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Rochester Rhinos announce need for $1.3 million by end of month

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Fifteen days.

That’s how long the Rochester community has to get their USL team’s budget over the line, or one of the most celebrated clubs in modern American history is done.

The Rhinos are the last non-MLS team to win the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and have claimed four other titles including the 2015 USL Cup. They once regularly averaged 10,000-plus in attendance during a sustained MLS push, but have since seen a dramatic drop-off to 2,000 fans a game despite making the playoffs in 21 of 22 seasons.

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What’s cause those problems? Some point to the location of their soccer-specific stadium, while others say the community never got over the failure to join MLS. Regardless, supporters have not come close to filling the facility, one which boasted 15,000-plus for hometown hero Abby Wambach’s post-World Cup homecoming against the WNY Flash in 2015. The Flash moved to North Carolina after the 2016 season.

Rochester’s celebrated coach, Bob Lilley, left the club for Pittsburgh on Tuesday, leaving Wednesday’s community press conference with Rochester owner Dave and Wendy Dworkin, minority owners of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, to loom large.

Here’s what was announced:

The Rhinos estimate that $1.3 million in support is needed to protect the franchise, sourced from jersey sponsorships, season tickets, suites and new corporate sponsorships. In addition, the team is seeking a representative portion of Monroe County Hotel Room Occupancy Tax revenues, of which it currently receives zero.

Here’s how longtime Rochester soccer writer/booster Jeff DiVeronica phrased it:

That 2500 figure is 500 more than the aforementioned reported average last season. It’s a massive ask, and the Dworkins saved the club from disaster with a purchase before the 2016 USL season. It’s easier to imagine Rochester-area businesses laying out sponsorship dough than a rush of season ticket holders and a share of the hotel revenue tax.

Let’s hope for it: The Rhinos are an important club in modern American soccer.

This comes on the heels of more significant growth for the league, which announced a Memphis team and Atlanta United affiliate this week. The USL also announced the rebranding of Harrisburg City as Penn FC on Wednesday.

Wild! Coach loses USL job to D-2 requirements

@PghRiverhounds
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Coaching changes happen all the time, but this is one you don’t see every day.

The USL’s Pittsburgh Riverhounds have hired one of the best coaches in league history away from rival Rochester Rhinos, but that’s not the rub of the story here

That Bob Lilley would be wanted by any number of teams is no surprise, but that he’s filling a vacancy caused by United States Soccer Federation’s requirement for Division II teams feels insane.

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USSF requirements demand that a coach should hold its A License. Dave Brandt doesn’t have one despite terrific tenures with NCAA Division III college power Messiah and the D-1 program at the Naval Academy.

Pittsburgh missed the playoffs this year while Lilley again led a the low-budget Rhinos to the playoffs with assistants Mark Pulisic (Yes, that’s Christian’s dad) and Brendan Murphy, so this is a terrific pickup for Rochester.

But Brandt left a decent gig at Navy for this spot. Was there no solution for US Soccer?

“We are highly disappointed with this news, but understand the necessity to comply with the league’s decision,” Riverhounds owner Tuffy Shallenberger said. “Dave has been nothing shy of first class since joining the organization. We are incredibly grateful for his contributions to the Riverhounds and he has left the team in a significantly better position than when he arrived.”

Heck of a name on that owner, to be sure!

On the surface, this isn’t the fault of the USL or the Riverhounds, rather the requirements of D-II sanctioning. And we’re sure that Brandt was given some sort of notice to sort it out.

Those have probably been under a microscope after the NASL sued the USSF, but at some point it’s ridiculous to punish a good coach that Pittsburgh wished to employ because he hasn’t gone to your classes.

Wild day in American soccer: Crew relocation, NASL LOIs, USL reserves

@NASLOfficial @USL
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The top three soccer leagues in the United States of America are dealing with varying bits of turmoil this Tuesday in October.

It began late Monday with reports that Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt aims to take the MLS founding member to Texas, seemingly only paying lip service to the idea of investment keeping the team in Ohio.

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Some have said Precourt’s goals have always been to find a way out of Ohio, and the Crew owner was asked what has changed in the four years he’s owned the club (From ColumbusCrewSC.com):

Q:When we read your story about your purchase of the team, this was back in 2013, part of that was that it was very important to the Hunt family that the Crew remained in Columbus and you said at the time that you were committed to that. So what’s changed?

AP: I was committed to that and I believe that I demonstrated my commitment through significant investment in infrastructure, in personnel, in the quality of our product on the field. What has changed? Our League has grown leaps and bounds, it’s been unprecedented the improvement we’ve seen year over year and new markets that have come in the League have shown dramatic attendance. Let’s look at Atlanta with over 70,000 fans over their last few games, with Orlando building a new facility and averaging over 30,000 fans a game, with New York City FC. The list goes on and on. Our peers get stronger and stronger, year in and year out and I have to get back to our ambition as a club. This is key: our ambition as a club is to be a standard bearer in Major League Soccer, to be respected on and off the field in terms of our soccer operations and our business operations and to operate world-class, soccer-specific infrastructure. We’re going through growing pains now. It’s time for us to explore building a world-class, soccer-specific stadium so that we can be celebrated and successful and sustainable.

So, yes, barring a king’s ransom — word use intended — from the Ohio business community, it’s not being cynical to read Precourt’s intention to leave Ohio as very strong. The idea is very sad for the league, and makes every pro/rel honk’s argument against the closed model.

Then there’s the NASL, where it’s almost head-spinning to keep abreast of the future of the league. New York Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso has taken the wheel in an attempt to not only see the NASL rise, but remove Sunil Gulati from power at the United States Soccer Federation in the hopes of a complete overhaul. In what should not be read as a footnote, the NASL is currently suing the USSF.

There are reports that the league could have as many as 17 teams next season in a bid to regain sanctioning from the Unites States Soccer Federation, including a series of teams from the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League.

According to SocTakes.com, the NASL has letters of intent from NPSL clubs in Boca Raton, Boston, Detroit, Arizona, New Orleans, and Virginia Beach. Additionally, there’s interest in Hartford and it may not be the NPSL club.

Then came this Tweet:

Now here’s a league, the USL, whose only issues have been perception-related. Growing well and instituting a D-3 companion, the biggest concern has been the mentioned MLS Reserve sides creating a minor league feel for the league.

All of this is manageable, and you could argue that the disappearance or at least rebranding of most of these reserve sides would be a boon for the league.

Taken in a vacuum, any of these stories has the potential to carry a day’s news. Together, and in the wake of the United States men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, they give Tuesday one of those Soccer-USApocalyptic feelings.

NASL announces club in SoCal; USL expands into Birmingham

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In a day of (probably) inadvertent “Can you top this?”, both the North American Soccer League and the United Soccer League added new clubs.

In the NASL’s case, we’ll see their entrant earlier as California United FC is set to debut next Spring, joining the San Francisco Deltas and the unnamed San Diego club helmed by Eden Hazard, Demba Ba, and friends.

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CUFC will announce its colors and crest in the next few weeks, and says it’s a big proponent of promotion and relegation. That piggybacks off fellow NASL club Miami FC and NPSL club Kingston Stockade’s petition to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The USL is bringing a club to Birmingham, Alabama, for the 2019 season, a club which will have a relationship with existing NPSL club Birmingham Hammers (which debuted in 2016).

According to the USL web site, the Birmingham club will be run by “Jeff Logan, co-owner of the Birmingham Barons baseball team; James Outland, founding and managing partner of New Capital Partners; and Lee Styslinger, III, chairman and chief executive officer of Altec, Inc.”

“Long may it continue” — Talking USL growth with Jake Edwards

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Jake Edwards sees the growth of the United Soccer League. He’s impressed, but far from sated.

The 41-year-old league president sounds more like a man focused on quality than quantity these days, though there’s little denying the USL’s rise beyond 30 teams is impressive.

In the battle to lay claim to markets, Edwards can’t help but note the strength of those markets as more important. Anyone can place a team in a city, or invite a group into a league, but fostering clubs that will endure? That’s a worthwhile target.

Edwards spoke with PST about that and more this week.

PST: Jake, let’s start with an outstanding week in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The USL has made no pretense about aiming to succeed in the tournament, so how did it feel to watch so many of your clubs win?

Jake Edwards: “It was a good week. We have nine clubs that have progressed to the fourth round. The U.S. Open Cup remains a very important part of the season calendar for our clubs. The last two non-MLS clubs to win the competition were the Rhinos and the Richmond Kickers, and Battery have been in the finals.

“The new clubs that have come into our league over the last year or two want to make their names and have a good run. It remains a vital part of this landscape. I sit on the committee, and the committee members and I discuss how to expand the awareness, perception, and value of this competition and there are some things that are being kicked around.”

PST: Surely there’s only so much you can say about those plans, but can you give us an idea of what you’d like to improve about the tournament?

Edwards: “One of the big things we need to address is the broadcast of the games and the exposure it gets. We have some at the very later stages of the competition, but we need to work that out in the earlier rounds. We had some challenges with the platform the federation used to showcase the games. We need to bring these games to a much wider audience.

“Another thing is we need to make sure we are playing those games in the right stadiums. The reward for a lower division team is to play a high division team in a big stadium. Perhaps they wouldn’t get that opportunity normally.”

PST: Let’s talk about USL3, the third division project you plan to launch in two summers. Your league hasn’t been shy about the project, sharing meetings on social media, and letting regions know what you’re doing in their town and when you’re there.

Edwards: “It’s important that we have people at the league office who are going across the countries, meeting with cities, with mayors, with investment groups in a number of communities we’ve identified and a number who’ve invited us there.  We’ve been working on this for the last 18 months, and we intend to launch the league in 2019. We’ll start to make announcements as we progress toward the fall this year. As a league and a group of clubs in the USL, we’ve strived hard to represent the game in the right way. I think people have seen that, and they believe they can also have a club in those communities that will be well supported. There’s no need to that behind closed doors.”

PST: Growth is important, I get that, but the benefits of growing in numbers are navigating the massive obstacle which is playing on such a gigantic continent.

Edwards: “I played in the UK for many years and you’re never that far from another club. It’s a much smaller country heavily populated with football clubs, but the major focus of our expansion push is to recognize the size and scale of North America and to understand as much as we are the world’s game, we have some inherent challenges and major ones are the landscape, the weather, and other sports that might drown you out.

“We’ve focused on the regionality and building those derb.y games. It’s been great to see this past year the amount of fans who can travel and support their teams away from home. We’ve seen that in Louisville, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, and between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, even Sacramento and L.A. that’s not that close. There are lots of markets at D-2 and D-3 level that can reduce our travel and costs.

“We’re working towards a three conference model and getting there within the next season or two to see the benefits of that regionality.”

PST: What’s the thing that isn’t being noted enough about USL, in your opinion? When you read an article, what leaps out as ‘Why aren’t they talking about this?’

Edwards: “The explosion of attendance and support that our clubs are getting in these communities. We’ve worked hard at the league levels to work with our clubs to engage the fan base, but what we’re seeing now is an engaged local ownership group at each of clubs who are making the requisite investment into those clubs. We’re seeing that pay dividends. We’re averaging about 6,000 fans a game, with a 30 percent increase in attendance, sponsorship, and engagement in our communities. We’ve had 1.5 million through our gates last year, and are on track to pass two million this year.

“Long may it continue, and I think it will with the new crop of team coming into our leagues in the next few years.”

PST: Obviously being with NBC we’re major fans of the Premier League. What’s your take on your hometown club?

Edwards: “I was born in Manchester, and I’ve always been on the red side of the city. I’m glad to see them back on track and into the Champions League next year. I was a lifelong supporter of the club. I used to go watch them in the 1980s when there were terraces. They were not as good as Liverpool in those days.

“I played against them a couple of times back in my playing days which was a big thrill for me. It’s nice to see them back where they belong. It’s funny enough when I was at Exeter City we played them in the FA Cup at Old Trafford, we drew 0-0 in 2005-06. (NBC Sports broadcasting wizard) Rebecca Lowe on NBC Sports, who does a great job, her husband Paul Buckle who’s now a head coach at Sacramento, he was my teammate at Exeter.”