The State of Lower Division Soccer in the US of A


Did someone want an FC Cincinnati’s perspective of lower division soccer in the US in 2018? No? Great, here it is anyway.

Let me start off by saying I am 100% in favor of promotion and relegation, not just in soccer but as a concept in general.  Like, I have spreadsheets and maps and homemade league rules to incorporate it into baseball, football, and basketball as well. I think it is one of the most interesting ideas in sports league management and I really wish the US would get on board with it.  This also means I have written an absurdly long, detailed, and frankly boring, Promotion and Relegation manifesto that talks about repayment plans to cities and investors over 50 years and blksjdlfkjs glkj

Sorry, I bored myself there.

Sadly, in order to comment on soccer under MLS you need to come out with a disclaimer like that unless you want to be harassed by 15 guys behind 45 twitter handles.  And if anyone was turned off of the idea of promotion and relegation because of how people act online, I would totally understand.

And now is a great time to drop some thoughts on this as the USL, USLD3, and PDL are re-branding themselves as the USL Championship, USL League One, and USL League Two respectively.

It just looks so slick

It just looks so slick

And what I want to say is this, what the USL is doing is the most constructive thing anyone has done for soccer in the US since hosting the world cup in 1994.

MLS or a top level equivalent was always going to happen.  The US is too big to not have a top flight league of some kind.  And through some bumps and scrapes, even folding for a few hours in the 2000s, it has provided increasingly good top flight soccer in the US. But thanks to some of those same mechanisms that has allowed MLS to survive, it has also done a pretty good job of stifling, or at the very least not promoting, domestic soccer outside of itself.

For one, any time a lower division team has shown signs of life, they have been poached by MLS.  Portland, Seattle, Minnesota, Vancouver, Orlando, Montreal, and now Cincinnati were all teams hanging out in the second division before getting “promoted”. Imagine for a second what a USL/NASL merged league would look like with this lineup:

Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Orange County, Las Vegas, Reno, Phoenix, San Antonio, St Louis, Oklahoma City, Austin, Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati, Orlando, New York (Cosmos), Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Miami, and North Carolina.  Yeah that’s a helluva what-if league.

But the thing of it is, MLS is going to look out for itself. And poaching the best teams from the lower divisions? Well, in a weird way, isn’t that what happens in the rest of the world? Except instead of relegation, the league is still growing to cover a country that is physically the size of Europe, so it doesn’t necessarily need to shed teams.  In that sense, you can begin to justify this even to the most ardent soccer snob.

And ever since MLS was founded in 1996, the lower divisions beneath MLS have been a mess. Teams being founded and folded so fast you forget the NASL had a Virginia Beach team on its website for a year. Leagues change names, merge, split, and merge again. Teams jumping from league to league, chaos looks less like a ladder and more like monkey bars.

And out of that mess has come this newly focused USL.  I don’t want to rehash history because that’s not what this piece is. But while the USL was founded in 2010, I think taking 2014 or 2015 as the start of this newly focused USL is more true to the situation on the ground.  This newly focused USL has been an absolute godsend for lower division soccer.  The league started off looking for stability, which it found with the MLS 2 teams.  Now I know soccer purists hate the MLS 2 teams being in the USL and the second division of US soccer, but those same soccer “purists” like to forget that this is true in Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands as well. And yes, the Real Madrid and Ajax reserves win those leagues all the time.

The MLS 2 teams, along with very smart expansion and a lower cost of doing business compared to the rival NASL, allowed USL to flourish.  And as annoying as some of the USL bureaucracy has been for FCC, it has grown leaps and bounds in just the few years Cincinnati has been a part of the league. Adding dedicated media production has increased the quality of broadcasts by an insane amount.  Getting added to ESPN+ has been amazing for fans of the league and fans of soccer.  Letting teams spend within their means has meant that the league doesn’t have a salary cap but individual teams need to make sure they don’t spend themselves into the ground. It’s a setup that allows for the acquisition of more and more talent, both on the field and in the coaches box.  So much so that many of the remaining NASL teams jumped ship to the USL. 

USL has made the second division in the US legitimate. And that’s no small feat.  Which is why I am personally excited about the league’s plans for division three and below.

They just Englanded the whole thing

They just Englanded the whole thing

Is USL League Two a good thing for US soccer? Absolutely. Do I hope more of the MLS2 teams drop down to open up space for more independent teams in the second division? You bet I do. Do I like the way USL League One is going about adding teams to their new league? Well, kinda?

If you haven’t been following the boardroom drama that is going down in Chattanooga, you’re missing out. Chattanooga has a very well supported amateur team in Chattanooga FC. This is a team that draws more fans on average that a good chunk of the USL. And they learned earlier this year that USL will be putting a brand new professional team in Chattanooga.

Now this has sparked outrage from a lot of people, and I gotta be honest, I’m not sure why.  Here’s how I see it, let’s look at two scenarios:

1)      This new pro team struggles to find its place in a city that is very small, and all local soccer fans have already been tapped and are fans of Chattanooga FC.  These fans won’t just up and switch their allegiance, they’re fans of Chattanooga FC. Even if the team has to move to playing on a baseball field or high school field, the fans will follow because there are so many of them and they don’t want to see their team destroyed.  The USL League One team is a waste and eventually relocates to Knoxville or Huntsville.

2)      The fans of Chattanooga FC were never really invested in the team, they wanted to see the best possible soccer available to them.  Their fandom of Chattanooga FC was rooted more in the sport and not in the club itself.  They move, en masse, to the new professional team and show it even more support than they did for Chattanooga FC since this is now a new level of the sport available to them.  This support leads to the team being financially successful, winning championships, and eventually moving to the USL Championship, putting Chattanooga in a place on the soccer map that really it never should have made it to but by the power of the fans. Chattanooga FC disappears, but everyone will remember the groundwork laid by the club that allowed soccer to not just do better than you’d expect, but absolutely thrive.

The only thing I can compare it to is when FC Cincinnati started off here in Cincinnati while the Cincinnati Saints were here.  Except the Saints were never supported at the level Chattanooga FC is. And I promise you, nobody would trade the success of FCC for part-time summer soccer on football lines.  And no, given the size of Chattanooga FC’s fan base, I don’t think they cannibalize each other into them both folding.  Either people are fans of the sport or of the team, either way, the citizens of Chattanooga win.  Not to mention, simply being first doesn’t and shouldn’t mean you get exclusive territory rights forever and ever. Did New York Cosmos fans think about what their team’s launch would mean for the many older teams based in New York? Did San Francisco Deltas fans get flak for trying to snuff out San Francisco City, the then PDL team there? And lord help us if NISA launches with a team where a current armature team is too.

To say they are “well supported is an understatement

To say they are “well supported is an understatement

And having things under the USL umbrella means promotion and relegation is much closer than people realize.  Teams like Richmond and Rochester and already proving that sending a struggling team down a level can allow them to reorganize and rebuild themselves.  And it will give teams an opportunity to test the waters of professional soccer, build up their organization, and move up the league system.  And no, it’s not going to be perfect at first, but the groundwork is there, and USL has said they’re open to the idea.  Let me put this more plainly, if you want promotion and relegation, you need this to succeed. For teams to “self -relegate” is to prove that relegation won’t kill a team. With uniform branding, a decent chunk of the casual fans might not even notice a change in the league. Most of FC Cincinnati’s attendance records have been set when FCC was playing an MLS2 team, which shows that at least in Cincinnati, the opponent in the league didn’t impact how much people supported their hometown team. Which, by the way, is EXACTLY what you need in order to make promotion and relegation work, dedicated fan-bases to teams, not leagues. And I want to be clear, I do think promotion and relegation would be a massive boon for soccer in the US. It’s a goal worth striving towards.

In fact, what the USL is doing now is what fans of the NPSL, NASL, and NISA wish their leagues were doing or had done.  Building viable paths up and down a league system for teams? Done. Financial restrictions on teams that keep them alive but allow them to compete as they see fit? Done. Consolidation of league materials to help bring in new owners? Done. This is literally what everyone has wanted and you’d think USL was out here murdering people’s pets.

Now sure, did you want cooler names for the league? Probably.  But as much as they copy England, isn’t MLS just a copy of the NFL and MLB?  Is a fan of “_____ United” going to tell the USL that they’re acting too much like Europe? I dare a fan of Real Salt Lake to say these names are dumb. Galaxy fans too.  Man, Galaxy is such a dumb name for a soccer team. Mostly empty spinning cloud of dust? That’s us! Almost every top flight league in the world uses the word “Premier” in it and we all just accept it because it’s normal. What if “Championship” becomes the go-to word for second divisions? Or maybe it doesn’t. But at least it is a soccer league marketing to fans of soccer. Something even MLS hesitates to do.

One other point I think that is missed in all of this. Since USL has now merged all of the branding and is expanding into three leagues now, there are going to be many more players playing under USL rules. And with not a lot of viable options outside of USL, this needs to translate into a USL players union. A union that incorporates players from all three leagues. USL contracts are not great, that has been covered plenty. The solution to that problem is not a think piece though, it is direct action from labor. Maybe the MLS players union decides to grow up and incorporate USL players into their union. In fact a unified MLS-USL players union could, in theory, demand pro/rel as at least a bargaining chip against the owners. But this unification of the leagues ought to then include unification from the players as well. The league has made their move, now it is up to the players to take what is theirs.

I can’t decided if it’s an awesome logo or a terrible one

I can’t decided if it’s an awesome logo or a terrible one

While what is happening in Chattanooga, and what will likely be happening in other cities is unfortunate, it is the result of an, increasingly, open system.  Chattanooga FC fans like to not mention their team was approached first to join USL League One, that they turned down that offer.  Nashville was offered a similar deal and they took it.  And now their team is getting to play higher and higher quality soccer in front of increasingly larger and larger crowds. This is a good thing.  More better soccer is the goal.  If you are a fan of the sport, and you managed to read ~2000 words of a full blown ramble on lower division soccer, this is what we need to be rooting for.  Not locking down cities into amateur leagues, preventing investment. We need to be encouraging more money entering the game, more ambitious owners, more people willing to risk their cash on soccer.  Because the more bets that pay off, the better this sport is in the US. 

In summary, USL has been great for lower division soccer and I believe we will see that continue.  I highly recommend being a fan of a team in their orbit.  They are making the lower divisions better. And in fact, if you’re a fan of promotion and relegation and want the lower divisions of the game to reflect what is happening in the rest of the world, they’re doing that.  If you want stability in the lower divisions, they’re doing that too.


Kevin Wallace

Kevin Wallace