Why You Should Pay Attention To USL And NASL ExpansionThe two leagues keep expanding, steadily increasing options for fans
by Ray Marcham | Thursday, July 16, 2015
The North American soccer landscape is ever changing, and 2016 looks to be another big year for the continent’s professional leagues.
While MLS will not be adding clubs until 2017, the NASL and USL are already hard at work adding club for next season. The NASL will be deepening its footprint in the South and the Caribbean, while the USL will be adding both in-house MLS affiliates and teams in new markets.
Wednesday added to that landscape, as the USL announced the addition of Rio Grande Valley FC to the league for the 2016 season. The club will play in Edinburg, Texas, just north of the Texas-Mexico border and the center of one of the fastest growing regions in the country. They will be an affiliate of the Houston Dynamo, expanding the MLS side’s reach into south Texas.
RGVFC are the first confirmed team to be joining the USL in 2016, though reports have Cincinnati also being a part of the league next year. Both Orlando City and FC Dallas have also announced that they will have teams in USL, making the current planned number of clubs at 28. That might not be the end, depending on whether more MLS clubs will start their own teams or add on affiliates in other cities.
Meanwhile, the NASL has big expansion plans of its own. They have already announced two new teams for 2016, with Miami FC starting in the spring season and Puerto Rico FC starting in the fall season. They add to the heavy presence that the league already has in the South, as there are already teams in Fort Lauderdale, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Atlanta and Carolina. Once Miami and PRFC join, that would mean seven of the NASL’s 13 clubs would be in the South. Of course, that could change, as the futures of Atlanta and Carolina (both being run by the league) are somewhat up in the air.
There is one city that wants to join in 2017, and that’s Hartford. An ownership group has already stated their intention of joining the NASL, and the league is listening. But right now, no official plans have been made for the Connecticut capital to join the NASL in two years.
Two other clubs were supposed to join the NASL in 2016. Virginia Calvary FC looks to be on an indefinite delay as ownership and stadium issues keep plaguing the side that was supposed to begin play in 2014, but keeps getting its start pushed back. Oklahoma City FC was also supposed to start in 2014, but got pushed back to 2016, then descended into chaos. The NASL had sued one of the former co-owners of OKCFC, who is now a co-owner of the USL side Oklahoma City Energy, but that suit has been withdrawn.
While the USL has become a truly continental league, with teams from coast to coast, the NASL is in danger of becoming a regional league. Once Minnesota United leaves for MLS, the closest team to FC Edmonton will be Indianapolis, almost 1,600 miles away (San Antonio, the next closest, is over 1,800 miles from Edmonton). Most of the NASL is in the Eastern Time zone, which could cause issues for the league down the line. If the USL does apply to become a second-division league with US Soccer, their reach around the country will help them make their case.
The gaps in the NASL’s coverage of North America are glaring. Edmonton and San Antonio are greatly isolated from the rest of the league, while Indianapolis will be the only club in the Midwest once Minnesota United leaves. The seeming hesitation of the NASL to expand west has been a major mistake for the league, and one that the USL has taken advantage of. Even the league’s glamour club, New York Cosmos, is out on its own, with Carolina and Ottawa being their closest rivals. That gives the Cosmos no real regional rivalries outside of the two New York MLS clubs.
The USL has been aggressive in their westward expansion. In the past few years, they have placed clubs in Colorado Springs, Sacramento and the Phoenix area, joining the Orange County Blues as stand-alone western USL teams. Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Austin have established the league in the Southwest (to be joined by Rio Grande Valley), while Pittsburgh, Rochester and Harrisburg are the league’s Northeast base. The MLS affiliate clubs fill in other geographical gaps, especially in the West and Northeast. Much like the NASL and MLS, there is a gap in the Midwest for the USL, though the addition of Saint Louis and Louisville City helps a little on that front.
Of course, MLS does have its own gaps that they are trying to fill. The additions of Orlando City this season and Atlanta United in 2017 re-establishes the league in the South, while Minnesota United will fill a needed spot in the Midwest. Of course, Miami always looms, as David Beckham keeps trying to find a suitable stadium location for his club. While MLS has been trying to feed rivalries with many of its recent expansions (Cascadia, New York, eventually Los Angeles), the areas around the continent that have no MLS side established do stick out.
There are other issues that could affect expansion in the NASL and USL. There has been a push for an all-Canadian league, and if that succeeds in starting up in 2017, that could halt plans for more Canadian teams in the league. The impact of the efforts to wean the NASL off of Traffic Sports following the CONCACAF/FIFA scandal won’t be known for a while. How many more teams the USL can take in, and the stability of the clubs not affiliated with an MLS club, will be issues as the USL tries to become a second division league to rival the NASL.
That expansion is happening at such a strong pace shows just how strong soccer has become in North America, especially in the United States. With MLS soon to be at 24 teams, USL approaching 30 teams, large growth in the NPSL and PDL, a possible all-Canada league coming in the near future and the NASL expanding, there hasn’t been a better time for fans to see the game, and support it locally.