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USL at a Crossroads: Building USL


Over the next several days and in conjunction with Brian Quarstad (who wrote most of this piece and whose counsel on USL matters is invaluable)  I will be presenting to you a multi-part series on the United Soccer Leagues. Where it has come from, where it might be going as well as some of the behind the scene events that have taken place over the last several years as the league and it’s USL-1 owners struggle for control and direction.

Part One: Building USL

In 1986 the professional soccer landscape in the US looked bleak. The last of the North American Soccer League (NASL) teams, that looked so promising for a few brief years in the late 70’s, were all gone. They were laid to rest by player salaries that were too high to break even and diminishing crowds that no longer felt soccer was the “in thing” to watch as it was in the days of the New York Cosmos.

Youth soccer in this country was on the rise, but no one knew if that would translate into more adult players or fans.  A young Portuguese soccer executive whose stock was rising had dreams of a new soccer league spread throughout the country he now called home and where he had spent most of his adult life. That man was Francisco Marcos, former Tampa Bay Rowdies (NASL) Executive. The Rowdies were one of the more successful NASL franchises, surviving until the collapse of the league and Marcos knew a huge void had to be filled for the game to continue its upsurge in North America.

As a Rowdies executive, Marcos also grew the Tampa Bay Area Youth Soccer Organization to a statewide level as the Florida Youth Soccer Association and was responsible for the first modern cooperative agreement between an American club and a top foreign club: an affiliate arrangement between the Rowdies and Sao Paulo of Brazil.

Marcos founded the Southwest Indoor Soccer League (SISL) in 1986 which evolved into an outdoor league in 1989. Eventually, he created the first league that spanned North America since the old NASL. However, different from the NASL, this league created a pyramid system. This was something the Portuguese soccer executive understood from his connections to soccer in Europe. In time he built the league to include three levels of senior men’s play, the first national women’s league, (W-League) and the first competitive North American system of youth leagues (Super Y-League).

In 1997, the American Professional Soccer League (A-League) was merged with the USISL to create a nationwide pyramid structure. During the course of twenty years the A-League and the USISL, and now USL have made an immeasurable contribution to the development of the game in North America. Marcos’ vision can clearly be lauded.

Today, the USL is a true pyramid system with 11 USL-1 teams, 9 USL-2 teams, 37 W-League teams, 69 PDL teams and 575  Super Y and Super-20 teams. That’s a grand total of 701 teams as compared with 15 teams in Major League Soccer.

In order to raise cash to build the league, Marcos sold shares of the USL to several companies including Signal Apparel  and Riddell Sports as well as Umbro Holdings Ltd. Umbro, who was based in England, had good brand identity in Europe but especially in the United Kingdom. The company also held the sponsorship rights to the English National Team and manufacture the England kit which is popular throughout the world.

In April 1999, the USL announced Umbro had purchased another 30% of the USL, bringing their portion of ownership to 60%, while Signal Apparel and Riddell Sports each held 15%. Marcos retained 10%.

With Major League Soccer garnering the majority of media attention, the USL pyramid toiled in virtual anonymity outside its core markets in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many previously successful professional teams either folded or dropped down to amateur competition.
Several USL teams even built soccer specific stadiums, yet they have failed to receive the recognition from many in the American soccer community that MLS sides have for their SSS building program.

In 1999, Blackbaud Stadium, the first modern SSS in the United States, was built for the Charleston Battery. The facility, modeled after lower league grounds from England has been phenomenally successful. Columbus Crew of MLS built a soccer specific stadium that opened a few weeks after Blackbaud.

With instability within the league, and little mainstream press, MLS began courting USL sides to join the more visible, FIFA sanctioned first division. Toronto was approved in 2006, leaving the USL-1 Toronto Lynx to drop down to amateur competition.

In March of 2006, Umbro purchased an additional 30% of the league bringing UMBRO’s total to 94% and leaving Marcos with 6%.

Tomorrow- Nike purchases Umbro but has second thoughts about USL, the Team Owners Association is started, and rushed decisions lead to trouble in Cleveland.

For my personal analysis of some of these issues please visit the Kartik Report

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  1. soccer goals

    August 31, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    Great analysis.

  2. Florida Goal

    August 31, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Blackbaud was first. This isn’t debatable. MLS fans spout off their mouthes as usual without knowing a damn thing.

    As for this piece, I want to applaud Kartik for lauding F. Marcos true accomplishment in building a structure both here in Florida and nationwide that has been invaluable to the game.

    I sense however, he’s about to hit Marcos and his chief deputy Tim Holt in part two. Please, Kartik when you write that consider what you and your partner have written here and be gentle. Even if F. Marcos has made mistakes, he’s arguably the most important person in the recent history of American soccer. So, while it can be argued he’s over stayed his time, he deserves the deference that his accomplishments have earned him.

  3. Roger T

    August 31, 2009 at 11:50 am

    Not much new info in this. Usually I learn something from Kartik’s piece. Not today. Hope part two tells us more. In fact, I bet it tells us more. This must just be a warmup.

  4. Kevin

    August 31, 2009 at 11:46 am

    Kartik hates MLS. Further proof:

    “The magnificent 22,485-seat Crew Stadium is not simply a new stadium; it also holds the distinction as the nation’s very first soccer-only sports facility. And it serves as the prototype for what soccer enthusiasts hope will eventually be found in every city where MLS has a franchise. The new stadium cost approximately $28.5 million and was built at no taxpayer expense, having been funded entirely by Crew owner Lamar Hunt.”

    – Hunter Industries Website.

    What part of first soccer only stadium do you not get? I’ve never even heard for Blackbear or whatever you call that stadium. You are a joke who selectively makes up facts to justify your delusional hatred of MLS. You make up TV ratings, you make up international rankings (no ranking service would ever rank MLS 55th in the world. 25th, maybe, 15th, more likely), and now make up facts about a stadium that perhaps does not even exist.

    • Jeph

      August 31, 2009 at 12:03 pm

      You’re quoting the website of the people that installed the sprinklers at Crew Stadium :rolleyes:

      Kartik is stating the truth, Blackbaud was first (Opened Aprill ’99), Crew Stadium didn’t open until May ’99. Just because you haven’t heard of it doesn’t change the fact that it was first.

      • HM

        August 31, 2009 at 12:14 pm

        It has

        • HMA: Go Crew

          August 31, 2009 at 12:20 pm

          It has been time and time again stated by reputable news sources that Crew Stadium is the first ever soccer specific stadium in the country. The words of a bloggers, whose sole objective in life is to tear down MLS, while building up USL cannot be taken seriously, nor that of a poster named Jeph who for all we know may work for the Blackbaud team.

          Are we going to take Kartik Krishnaiyer’s word over the likes of an Eric Wynalda, John Harkes, Ives Galarcep, Grant Wahl or Steve Goff all of whom have correctly given the Crew credit for building the first SSS stadium in US history.

          I personally find the part about Blackbaud Stadium offensive and demand that proof be provided (which it cannot because it is false) or this article be removed from here and your sister site which is also USL-centric and thus does a disservice to American soccer.

          I challenge you to provide evidence to back up your lie.

          • J

            August 31, 2009 at 12:47 pm

            No Problem:

            “Completed in April 1999, Blackbaud Stadium became the first privately-funded soccer-specific stadium in the United States.”

            “On May 15, 1999, Columbus Crew Stadium, a 22,555-seat venue, opened as the first major league stadium built specifically for soccer in the United States.”

            Both are great accomplishments, bu you asked. It’s straight from the Crew’s stadium website. Get over it already.

          • Kartik Krishnaiyer

            August 31, 2009 at 1:01 pm


            If I hated MLS so much, why would I author a piece like this?


            Or this?


            Or many other pieces.

            I encourage critical examination of issues in American soccer and don’t simply cheerlead. For some that has made me a bad guy. But others are atributing way too much power to me. I cannot change nielsen ratings as has been alleged on other threads or get ESPN to misreport its numbers.

            Additionally, I did not through some super human effort change people’s memories and the historical record to believe that Blackbaud was opened before Crew Stadium. It is a matter of historical fact, as J has thankfully, stated.

            I do not know if all the media personalities that HMA: Go Crew mentions have really said that Crew Stadium was the first SSS but if they have, they are incorrect. I believe some of them have in fact stated such, otherwise my partner and I would not have placed it in this piece.

            I agree also with J that both were great accomplishments. Both leagues in fact are great accomplishments. Why some MLS fans must constantly poke at USL or bristle at any discussion of it is still perplexing to me.

    • Lars

      August 31, 2009 at 1:17 pm

      You don’t know what you’re talking about at all. I’m from Canada and could tell you you’re flat out wrong. The first soccer specific stadium is from the Tidewater states, not the Rust Belt…

    • Bobby

      August 31, 2009 at 2:34 pm

      Crew Stadium isn’t the first soccer-specific stadium in America, it’s not even the second.

      It’s the fifth.

      Bethlehem Steel Athletic Field was the first, it was constructed in 1913. Bethlehem Steel went on to become one of the most successful teams in American history.

      Second was Mark’s Stadium, in North Tiverton, Rhode Island (this is a satellite town of Fall River, Ma.). The famed Fall River Marksman played here, it was built in 1922 and held 15,000 people.

      Third, as noted, is Charleston’s Blackbaud Stadium on Daniel Island, in Berkeley County, South Carolina.

      Fourth, the Virginia Beach Sportsplex.

      Then came Columbus.

      • JMB321

        August 31, 2009 at 3:04 pm

        Kuntz Memorial Stadium is a soccer specific stadium. It was built in 1987 in Indianapolis for the Pan Am games and is still in active us to this day.

        • Bobby

          August 31, 2009 at 3:14 pm

          You’re right, that one slipped by me.

          • Kartik Krishnaiyer

            August 31, 2009 at 3:21 pm

            Yup, the history of the ASL will be featured on a future MLS Talk. Bethlehem Steel, Fall River, etc

  5. Vnice

    August 31, 2009 at 11:43 am

    LD…dude, how much crack do you smoke in a day. All these anti USL idiots sound as loony as the Obama-as-Muslim crazies.

    If USSF can do development better, why haven’t they? Because USL fills that niche quite well, so USSF hasn’t taken a bigger role in that. In fact, MANY players from USL have gone onto Europe. As for MLS doing pro’s better…please explain how.

    Your cries fro the death of USL would mean the death of soccer, period, for many parts of the country, and would inhibit American development. USL is responsible for several hundred professional roster spaces on the continent. Taking those away would be a major disservice to those who are trying to be professional athletes. God, imagine that…someone would want to try and play professionally in their own country.

  6. LD

    August 31, 2009 at 11:29 am

    Why does USL exist at all? USSF can do development better, and MLS does pros better. USL should be shut down. Hopefully the new ownership will bring MLS and the USSF to run it.

    • s.y.l.c.

      August 31, 2009 at 11:41 am

      you obviously don’t read this blog very often.

    • Lars

      August 31, 2009 at 1:05 pm

      You clearly have never went to watch a USL-1, USL-2, or Premier Development League game in your entire life.


      I’ve seen the Impact play Santos Laguna, TFC play the Impact, and the Ottawa Fury play Newark (PDL).

      All three games had their charms, and PDL does the best job of developing talent, without a doubt in my mind. TFC has the youngest team in MLS and is doing a good job in it’s own right for developing youth talent, mainly due to Trader Mo’s ability to find talented midfielders and defenders. What he lacks is the ability to find a striker, and that is his biggest knock…most MLS teams go after older stars on downward trends from foreign countries.

      And then there is the Impact which is a place where many Canadian MLS castoffs end up, and the quality of their play is not bad either. The role these teams serve is to provide a place for journeymen, who couldn’t cut it at the higher level, to play. Sometimes they unearth a gem and these guys make it back topside.

      Every division serves a role. PDL is one part of the USL pyramid, and to me is the most important part of it.

      MLS has done a poor job developing something similar, with no reserve league, and academy teams playing in regional leagues.

      As for Promotion/Relegation, I’m working on a type that reduces a lot of the risk involved in investing in a football pyramid with promotion and relegation.

  7. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    August 31, 2009 at 10:37 am

    Point one- BOTH

    Point two- TFC is a different organization but the Lynx could not maintain USL-1 level spending or interest so dropped down

    On the SSS, it has been pointed out to me this morning that the Virginia Beach Sportsplex built for the A-League Hampton Roads club begun construction before Blackbaud, but was finished after. They have a claim forthe first SSS title from Blackbaud, but in either case, the MLS Stadium in Columbus often cited by ESPN and other media sources as America’s first soccer specific stadium is not the first SSS.

    Some media reports note that Crew Stadium was “MLS first SSS” which is accurate and others note it as America’s first SSS which is inaccurate.

  8. JMB321

    August 31, 2009 at 10:20 am

    Please clarify–

    – Did MLS pursue the USL Seattle/Portland/Vancouver ownership (“sides”) or did the team ownership groups make known to MLS their interest to join MLS initially?

    – Was the owner of the USL-1 Toronto Lynx “courted” by MLS or is Toronto FC an entirely different organization?

    For the interest of accuracy, like the first SSS in the US during the modern era, these points need to be clarified because it impacts on the evolution of the USL to date. Thanks!

  9. Jason

    August 31, 2009 at 8:53 am

    A quibble…I believe the organization was called the Tampa Bay Area Youth Soccer Organization (TBAYSO).

  10. Fan

    August 31, 2009 at 8:05 am

    How is it a “true pyramid system” if there is no pro/rel? For all the crap thrown MLS on this topic, USL is just as much of a failure.

    • Cavan

      August 31, 2009 at 11:58 am


      As if pro/rel is objectively some sort of ideal? I don’t see what’s so great about it other than that’s how it’s done in England. I’m sure that if England didn’t have pro/rel and MLS was founded with pro/rel all the people who currently clamor for pro/rel would be clamoring to end pro/rel.

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