As we have seen from the excellent reporting by Kartik and Brian Quarstad this week, the future of the United Soccer Leagues is very unclear and very much up in the air.
Whether or not some will admit it, the USL is very important to American soccer. Some have said the USL has no reason to exist, and that Major League Soccer and the USSF — the latter of whom sometimes seem to be allergic to work — can hand both the professional game and player development. That’s wrong, they can’t. American football get away with the existence of only one domestic professional league — and yes, I am aware of the United Football League — because of the prevalence of college football in this country. Every town in America has American football of some sort, be it the Oakland Raiders or the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, everyone in every corner of America has a team to follow. You could make the same analogy with baseball and it’s plethora of minor leagues — my city, Charlotte, has four teams in it’s metro area. MLS isn’t blessed with this luxury, no one is going to follow college soccer with the passion of college football because the gap between it and the professional game is so much greater than it is in American football, and soccer was late to the party in setting up a deep-rooted, vastly supported minor league system. People of Wilmington aren’t all of a sudden going to cheer for DC United’s prospects after they’ve been cheering for the Hammerheads, a team which represents Wilmington and the Cape Fear region first and foremost, for fourteen years. MLS needs the USL to help fill out the areas of the country it can’t reach or has no interest in reaching.
The USL has existed in one form or another since 1986. Throughout the years teams have come and gone — though one, the little known DFW Tornados of the PDL, has become American soccer’s great survivor — but overtime it has become an important part of American soccer culture spawning cornerstone clubs like the Charleston Battery, Des Moines Menace, Portland Timbers, Rochester Rhinos, and Seattle Sounders (and that’s without mentioning the Canadian clubs). It’s importance and impact must not be understated.
I believe that the Team Owners Association and NuRock will work out a compromise. The TOA needs the USL — it’s future is not as the mythical MLS2, nor can it compete with MLS — and while the USL could probably stomach the hit given that it’s importance lies in the Premier Development League and not the professional divisions, it would come away from the schism significantly weakened by the departure of it’s biggest, but not most important, markets. I think NuRock needs to handover the reigns of the First Division’s day-to-day operations to TOA and allow them to market the league but still keep a watchful eye over it. This would free up NuRock’s time and energy to focus on PDL, the bedrock that the entire USL structure stands upon. That said, something is going to have to be worked out in Atlanta for anything to happen.
If, and it would be very unfortunate for all involved, especially the fans, the two cannot come to an agreement don’t rule out a possible move to the upstart National Premier Soccer League by TOA. The NPSL was founded in part by some disgruntled USL clubs, including the one time highly-thought-of Chico Rooks, but none of those clubs exist today unless you count the Arizona Sahuaros who have been in and out of the league. Brian and Kartik discussed this possibly on the podcast this week, but it’s unlikely to happen given that the current NPSL set up is meant to keep costs as low as possible.
I hope the two parties can work this out, it would be a big blow to American soccer if they were to self destruct over a disagreement. All we can do for now is watch, and wait.