With yesterday’s announcement that the Rochester Rhinos will be joining the yet to be officially sanctioned (new) North American Soccer League (NASL), further gloom undoubtedly spread over Tampa about the future of the United Soccer Leagues (USL).

The Rhinos are a classic franchise and should they and the other NASL sides not participate in USL for the 2010 season, the once vibrant professional division of the league will be reduced to a moderate number of small market clubs with limited followings. (The expansion FC New York is by all accounts a disaster and I am not sure they will kick a ball in 2010)

The NASL has many of the right ideas about moving professional soccer forward in this country: ideas that were either not considered or not implemented by USL (or by MLS for that matter).  While I would argue the business plan for the NASL is sound, and the leadership of the new league is excellent it is hard not to feel some sentiment for USL in these transitional times.

The league, after all kept the flame of the sport alive for so many communities before MLS was formed and kept a presence in many critical markets after 1996. The league also has done more to bring the sport to smaller communities throughout the country than anyone, including the USSF, whose outreach programs have been less extensive and dare I say less successful than those of USL.

I would also like to pay tribute to Francisco Marcos. Clearly, the structure of USL does not fit a professional football outfit in 2010. However, that structure which was built by Marcos was exactly what this country needed in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Without Marcos’ work, I have no hesitation in saying the US would not have qualified for six consecutive World Cups.

Perhaps, the burden of running a professional division in the face of an indifferent soccer press whose understanding of the sport beyond MLS is limited was a hindrance. Perhaps, it was USL’s own odd business model which allows the league to be managed by an outside entity. Perhaps it was USL’s failure to integrate its club leadership in the decision making process. Or perhaps, the league and its entities were just too big, and dispersed throughout the continent.

Whatever the case, USL has failed in satisfying the owners of the clubs in its biggest markets. Nothing is going to change that fact now, so my thinking is that the league needs to get back to what it has done best for so many years: player development at both the youth and semi professional levels.

USL can continue to do what MLS does not do: Developing youngsters, sponsoring high level national youth soccer tournaments, and giving college kids a place to play during the closed season. European leagues are littered with players who participated in one USL program or another in their formative years. This is USL’s legacy and it will continue into the future, no doubt.

The loss of several major professional clubs may hurt USL’s image but may actually free the league up to concentrate on what’s best for its future and the future of American Soccer.