More Growth, More changes for USL as New Season NearsThe third-division league grows to 29 clubs for 2016
by Ray Marcham | Monday, February 29, 2016
It has been another offseason of exploding growth and numerous changes for the USL, as the league gets ready for the new season to begin.
The league has grown from 24 to 29 teams, with at least one more waiting to come in. It’s a mix of MLS in-house sides and independent clubs, breaking into new markets and taking over an existing pro soccer city. The regular season schedule has been expanded to 30 games for 2016, in part because of the increased number of USL clubs.
But there are worrying signs, as one team is on hiatus and numerous in-house MLS sides have trouble drawing decent crowds. In one market, a new NASL team is competing with an established USL club.
There are two independent clubs joining the league this year. FC Cincinnati brings the largest stadium in the USL (the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium) and a built-in rivalry with Louisville City. San Antonio FC is taking over from the NASL’s now-defunct Scorpions, with the parent company of the NBA’s Spurs operating the team and Toyota Field now publically owned.
Two new teams are MLS affiliates. Bethlehem Steel FC brings back a historic name in American soccer and the Philadelphia Union-owned side will play at Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium in Bethlehem. Rio Grande Valley FC, based in Edinburg, Texas, is independently owned, but the Houston Dynamo will control all of the on-field decisions. They will also have a built-in South Texas rivalry with San Antonio, which never hurts.
The new MLS in-house clubs are controlled by Orlando City and Sporting Kansas City. SKC has dubbed their club Swope Park Rangers, named after the Swope Soccer Village complex, where the MLS club trains (and a nod to England’s Queens Park Rangers). The inventively-named Orlando City B will play their matches not in Orlando, but 72 miles away in Melbourne, Florida. They also have Anthony Pulis, the son of West Bromwich Albion manager Tony Pulis, as their manager, putting a familiar name in charge of OCSC’s return to the USL.
There’s one more club on the horizon, at least, with Reno scheduled to join the USL in 2016 & be the 30th team in the league.
One team isn’t coming back in 2016. While the current plans are for the Austin Aztex to return to the USL in 2017, that’s only if they can get a suitable stadium to play in. If not, then the future of the Texas capital’s club is in doubt.
If there’s been a club with an odd offseason, it’s the defending USL champs, Rochester Rhinos. After a stadium lease termination, previous ownership deciding they didn’t want the team anymore, the USL office running the club for a time, new owners being found and a new lease for Sahlen’s Stadium agreed to, the Rhinos are now concentrating on defending their title.
There are new stadiums in coming this season, as well. Harrisburg has moved into FNB Field, sharing with the city’s baseball team, while Arizona United returns to the Peoria Sports Complex. Meanwhile, FC Montréal moves into a familiar spot for the city’s soccer fans, as Complexe sportif Claude-Robillard was the home of the Impact until Stade Saputo was built.
Being in a new stadium may, or may not, help FC Montréal, as they had the worst attendance in the USL in 2015 (313/game average). Five of the six lowest crowd averages in the USL were MLS in-house sides (Vancouver, Los Angeles, New York Red Bulls, Toronto, Montréal), with four drawing under 1,000 a game. That includes USL title game participants LA Galaxy II, who drew 969 per game to the StubHub Center’s track stadium. The in-house clubs for Real Salt Lake, Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders all had respectable averages, but the independents are still the big draws, led by Sacramento (who had the biggest average attendance in North American pro soccer outside of MLS).
Sacramento is also one of a number of USL cities with MLS aspirations. The California capital, seen as the obvious choice for a long time if David Beckham couldn’t get a stadium in Miami, has a stadium plan, ownership and is ready to go once the call is made. St. Louis has joined Sacramento at the top of the MLS wish list, and maybe has surpassed it since the Rams moved back to southern California with a stadium plan and a number of city business leaders (including St. Louis FC ownership) leading the city into the expansion path. San Antonio FC is the result of that city’s MLS dreams, believing the Orlando City path to MLS may be the best. Other cities, such as Louisville and Charlotte, have both mentioned MLS as their ultimate goal when discussing new stadiums.
A number of clubs have new MLS affiliations. With Houston going with the new Rio Grande Valley club, Charleston is now the first affiliate of Atlanta United. FC Dallas switched their affiliation from Arizona United to Oklahoma City, as the Energy lost their affiliation with SKC. Pittsburgh is now connected with Columbus Crew after being unaffiliated in 2015. Harrisburg is unaffiliated in 2016 after Philadelphia created Bethlehem Steel FC, and Arizona United will also stay unaffiliated for this season. Other clubs that will have no MLS affiliation in 2016 include Colorado Springs Switchbacks, FC Cincinnati, Louisville City, Orange County Blues, San Antonio and Tulsa Roughnecks.
The Oklahoma City situation is possibly one to watch this season. Energy FC will have competition from the NASL and Rayo OKC, a club with La Liga side Rayo Vallecano as majority owners. The NASL/USL battle in the Oklahoma capital has been brewing for years, and after a number of false starts from the NASL side, it is finally happening. Whether the Energy can co-exist with Rayo OKC is still unknown, but this season will be a major test on and off the field.
If there’s anything constant about this version of the USL, is that it’s always changing. New clubs, new stadiums, new MLS affiliations and teams ready to come in seem to be the norm with the league.
And it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon.