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Chattanooga named as latest USL D3 founding franchise

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As expected, the USL’s new D-III division is coming to Chattanooga.

Businessman Bob Martino’s yet to be named Chattanooga Pro Soccer will compete with established NPSL side Chattanooga FC, which has averaged 4,000-plus fans and helped open the area’s soccer scene to include USMNT and USWNT games.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Chattanooga joins Toronto FC II, Tormenta FC (Georgia), FC Tucson, and fellow unnamed clubs in Madison (Wisc.) and Greenville (S.C.) as founding members for 2019.

The USL lauded “up to 40 full-time jobs,” more media awareness, and a longer season for the professional league that come with the announcement.

Martino is behind the move, the Utah businessman excited to bring professional soccer to Chattanooga. From USLD3.com:

“This is a fantastic opportunity and watershed moment for soccer fans in Chattanooga,” said Bob Martino. “This market has proven that it has the right ingredients to launch and sustain a professional franchise, and we are excited to take this next step into USL Division III for fans and the community.

“I applaud the existing grassroots support and passionate fan base already in place in the city, and I welcome the opportunity for us to work together to realize the great vision for professional soccer in Chattanooga. Our goal is to build upon the remarkable soccer history that has been created here, and establish a professional club of which both fans and our community can be proud – one that will make a lasting contribution to what makes this city great.”

Martino’s group will have a careful balancing act should it secure Finley Stadium, where CFC plays, and his phrasing shows the challenge that will come with convincing an established fan base to latch onto something new and shiny. It wouldn’t be the first time a name league’s expansion team knocked an established club off its perch.

There’s been no update from Sean McDaniel, who left the CFC general manager position last week when reports broke of USL D-III’s entry into the Chattanooga market. Earlier in the week, he told ProSoccerTalk that would release an announcement later this week.

What’s the long-term plan for MLS, USL, and USL D-III?

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The Premier League previews have yet to begin, Major League Soccer is on its All-Star break, and international soccer is gone for a spell, so allow this writer to take you on a tangent.

For about as long as the promotion and relegation war cry has methodically danced around social media, I’ve had a difficult time believing Major League Soccer expansion would stop anywhere short of a similar system to the one employed by the rest of the world.

[ MORE: Phoenix, SD get Garber bump ]

As MLS partnered with the USL raised its maximum number of teams to its present stated goal of 28, it became clear that one of two things would happen:

  1. The number of teams would grow
  2. The league would eventually employ a system of pro/rel

Whether that’s years or decades away, it’s hard to say. What’s easy is that MLS knows it can capture the interest of two markets that are currently keeping it arm’s length at best by switching up its system: Soccer fanatics ignoring the growing quality of MLS play because pro/rel is their priority, and casual sports fans curious about an experiment.

I’d put myself at about 90 percent confident of that before something clicked following this article on SocTakes which lays out the growth of the USL and the challenges still facing its individual owners.

The strength of any group of teams lies within its league, and I’m not talking about the chemistry between its group of owners. The people who control and work for the actual league have to possess power, with a reservoir of funds, and avoid the arrogance that comes with the first two.

Make no guarantees on the third part, especially given that the second part of the famous “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” line is “Great men are almost always bad men.” That’s not a shot at anyone specifically, just a judgment on the nature of business here.

The only option outside of the pro/rel model that includes league growth eliminates plenty of draw for the top flight: Either clubs begin playing each other once a year, with no return date until the next season, or they expand the conferences with limited interplay and another unbalanced schedule.

Nuh-uh.

Clearly the USL is building up power and reserves, as MLS has done that already. Most of its top-end teams aren’t amongst the MLS B-sides and have the look of top-tier sides (FC Cincinnati, Sacramento Republic, Phoenix Rising).

At some point, the MLS-B sides are going to disappear or head to USL D-III (or IV). The bottom half of USL average attendance is littered with those squads, even with high-performing on-the-field sides Real Monarchs and Red Bulls 2.

Neutral fans don’t want that. Shoot, I wouldn’t want to market that my local team is facing a must-win match against some MLS club’s guys 25-40.

[ MORE: Garber “hopeful” Crew will stay in Columbus ]

So MLS “stops” at 28 teams. There’s 20-26 in USL, who will announce promotion and relegation between it and D-III. USL D-III will have another 20, and the way out of that place will be promotion.

That’s where the experiment begins, with USL teams and the American soccer landscape seeing if pro/rel really is something that drives crowds.

This happens out-of-the-way of MLS, as owners continue to build up reserves to eventually serve as parachute payments for relegated teams.

That money becomes available because MLS lifts its cap and entire salary structure. Teams like the LA Galaxy, Red Bulls, and NYCFC can spend and sell as much as they like and are buttressed by their academies.

This lifts parity, once considered the jewel of the league, and makes the race to avoid the bottom a real thing. The MLS teams are still superior in salary and talent to the USL teams, so instead of Bottom 3 down, Top 3 up, MLS deploys some sort of promotion/relegation playoff similar to Germany.

Naturally, the teams toward the bottom of MLS are going to be the ones who refuse to spend. So, yeah, it could be a San Jose having to deal with upstart FC Cincinnati for the right to get a top flight spot? Something tells me the spending will increase. Fight or flight (back to the bottom).

Can it all be so simple? I really do think so. Maybe MLS can continue to expand, a couple of markets at a time, for 10 years. It can add to the schedule, maybe 40 games, but there’s a finite number of games it can add and have each team play home-and-away.

And wait til you tell a team owner from the East that it might not see Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the two or three seasons he’s here because of an unbalanced schedule. I don’t want to be in the room for that.

MLS is growing in renown, and will continue to do so for some time, but it’s not going to reach its potential without building legitimate powers via letting big spenders spend. The Supporters’ Shield will become a bit less interesting for some clubs, but the final playoff spots and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup will become even more prestigious.

As for the pro/rel part, it’s one of the things keeping nascent leagues alive with hope, and clubs/fans outside its system refusing to play ball. It makes too much sense and, over time, we’ll find out it was the plan all along. And the arguments from the peanut gallery, including this King Peanut, will keep things buzzing while it waits for its roll out.

The longer the league waits, the better chance a competitor tries and it gets some momentum. With the NASL lawsuits on the stove now and NISA without a leader, there’s no competition. That’s not to say an upstart rival league couldn’t be squashed by MLS, but why risk it?

It’s going to happen, really. Otherwise, why would Alexi Lalas say things like this to his boss?

Chattanooga FC ready to face challenge from USL D-III

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The next battleground for the future of lower division American soccer was identified Friday night, and it’s located along the Tennessee River.

Chattanooga FC is an undisputed success for lower league soccer. The 10th-year National Premier Soccer League club is a four-time league finalist and seven-time conference winner.

[ MORE: USL’s Cincy reportedly to add Adi, Alashe ]

More important, however, is CFC’s status as proof that division doesn’t have to matter if your club can bring a crowd. Chattanooga averages 4,000-plus fans, has drawn more than 18,000 fans to a single game, and boasted more than 12,000 for a friendly with Atlanta United at 20,668 capacity Finley Stadium.

If there was a club likely to control its own destiny in American soccer, it was this one. Heck, CFC’s success put the city on the map for USMNT and USWNT matches, and the club was actively pursuing a professional future. Board member Bill Nuttall admitted that CFC was being “courted by both” USL and NISA as recently as November.

Ah but that conditional if.

Enter a couple of shocking tweets. On Friday, Chattanooga FC announced that general manager Sean McDaniel was leaving the club, and that an investor from Utah had acquired the rights to put a USL D-III team in the market. Nuttall left, too. The club was not involved in the bid.

[ MORE: Shipp leads Seattle by NYC ]

McDaniel had no comment, other than to tell ProSoccerTalk he’ll release a statement later in the week.

Chattanooga chairman Timothy Kelly said that McDaniel and Nuttall occasionally butted heads with the rest of the club — there were “serious philosophical differences” between the parties — but left no hints that anything major was on the horizon.

“There was nothing other than we knew the philosophical rift existed,” Kelly said. “We certainly feel betrayed … but we’re relieved not to have the rift.”

Kelly said the philosophical differences were innate, and connected to how the board members viewed the club. As a microcosm, McDaniel did not hold open tryouts in 2017, in defiance of the board’s wishes to best scout local talent.

Complicating future plans for McDaniel and the club, assuming the report is true, would also be a fundamental difference of opinion on USL and its new third division USL D-III.

[ MORE: Mitrovic in, Rondon out at NUFC? ]

“We’re big fans of the notion of an open system and promotion/relegation, and I deeply believe that the franchise system is what’s fundamentally wrong with American soccer,” Kelly said. “We’re not going to sacrifice our principles for personal gain.”

USL replied to PST in an email:

“We look forward to meeting with USL Division III ownership groups during the USL Mid-Year Meetings in Atlanta next week. Both the league and its owners are excited to bring the thrill of professional soccer to these new markets. We will provide a more formal update on USL Division III, including exciting new cities and league details, following our Mid-Year Meetings.”

McDaniel also served on the National Premier Soccer League board, and submitted his resignation on Thursday night. NPSL chairman Joe Barone spoke with PST, and said McDaniel had been less active in league matters in recent months without informing anyone on the board of any reason for his absence.

“Chattanooga is a model organization not only for the NPSL but for soccer in general in the United States,” Barone said. “The fan base and community support are what make Chattanooga, and it’s tough to replicate that with a new club whether you’re Division 4, 3, 2 or 1.”

Lower level clubs continue to seek the most attractive path toward becoming bigger players in American soccer. Peter Wilt’s departure from NISA has put the nascent league in uncertain territory, the NASL remains on hiatus, and other leagues are still negotiating the start of professional play.

USL D-III is an intriguing option for clubs due to a lower budget and entry fee, and has announced Toronto FC II, Tormenta FC (Georgia), FC Tucson, and unnamed clubs in Madison (Wisc.) and Greenville (S.C.) as founding members for 2019.

[ MORE: Simeone bidding on Simeone? ]

Kelly expressed serious doubts about the chances for success of a new club in Chattanooga, and said reaction to the challenge of a second club has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

“We have always been fundamentally about Chattanooga as much as we’ve been about soccer,” he said. “We’ve said we’re totally dedicated to our local market. We said we’d never leave. This is not a franchise that is going to parachute in and parachute out. We’re fundamentally in tune with Chattanooga. We’re dedicated to grassroots up, as opposed to franchise down.

“We’ve spoken to all the staff members, all the stakeholders, and the expression of support has been warm and universal,” Kelly said. “We expect we’re going to win this fight.”

Put differently, from another CFC owner:

Again assuming the reports are true, it’s a puzzling fight for USL D-III to pick as it launches for 2019. As the second-tier USL sees success for many of its club and continues prolific expansion, trying to start a third division club in a market with a decade-old fourth division club is a head scratcher unless it was possible to cherry pick CFC and drop it into its first season.

American club soccer still is the Wild West, though, and any area’s club needs to be prepared for a battle from big dollars regardless of its success. Major League Soccer is trying to expand into Detroit despite (and maybe because) NPSL side Detroit City FC boasting wild attendance figures and hosting friendlies against Venezia, FC St. Pauli, and Club Necaxa.

[ MORE: Pochettino hopeful for signings as injuries pile up, deadline looms ]

In a lot of ways it’s unsavory, but not terribly unique: The World Hockey Association of the 1970s saw all of its teams fold save the four who would join the National Hockey League. The “sport of the future” truly is here, and early adopters aren’t granted free passes to the present.

As the number of teams in the NPSL and Premier Development League continues to rise and more markets prove they can draw crowds, this is going to keep happening for some time. And upward mobility happens: The PDL’s Ottawa Fury moved into the NASL in 2014, and now plays in the USL. The NPSL’s Nashville FC and PDL’s Richmond Kickers now have entities in the USL.

Yet it doesn’t have to feel good. It’s America, and USL D-III has every reason to aim for the Chattanooga market. Why an investor would pick this particular fight, however, leaves plenty to the imagination. What’s to come from the presumably impending announcement from McDaniel in Tennessee?

DISCLAIMER: The author operates a club in the same league as Chattanooga FC.

Report: USL side Cincinnati acquires Adi, Alashe from MLS clubs

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Taylor Twellman is reporting that FC Cincinnati is loading up for the end of their final USL season while preparing for life in Major League Soccer.

FCC has a six-point lead atop the USL Eastern Conference table, and is coming off a 3-2 loss to La Liga’s Espanyol which included a 1-0 lead and 2-2 equalizer in the corner of the hosts from Ohio.

[ MORE: Mitrovic in, Rondon out at NUFC ]

Twellman says the club is set to acquire Portland striker Fanendo Adi and San Jose midfielder Fatai Alashe for the stretch run of the USL season and beyond.

Jamie Goldberg reported that Saturday night was Adi’s last match as a Timber, and the 27-year-old Nigerian striker has 60 goals in 144 career appearances for Portland.

Alashe had a falling out with San Jose coach Mikael Stahre, whose club is bottom of the West, and the 24-year-old Michigan native is moving a lot closer to home.

Capped thrice by the United States at the U-23 level — he’s also eligible to represent Nigeria — Alashe has five goals and two assists in 87 MLS matches.

What will come the way of San Jose and Portland in return? Probably little in the case of the latter, as the move will open up significant salary for the Timbers. San Jose on the other hand may be getting money or future considerations.

Anyone willing to bet against FCC in the USL Playoffs?

 

What’s next for growing American would-be pro soccer clubs like Detroit City?

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As our attention switches from international football back to the club game, a new article coming out of Michigan recalls where American soccer was when the American soccer world hit pause for the World Cup in June.

That’s when the United States Soccer Federation rejected billionaire businessman Rocco Commisso’s plea for a 10-year runway to bring the North American Soccer League to Division 1 league status by virtue of a $500 million investment proposal.

As if on cue, a John Niyo article in The Detroit News drags the so-called “closed system” back to the forefront, and his writing on National Premier Soccer League side Detroit City FC makes an interesting case.

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DISCLAIMER: Before we go any further, it’s important to note I operate a club in the same league as Detroit City, and very much admire how they’ve built what they’ve built there. That said, my opinions may be buttressed by that fact but are not birthed by bias.

The would-be Cliffs Notes go something like this: Detroit City FC wants to move from the short-season, semi-pro National Premier Soccer League to a fully professional league with a longer season. The rub is that DCFC currently only has one path and it’s one neither they nor the lion’s share of their supporters would support at the given time.

That’s largely because the U.S. Soccer Federation has only sanctioned two options above the NPSL: The United Soccer League and Major League Soccer. If DCFC doesn’t want to play a part in either of those organizations, it has no other current option. And while Detroit City has continued to bring huge crowds to its restored Keyworth Stadium whether NPSL matches or friendlies against the likes of FC St. Pauli, Necaxa, or Venezia, its next step is currently stuck in a holding pattern despite the club’s achievements.

And — and this is where Commisso’s offer comes back into play — the USSF has no reason to sanction any league that doesn’t go by its current divisional guidelines, which demand a very wealthy owner and specific stadium requirements amongst other things. Infrastructure and fan support can be built, but asking these clubs to hand themselves over to someone with deeper pockets simply to meet a standard is a real 2×4 to the gut.

“What you’re doing is awesome, but imagine if instead of you owning all of your success, you found a wealthier person to help you meet our standards?”

As we saw when MLS had its Detroit press conference without DCFC, there is no longer the ability to pretend soccer wasn’t already in town. DCFC may seem like an outlier, and may well be one, having had massive success with big crowds in a stadium they renovated themselves. Yet there’s little doubt there are myriad markets in this giant country that wouldn’t mind trying their hands with something new.

Put plainly, there are 172 clubs in the NPSL and Premier Development League alone, few of whom are in markets with MLS teams. Even eliminating the PDL teams with close relationships to MLS and the USL (The USL owns the PDL), and there are still well over 100 teams in play. Sure, some of those may not have the ambition to grow higher, but they are also currently also shackled by having to compete against the former NASL teams who had no alternative outside of the USL once their Division 2 league shut down last winter.

So Niyo’s article asks a question many have posited in the realms of social media: Why not go outside the structure of FIFA?

From The Detroit News:

Building a league outside the constraints of U.S. Soccer’s “Professional League Standards” could be one option for remaining NASL owners — New York, Miami and Jacksonville — and NPSL teams that are looking to grow pro. Detroit City FC was one of at least a half-dozen NPSL teams — clubs from Boston, Phoenix, Virginia Beach and Boca Raton, Fla. among them — poised to join the NASL with letters of intent last fall. But whatever path a new league pursues, it’ll require strength in numbers — at least 10 or 12 teams — and a geography that makes sense.

It’s a major risk, one that certainly is lined with the hopes that the influencers and money people behind the USSF might blink at significant competition.

But it still requires significant salesmanship: Getting top-notch players to commit to a league which severely hampers their international aspirations is a hard sell (The NASL had capped players from 27 countries heading into the 2016 season).

[ MORE: LAFC 0-0 Portland ]

So, too, is convincing deep-pocketed investors that they are capable of slaying, or at least denting, a big machine which has grown in a dramatic way in the last two decades. If a guy like Commisso, who has since went deep into discussions for a takeover of AC-freaking-Milan, sees the value and necessity of USSF sanctioning, lawsuits or not, certainly most would have the same questions.

Are there enough of the renegade rich to self-sustain a league outside of the MLS-USL set-up, and even get to sanctioning? Probably, as evidenced by Commisso’s belief that he’d be able to go from multi-club ownership of a D-1 NASL to 10 owners within a decade.

And there’s no denying the allure of safety for new markets. NISA founder Peter Wilt left his nascent D-3 league to helm USL soccer in Madison, and it’s easy to envision his safer new venture an almost automatic success.

So would that same group of risk takers be willing to do it outside of USSF sanctioning, without name players?

That’s where DCFC’s status as an outlier might really come into play. For everyone tooting the proverbial horn of MLS’ rapid and impressive evolution in quality — academies and foreign recruitment alike have made the league very entertaining — there’s no doubt that players with the name quality of Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or Carlos Vela still puts butts in seats.

Consider this: For all its growth, MLS’ top performing players remain almost overwhelmingly foreign-developed. Using an advanced rating site like WhoScored, the Top 20 finds only two players with any sort of U.S. or Canadian development in their lockers (and that’s being gracious with Kei Kamara, who came to U.S. for college at the age of 20).

You get to No. 23 before another U.S. developed player, Sean Davis, hits the list. It only gets to seven by No. 40 if you allow foreign-born players who largely grew their games in college soccer (including Mark-Anthony Kaye from TFC’s Academy and York University in Ontario).

Suffice it to say, there’s plenty of quality American and foreign talent which would benefit from more jobs.

As DCFC CEO Sean Mann says in The Detroit News piece: “It was frustrating: Why are there so many obstacles? We’re not zealots. We’re not crusaders to reform American soccer. We just want to play at a higher level. We want to naturally grow. And U.S. soccer doesn’t allow that.”

This nation is gigantic, and there are few fans out there who genuinely believe MLS will stop expanding any time soon. In fact, it’s a safe bet that the long play is to one day announce a knockoff of promotion and relegation within the confines of the Major League Soccer umbrella.

The question isn’t who’s right and who’s wrong. Let’s face it: the answers seem likely to fall along the lines of one’s political alliances. Those who fear the risks of the new and unusual will worry about short-circuiting the current path, while the other side will beg to give ideals and theories a chance at practice in the name of something better.

But something does have to change. Soon, more and more major success stories are going to be held short of their goals because of the current structure. Whether that’s Detroit City or Chattanooga seeking a next level and not finding it, or the Sacramento Republic not getting its shot at MLS, or a fan base and market like Columbus getting waylaid by a slimy contract and inaction from on high, they will keep coming into your news feed.

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And if we keep making the mistake of letting these conversations regress to simple “pro-rel” banter, then we’re all going to lose. And it’s going to take a bunch of risk takers who put aside their egos to find common ground.

Here’s a quick way to put the American soccer landscape in perspective: Look at a map. As this sport continues to grow, and the country’s young players are coached and encouraged by generations of fans who were coached and encouraged by fans themselves, the markets for summer sporting entertainment will continue to explode in the United States (with only baseball to compete with them thanks to the given calendar implemented by the USSF).

Are there more than 26 markets fit to host a top-tier side? Yep. Are there more than the 60-plus when tossing in USL (but subtracting MLS reserve sides)? Yep.

And if Commisso’s offer tells us anything, anything at all, it’s that there are figures out there who love the game and have an appetite for something not currently satisfied by the current structure. So either MLS or the USSF is going to announce its plan for a much bigger league with more than a couple dozen markets, or someone is going to challenge from the outside (Of course, both could happen and that would be very intriguing).

Either way, let’s hope it happens before the next guys who want to take up Detroit City’s example decide they’d rather not rattle their skulls against an unnecessary ceiling.

What’s the solution given the current power and success of the USSF? Your takes are welcome.