“We saw the incredible passion and support of our fans in our preseason exhibition last Saturday,” said Nashville SC CEO Court Jeske. “On Saturday, March 24, we have our first opportunity to play a regular season match in front of those fans. By moving this event to Nissan Stadium, Nashville Soccer Club wanted to ensure that every fan that wants to take in history will have the opportunity to do so.”
U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.
USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:
Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.
Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.
MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.
American soccer tends to lean on its success stories, and understandably so. Portland, Seattle, and Kansas City are among myriad wonderful tales for a nascent culture.
But support is so much more than one set of fans, or players, or an owner. Look no further than Rochester, where an annual playoff team in a soccer specific stadium has suffered under the weight of unsatisfied MLS expectations.
Or Austin, which failed to support a USL team but is emboldened at the idea of getting another city’s MLS team.
Or Dayton. Or Wilmington. San Antonio Scorpions. Atlanta Silverbacks.
(We’re going to conveniently leave out the teams dropped into a city by a league in order to battle for a market because this is America and we just need Borussia Butte competing for market share with Montana Monterrey United).
Each of these “failures” has a story, and we’re not naive enough to pretend each falls on one reason. Some American cities, accustomed to having the best example of any particular spot in their region via the NBA, NFL, MLB, or NHL, simply won’t support a league which wouldn’t rate in the Top 20 — or way worse — on a global scale.
It would take a much longer post than this to figure it all out, and much brighter minds than mine. In fact, one of our biggest flaws as a soccer community is pretending to unveil a universal fix inside of one big lightbulb.
If we had to proffer some easy fixes, they would be this
— Support your local club. I don’t simply mean by buying tickets, though that certainly helps, but by allying with the cause of improving support in your area. It might seem odd to be a group of four friends starting a supporters’ group for your third- or fourth-tier club, but the team will love it and your enthusiasm just might make someone else come back for seconds. Believe us, we’ve heard the arguments about quality of play, etc., but at some point desire for the development of our culture starts at home. Look at Chattanooga (right), Detroit City (at top), and even Sacramento for this. Look at Columbus while it’s being tortured, too, and look it in the eye. Maybe MLS wouldn’t have given Columbus a market had the league started up today, but it did 20 years ago and we’re fairly sure the business isn’t hemorrhaging money and the fans haven’t quit on the idea of the Crew.
Detroit is really an incredible example, and it’s pertinent as MLS entertains expanding to the city with an organization which isn’t Detroit City FC. Full disclosure: I’ve run a club which has staged a derby with DCFC, and I’ve watched the Motor City outfit go from “Detroit should have a soccer team” to “I bet we could fund restoring a neighborhood stadium and sell it out” to defying critics about what’s possible for a fourth-tier (for now) club. And without as much first hand knowledge from this writer, Chattanooga’s growth predates DCFC’s story with some striking similarities. If either club’s ownership was unable to move forward, I have no doubt their fan bases would rally to keep the clubs alive.
— Support your local soccer-first organization, too. If there’s a group running a program in low-income areas or aiming to elevate the quality of youth soccer without demanding $4000 per player and the pipe dream of maybe being seen by FC Porto’s North American marketing director (then maybe look into whether they do good work with donations, or if the donations make sure the “technical director” has a nicer house).
So to the questions, which show an appetite for the game at all levels and a desire to move toward an open model. And again, this demands you support your local club, because the idea that Major League Soccer is going to ask its owners to risk their investment dipping into a lower tier is improbable. We’re not saying we wouldn’t love it. And we’re not saying we won’t keep asking for it. But change in American hierarchy, especially when it comes to big money, takes a lot of work and lobbying.
Yes, I realize I’ve glossed over the pro/rel part in one paragraph, but let’s be very, very real here: You entered this discussion with a very pointed opinion on promotion and relegation in America. The results of the survey say most of us want to see it, but I couldn’t convince supporters it’s a bad idea or detractors that it’s necessary. I will say this: It’d be great if leagues found a way to make it work despite the massive travel costs that would multiply a successful team’s path upward. With loads of respect for the idea and how successful the open pyramid is in other countries, few if any have to deal with the gigantic landscape of the US of A (let alone several Canadian teams as well).
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.
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.
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:
Here’s your news flash: #Rhinos need to make a decision by Nov. 30 whether they’re going to play the 2018 season. Aggressively hoping for “2500 new season-ticket holder‘s by that deadline.” My opinion: Good luck
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.
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.