Tuesday’s news that USL will apply for Division 2 status shook up the US Soccer community. As the former Director of Communications for the North American Soccer League (NASL) when the league battled USL for D2 status in 2010 and early 2011, it is a bittersweet moment.
The NASL forced a change in US Soccer that raised D2 standards dramatically from 2011 onward when compared to the previous “wild wild west” that characterized lower division soccer in North America. Those changes helped to stabilize D2 and attract better investment and higher quality ownership to the lower tiers of American soccer.
For many years, the NASL’s thought process was that USL was simply looking to wait it out until the NASL would flop. But the success of Orlando City SC, who have moved directly from the D3 league to MLS (effectively jumping D2) and a reserve league deal with MLS made it possible for USL to regroup and challenge NASL as a D2.
NASL boasts some very recognizable brands like the New York Cosmos, Tampa Bay Rowdies and Fort Lauderdale Strikers. But the league also has moved effectively into new markets like Indianapolis and Jacksonville recently with much success and MLS-like buzz in each of those cities.
The Sacramento Republic represents a USL startup on a similar trajectory to Indianapolis and Jacksonville. With long-term successful lower-division clubs including Charleston and Rochester, USL is poised to jump to the D2 level.
However, both leagues currently have major question marks. NASL has been forced to assume ownership and operational control of the Atlanta Silverbacks who are without ownership, while the Fort Lauderdale Strikers new ownership is having a hard time finding its feet. Doubts also remain as to whether the Virginia Cavalry, originally slated to start play in 2015 but now pushed back to 2017, will ever kick a ball.
USL has multiple issues as well. Several USL clubs such as the Orange County Blues and Harrisburg City Islanders might have trouble meeting the Division 2 standards without waivers from the USSF. MLS reserve teams competing in the second division also creates a dilemma because on one hand in Division 2 you will have aggressively marketed independent clubs like Indianapolis and Jacksonville competing against reserve teams attracting only a small number of fans to games.
While MLS has seemingly gotten its way with US Soccer on multiple issues through the years, it is difficult to rationalize MLS reserve teams as being part of a Division 2 league. My suggestion would be for USL to apply for D2 status with ONLY its independently owned teams, leaving a separate reserve league for MLS-run clubs to compete at a D3 level.
If USL achieves D2 status while the NASL remains a D2 marketplace, confusion could become a concern. This will become an even bigger dilemma if MLS reserve clubs are part of the USL D2 application. Around the world, reserve teams are generally D3 — though in promotion and relegation systems, reserve teams can be promoted to D2.
My biggest problem with the entire notion of USL becoming a co-D2 league alongside NASL is the MLS reserve team issue. It is difficult to justify one D2 league being about results while an analogous league is about developing or stashing players for first division clubs.
This potential marketplace confusion must be addressed by US Soccer before granting USL D2 status.