United Soccer Leagues

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USL Championship announces provisional July 11 return

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The USL Championship intends to return to matches with a provisional restart date of July 11, the league announced Thursday.

[ MORE: Remaining PL schedule in full ]

The league began its season in March, though three of 35 teams did not play a match while Tacoma and San Diego played two.

There is no indication that the league intends to play at a single location, as MLS reportedly intends with an Orlando restart.

USL Championship sides have been allowed to train in small groups from May 11. USL had previously canceled its League Two season.

Here is the league’s full statement, from USLChampionship.com:

While additional information on competition format, scheduling, broadcast and other important details will be made available in the coming weeks, it’s important to note that the league’s return to play will be conducted in strict alignment with all local and state public health guidelines. USL HQ also remains in regular dialogue with the USL Players Association on all matters concerning player health and wellness protocols and looks forward to continuing those discussions.

To USL supporters across the country, we are grateful for your support throughout this process and look forward to being back in action with you all soon.

 

USL begins 10th season with eye on future

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The United Soccer League begins its 10th season on Friday with a pair of matches in the Championship; Seattle Sounders 2 will host Reno 1868 and Orange County plays host to El Paso Locomotive.

A lot has changed in under a decade. The Championship division now has 35 teams, while the third-tier League One has another dozen (with 30 more lobbying to get into it the thing).

We caught up with some USL mainstays at all levels to talk about the progress, from league president Jake Edwards to San Diego Loyal co-founder Warren Smith and Pittsburgh Riverhounds coach and serial hardware winner Bob Lilley.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

The coach is a good place to start. Lilley has won titles in the A-League with the Montreal Impact, the USL First Division with Vancouver Whitecaps, and the USL with the Rochester Rhinos in 2015. Now he’s turned around the Pittsburgh Riverhounds ahead of the 2020 season.

He sees the USL’s growth as pay-off for a generation of players, coaches, and owners who were willing to put in the time for the good of the sport, looking back fondly on the role he played in helping ambitious clubs Montreal and Vancouver win on their way to MLS.

“It’s an investment that starts out where you’re just putting pennies in a piggy bank and at some point it grows big enough that it takes on a life of its own,” Lilley said of the USL’s progress. “The increases keep getting bigger, and the last 3-5 years we’ve been really driving forward. We need to find new ways to be meaningful to our market. We need to stay aggressive, trying to keep pushing this thing forward.”

Like Lilley, Smith has done this dance and done it well in a lot of different places. Now the president of first-year side San Diego, he’s overseen the resurgence of the Portland Timbers and the growth of Sacramento Republic.

Smith makes a remarkable claim about what a USL club can mean to a market.

“The difference between us and MLS, just because of where they are choosing to have to put their teams, I think New Mexico United means more to the whole state of New Mexico than most MLS teams mean to their particular cities. We’re able to electrify communities and bring people together, uniting and celebrating the people of the region.”

To Smith and Edwards, it comes down to the variety of top minds running clubs.

Smith says that less than a decade ago, the investors in the room were coming from soccer backgrounds. Now, it’s others who see the investment as sound.

“In 2012 at the annual meetings, the room was full of soccer fans, soccer people, more soccer people than business people,” Smith said. “Since then with the success of Orlando and Sacramento, we’ve seen an influx of more experience and different sports experience. There’s a lot more sophistication, and the league has chosen a good group owners who want to grow the brand. The USL was good football then, but it’s even better now.”

Edwards said the league likes “to hang its hats” on its ownership groups, who in turn have had to learn from the successes and mistakes of their forebearers while also recognizing that this giant country has a plethora of soccer cultures.

“You’ve got to listen first and foremost,” Edwards said. “You’ve got to spend the time in the community and learn it before you launch to learn what it is they want out of a football club. You have someone who owns the team but really they own the team.

“Ultimately they’ve got to listen and be amongst the community and let the fan base have a voice. Our clubs can be such a great representation of their communities. There’s a real sense of pride people have in their communities that they might not have an outlet for, and the football club gives them that outlet. Go down and be with six or seven thousand people, and wear your colors and show your passion to be from Louisville, Albuquerque, Austin, or Oklahoma City.”

What Edwards stresses is doing expansion “the right way” over the long-term, angling to grow and grow to make a massive impression when all eyes are trained on the United States for the 2026 World Cup in North America.

“What do we want to look like when it arrives?” he asks. “We will see between now and the World Cup, a few more expansion markets like Providence, Buffalo, Des Moines, and some of you haven’t heard of yet. League One is a huge focus for us. We’ve gone from 10 to 12 teams, and now we have 30 markets that are actively lobbying to bring League One to their communities.”

Lilley says it helps that the soccer has improved tremendously since he was a player in the early 90s, pre-MLS.

“It’s just a whole different landscape now,” Lilley said. “You know the movie ‘Slapshot?’ Some of the start of me coming into the pro soccer environment — NASL was done. MISL was just shutting done — in the late 80s, some of the fights and some of the stuff going down on the field was comparable.”

The players are better, and the coaches, too. Three of his former players, in fact, have gone on to coach in MLS (Mauro Biello, Mark Watson, Nick Dasovic).

Lilley has seen the tactics grow from when he instituted a flat back four in the late 1990s after seeing it become all the rage in Europe. He’s worked past three at the back, five at the back, you name it, but it’s only in this last stage of the USL that he’s seen big changes in coaching (so credit to whom for still winning).

“From 1997 to 2010, whatever I saw from a team early in the season a lot of times it would be the same thing later in the season,” he said. “That’s not the case. I think it makes everyone better when new ideas… everyone’s trying to win and that’s the expectation of owners. It’s not okay just to make up the numbers.”

Bob Lilley
Lilley coaches Pittsburgh in the U.S. Open Cup (Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Lilley says that’s why he’s sure to instruct his players on being functional outside of a base system. He switches it up on them.

What drives him?

“Trying to survive,” Lilley said. “Trying to win so I can stay in it. I try to build flexibility in my team. I think part of growth is not just giving guys game but trying to give them information tactically. There’s so much tape out there, we’re always looking for an edge. Sometimes with the team, if you play the same way all the time and it’s not quite working, and then you change, you can send them in a tailspin, ‘Well what’s wrong? What did we do?’ but if you tell them you’re preparing them and looking for an edge, well, good players adapt to the environment, to the coaches, to the system, to the weather, to the referees, to the opponent. It’s hard to prepare for us because we do a lot of things well.”

So as the league drives forward into Year No. 10, there is a collection of executives, staff, and coaches who’ve been through the proverbial war and are smarter for it. There’s been attrition, of course, but now there’s stability.

And it’s Edwards’ job to remember where they’ve been as much as where they are going.

“When I think back to the wild west days, the boom or bust days, it was a core mission to get away from that,” he said. “We’ve done that, but we’re still in growth mode.”

CONCACAF refuses to sanction Canadian team in USL

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The best part of soccer is definitely the politics, amirite?

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to avoid the CONCACAF palace intrigue inside of Wednesday’s news out of Ottawa, where CONCACAF has decided not to sanction the Ottawa Fury for 2019 play in the USL.

[ MORE: Who can PL clubs draw in UCL? ]

As a refresher, there are Canadian professional teams in three separate leagues right now. The Vancouver Whitecaps, Montreal Impact, and Toronto FC are in Major League Soccer, seven teams are slated to kick off the Canadian Premier League (CPL) in 2019, and the Ottawa Fury participate in the United Soccer League.

Or do they?

CONCACAF has informed the Fury that it will not be sanctioned for play in the USL this season, with the new CPL billed as a Tier 1 league that takes away the “exceptional circumstance” that allows Ottawa to participate in another nation’s league (the USL). Ottawa has played in the USL in 2017 and 2018 after playing its first three seasons in the on-hiatus NASL.

The main controversies from this ruling are serious concerns for both the CPL, USL, CONCACAF, FIFA, and the many staffers and players who work for the Ottawa Fury:

  1. In a press release regarding the decision, Ottawa pointed out that CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani is “the former president of Canada Soccer, where he was the chief promoter of the new Canadian Premier League (CPL) that will start play in 2019.”
  2. Per The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio, “The USL is in the final stages of scheduling for the 2019 season. In addition, Ottawa has sold more than 1,500 tickets in the midst of its renewal campaign, and has 12 players under contract, with several other deals pending according to (Ottawa CEO Mark) Goudie.”

So, yeah, not a great look. The Montagliani point alone scuttles the logical floor of CONCACAF’s argument.

Ottawa’s decision to stay in the USL in lieu of joining the upstart CPL — a league we must say is looking very promising — came after plenty of negotiation. In September, CPL commissioner David Clanachan said the other clubs were willing to let Ottawa operate for the 2019 season under the same parameters that governed their planned USL campaign.

As the Ottawa press release states, however, there was neither a protest from the Canadian Soccer Association nor the United States Soccer Federation, but this decision came from above: CONCACAF.

That’s tricky, especially since three Canadian teams play in Major League Soccer, and there has been talk that Liga MX teams could join with it to make a North American super league (though such a league could exist while its teams participate in domestic leagues, and goodness knows it couldn’t be called the NASL).

And what about Toronto FC II playing in USL League One, as well as several amateur teams in the newly-rebranded USL League Two (formerly the PDL).

Cans and cans of worms, potentially, yes?

It seems likely that this move isn’t about this season, and that the Fury will be strong-armed into joining the CPL for the 2020 season while being allowed to participate in the USL in 2019.

And let’s face it: As unjust as this ruling seems to be, the U.S. and Canada are among the only higher level leagues in the world where teams cross borders to play.

The biggest exceptions are Monaco playing in France’s Ligue 1; Cardiff City, Swansea City, and Newport County play in the Football League. That likely saves the MLS teams, at least until the CPL grows into newer, pricier boots. And can’t teams like the Fury make an argument about Welsh side Newport playing in England’s fourth tier (maybe the argument is tough to make without an open, promotion and relegation system).

North American soccer: Growing sport, growing leagues, just as much confusion.

NISA seeks new leadership as Wilt leaves to start USL D3 club

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Peter Wilt is leaving his gig as founding hero of upstart pro/rel league NISA to bring a USL D3 side to Wisconsin.

[ MORE: PST’s PL Best XI ]

Big Top Events announced the hiring of Wilt on Thursday, and the executive is leading a drive to name the club for Madison Pro Soccer.

NISA, the North American Soccer League who widely advocated promotion and relegation but has hit some bumps along the way, now seeks a new leader. The organization announced a committee of club owners will lead a search.

“I wish the NISA teams and new leadership well,” Wilt said. “I am proud of the strong vision we developed and now others will need to carry it forward. I am hopeful that my stepping away will allow the disparate open system groups to unify around a shared vision.”

Wilt, who has launched five professional soccer teams in the closed system is returning to his roots the United Soccer Leagues. He will lead Madison Pro Soccer as Managing Director of Big Top Events’ soccer division. Previously, Wilt served as President, General Manager and part owner of the USISL (now USL) Minnesota Thunder. He has also launched USL’s Indy Eleven, NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars and MLS’ Chicago Fire.

NISA announced eight markets in August but has yet to announce a start date. It’s an intriguing idea, but — for better or worse — could undertake some monumental changes without Wilt in the driver’s seat.

As for Madison, Wilt knows what he’s doing when it comes to starting a club, so this is a solid get for the city.