreseeable future.
A lot of what Kraus will be up to will of course be behind the scenes, and a lot of it won’t be awfully exciting. But the question we’re all waiting to see an answer to: How will he handle the new role?
Top photo: Connor Cunningham/Louisville City
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