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USL League One readies for Opening Day

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The start of any new league is an arduous process, and can be akin to a labor of love even for those in executive positions.

On the heels of our discussion with the Canadian Premier LeagueProSoccerTalk headed south of their border to chat up Steven Short, the senior vice president of USL League One.

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The USL rebranded its top league as the USL Championship and its college-aged U-23 league the PDL as USL League Two, making way for a new group of professional sides in USL League One.

Short headed USL League One’s journey from zero teams to 10, with the debut season coming in late March and at least two more teams set for 2020 debuts in the Rochester Rhinos and Penn FC.

Following the USL League One journey has been a pretty wild ride; It’s a huge challenge and extremely complicated, and began with Short and his crew traveling across the United States to evaluate markets.

He jokes that he could write a book about the process, and we’d certainly encourage that.

“What we’ve learned is how far our game really reaches,” Short said. “We had a chance to sit down with fans in 40-plus markets, have a beer with them, talk about what they want in a team, and build a league from the ground-up. For us to do that on our journey across the country is something special that we’ll always remember.”

“No path was exactly the same, but they all ended up with the same result.”

Short said there were three important parts of the criteria for a market, starting with ownership “that’s local and in the market and knows how to run a business within that market.”

The league looked at stadia, and whether the market has enough population to properly support a team.

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The league announced teams with varying amount of surprise attached to their markets. Getting NISA head Peter Wilt to leave the nascent league to start Forward Madison FC in Wisconsin was a huge get, and luring the 26-year-old Richmond Kickers into the fold was equally notable.

Eyebrows were raised when the league became the home for MLS reserve sides Toronto FC II and Orlando City B, as well as a new team in the same vein for FC Dallas in the form of Frisco-based North Texas SC. And eyebrows nearly popped off the collective forehead when the Chattanooga Red Wolves arrived on the scene, a direct rival to established Tennessee side Chattanooga FC.

Throw in teams in Tucson, South Georgia, and Lansing, and you’ve got storylines for days. And some big questions.

For one, how do you govern a league where some teams are aiming to become the next big club in American soccer, while others are perfectly content as developmental sides for another league’s big teams?

“From Day One the focus of the league was putting a competitive and entertaining product on the field, winning on and off the field, whether that’s identifying players to move up to the first team, or putting 4-6,000 people in the stadium on any given day and creating an inclusive atmosphere that the whole city wants to get behind,” Short said. “I wouldn’t say that it is respective only to the three MLS teams in our league, but we look at every expansion club and they know what our league wants to be. We work with our clubs to find out what they want out of it.”

There’s also the matter of managing that same group of diverse ambitions on both a day-to-day and big picture basis. The odds are that at least one of the clubs is going to have a wildly successful first season, inspiring supporters to dream of a move to the USL Championship. And others may find that their first foray into professional players yields a substandard team.

So, is the view more macro or micro?

“Depends on the day,” Short said. “Yes you’re looking at holistically what it will take to launch the teams, and March 29 for our first match and how we as a league can make sure the fans can have an amazing environment, and showcase our teams to American soccer. And daily we’re in communication with the clubs to make sure they have what they need. … We’re not favoring one over the other. Everything leads to the long-term vision of the league.”

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Short noted his excitement to communicate with the Rochester Rhinos about building a new home and getting back to the pitch in 2020, as well as the buzz building around new teams.

“You have brand new teams like you’ll see in Greenville and Madison, and you’ll see teams like South Georgia Tormenta taking the step to the professional level,” he said. “Richmond and Toronto who made the move into League One from the Championship. There’s a diverse crowd that only adds to this league.”

USL League One kicks off Friday, March 29, with South Georgia Tormenta FC v. Greenville Triumph SC in what the league will certainly hope becomes a geographic rivalry. The clubs are located within a 4-hour drive.