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Why USL’s quest for US Soccer’s Division 2 status is problematic


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.


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  1. Soccer OKC

    November 16, 2015 at 12:07 pm

    I’m disappointed in the NASL. They have proven time and time again that they can not run an effective league. Their franchise business model is too costly. With a higher franchise fee, greater travel costs and larger player salary pools, it’s simply to difficult for new team to monetize in a short-time frame.

    NASL is sacrificing quality in their attempts to approve any investment group out there willing to pay the $2 million franchise fee.

    It’s time we call a spade a spade. NASL has not found their footing to help ensure every franchise achieves profitability. Look no further than Oklahoma City. Why would approve an NASL team is what would be the league’s smallest market with an already established independent USL team?

    The U.S. Soccer Federation needs to force change from the NASL very quickly. Expand West, or move down. Reduce travel costs of your teams, or move down. Choose smart expansion cities, or move down.

    I’m amazed that NASL has not reduced its franchise fee to make their franchise model more attractive. There is plenty of liquidity in the market (many affluent, deep pockets), it’s simply a toxic investment model. The NASL has caused more damage to itself than the damages market forces or the USL have caused.

  2. dave cornelius

    March 3, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    OK – where I come from. I’ve been a fan for 40 yrs. I remember the old NASL and amy and of the new NASL. My home town had ASL/APSL teams (D2 & 1 after NASL closed) Rowdies and Strikers were competition. I got USSF coach lic from Nick Zlatar and my daughter played for Joe Machnik – both contributors to the “soccer book” I assisted in youth programs with the coach of the Albany Capitals John Bramley. AND I wore the Black for eight years.

    I believe in promotion/demotion – the D2 league should be NASL – I agree that independent USL teams should be promoted to NASL. The MLS IS TRYING TO POWER GRAB. The owners don’t want to be relegated – I understand. However, If this was set up similarly to EPL then it wouldn’t be so bad. MLS is causing the problem. On the other hand – It is a single owner group – not individual. I understand that too – it was finically unfeasible to be individuals. TIMES CHANGE. With some lower div teams drawing upwards of 7,000 – IT IS finically feasible – IF USSF would put order to it.

  3. Jim R

    February 17, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    Do you have a reference for the change (again) of the start of the Virginia Cavalry to 2017?

    I heard that they had pushed the start to 2016 but haven’t seen that in the news anywhere.


  4. Dude

    February 15, 2015 at 2:55 am

    Listen folks the american system isnt about defining divisions. The people @ USL see it as strictly business. They could honestly not care what fans think or if confusion is created. Just listen to the soccer morning episode from a couple of days ago. Tim holt had very Corporate sounding answers when pressed by Jason Davis about CONfusion and divisions. He didnt see it like the Power Soccer fan. You can totally see where the mindset is.

    Although the country is filled knowledgable fans. The issue of confusion is Moot. Parden the pun ” the “Non inside baseball” fans will strictly see this as minor league. The general public will only see it as a soccer team in their town. Entertainment.

    The American system isnt about establishing divisions and traditions it is about creating ” “Business Models that can make money for investors.”

    We hard core fans need to stop wrapping our minds around the notion of divisions and how the rest of the world sees it. The lower divisions in this country are going to look alot like college football. Power conferences and divisions where only the big money clubs will make noise everyone else will make some money mostly from development. or shared revenue.

    Hopefully the NASL Becomes a Power Conference like the SEC. and the USL becomes something like the WAC.

  5. Joe

    February 13, 2015 at 2:44 pm

    I think there is a serious disconnect here with regards to USL being a “reserve league”. Generally speaking, the USL team is an independent team that is getting a handful of players (3-5) on loan from the MLS team they are affiliated with. A few of the USL teams are owned by the MLS team, but many (most?) are not. They are independently run franchises competing for players just like the NASL teams.

    So I’m not sure I see where this is an issue, since the premise of the argument seems flawed.

    • CTBlues

      February 13, 2015 at 5:53 pm

      A third of the league consists of teams owned by MLS clubs.

  6. Jonas Blythe

    February 11, 2015 at 9:48 am

    I just started getting into MLS two years ago..forcing myself to watch what I thought at that time was the crappy US version of the EPL that I enjoyed. I started getting into it more and at this time, I like the fact that there is a pro (USL) team nearby that I can go watch and it is associated with the MSL. As a casual fan, I can keep up with this and it makes it more interesting than the NASL which makes much less sense to me. I know there’s a NASL team in my state and there’s about 13(?) other teams and they are the second division…and that’s it. No more interest…there’s no relegation/promotion and no attachment to the MLS so why do I care about the NASL? I don’t.
    So please explain to me why the US needs 2 lower tiers? Why can’t the USL move to Division 2 and the USL and NASL teams merge into 1 league? Phase out/absorb the struggling teams. Again, since there’s no relegation/promotion, why can’t you just have a second tier with more teams spread out with the current model of the USL – playing more regionally/locally until the playoffs?

    • CTBlues

      February 11, 2015 at 1:14 pm

      Why should I care about a team in my state that is a feeder team for a team that is on the other side of the country? If Connecticut got a USL team that was affiliated with the Revs I wouldn’t root for them because I don’t like the Revs and the same would go for people in the state that are RedBulls and NYCFC fans and that would be the same if one of the other “local” teams put a farm team in Connecticut. I’m sick of being told who I have to root for.

  7. Jim Charlotte

    February 11, 2015 at 9:01 am

    The best solution is promotion and relegation and anything less is just a money-grubbing farce.

  8. Justin

    February 11, 2015 at 3:57 am

    I’ve never been a fan of USL. Their business model has been wrong for quite some time, and NASL seized the opportunity. I hope NASL continues their growth. As a lifelong player, USL to me is a ‘development’ program. I would like to see USL act as a feeder to NASL.

    I also hope that D4 league NPSL continues growing. There are some pretty well supported programs out there. Perhaps they could turn into feeder teams for USL?

    • CTBlues

      February 11, 2015 at 1:15 pm

      NASL is trying to turn NPSL in to a feeder/affilate league.

  9. GarryLewis

    February 11, 2015 at 3:05 am

    This says itall “former Communications and Public Relations for the North American Soccer League (NASL)”.You havereserve teams in second divisions in many countries. And USL planes to expand to over 40 plus team, which means alot of independent teams.

    • Earl Reed

      February 11, 2015 at 7:23 am

      This is essentially a power play by MLS. They are unhappy with the continued rhetoric from NASL’s chiefs about promotion/relegation and threats to seek out their own D1 status. So they decided to try the ol’ “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” routine. Can’t blame them, but it makes USSF look like a farce.

      • Flyvanescence

        February 11, 2015 at 8:47 am

        The farce that it is, you mean?

  10. CTBlues

    February 10, 2015 at 11:14 pm

    Soccer Morning podcast had a really good talk about this and also had the NASL commissioner Bill Petersonon today. He brought up a good point in how can you have different divisions in the soccer pyramid when there is no way to move up and how could a league be considered a second division if it is a reserve league.

    Give it a listen:

    • Jim

      February 11, 2015 at 8:42 am

      That’s basically my attitude as well. Without promotion/relegation (which is unlikely, to say the least)- what you have is MLS and it’s minor league USL cooperating and then NASL, a separate entity entirely, going its own way. We don’t have a pyramid in this country, let’s just admit it and move on. You have different businesses doing what each thinks is best.

  11. Daniel Feuerstein

    February 10, 2015 at 10:22 pm

    These are the Soccer Wars that never end & sadly US Soccer is allowing it to happen.

    • Al

      February 10, 2015 at 10:38 pm

      That’s why the USSF needs to step in and put a stop to it.

  12. Al

    February 10, 2015 at 10:10 pm

    I really hope the USSF resolves this issue. To me I really wish the NASL remand as a D2 level but I’ve been disappointed with the league in their in ability to expand in Virginia, OKC. They’ve really missed the boat in their in ability to expand to cities like Detroit, San Francisco, El Paso, L.A. Las Vegas and Canadian cities like Calgary, Quebec City and Hamilton. The NASL needs to get their ball rolling but the USSF needs to step in too.

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