USL D-III

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Orlando City B returns to USL, this time as D-3 founding member

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The growth of leagues underneath Major League Soccer has been fun to watch, especially since the trend has been upward following the dour demise of the North American Soccer League (for now).

Orlando City B is the latest club to (re)launch itself into the sub-MLS stratosphere, announcing its status as a founding member of the USL D-3 project. OCB sat out the 2018 USL season.

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OCB joins Toronto FC 2, FC Tucson, South Georgia Tormenta FC, Greenville Triumph FC, and yet-to-be nicknamed Madison Pro Soccer and Chattanooga Pro Soccer.

That brings the number of USL Division III teams to seven.

A good note and a lesser note, below.

Positive: I love the interlocking script of OC on the logo, and am glad they kept the crest (albeit this leads to the negative).

Negative: If we want to grow the game below the MLS level, it’s not going to come by asking interested fans to get fired up to go see a match against another club’s B or 2 side.

This works in the baseball model, with affiliates getting star players on rehab stints or up-and-coming prospects, where AAA clubs like the Iowa Cubs clearly keep Chicago’s branding, so a dissenting viewpoint says perhaps it can work via familiarity.

But it seems so easy that OCB could be Central Florida SC instead of Orlando City B. The 2 model, at least, is practiced in Germany, though clubs facing Borussia Dortmund II or FC St. Pauli II know they can win promotion to the next level by defeating said foes.

Rochester Rhinos to move to USL D-3, return by 2020

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Another domino has fallen in the construction of USL D-3, albeit unlikely for the inaugural 2019 season.

The Rochester Rhinos are going to drop down from USL to the league’s D-III iteration by the 2020 season, and have been approved by the league as a member.

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On hiatus this season under new owners David and Wendy Dworkin, the Rhinos are one of the standard bearers for soccer in the U.S.

USL D-III has announced six teams for 2019: Chattanooga Pro Soccer, Toronto FC II, South Georgia Tormenta FC, FC Tucson, Greenville Triumph SC, and Madison Pro Soccer.

Rochester will leave its downtown soccer-specific stadium, leaving by the end of the year, and are committed to building a new facility in the suburbs. From RhinosSoccer.com:

The Dworkins continued, “Along with our decision to vacate the stadium, we have also determined that fielding the Rhinos in our current Division II league is not sustainable locally at this time. While we are disappointed that the Rhinos will no longer be playing in Division II; we remain committed to keeping professional soccer in our community and building upon its rich history in this region. To that end, the USL has approved our inclusion in USL Division III, subject to a suitable stadium plan, along with community and business support.

The Rhinos opened what is now called Marina Auto Stadium in 2006, six years after winning the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. They remain the last non-MLS team to win the tournament.

Rochester also won the USL A-League in 1998, 2000, and 2001, as well as league titles in 2010 and 2015.

The club averaged more than 10,000 fans per game between 1996 and 2007, but have not averaged more than 6,000 since 2012. Their last two seasons saw average attendances of 3,655 and 2,031.

There’s been plenty of talk that the decline in attendance was down to their pretty great stadium being built in a rough part of town. Rochester has still produced good talent from its youth ranks and plenty of league titles, so perhaps a shiny new multi-sport complex can help the Rhinos restore themselves to glory. We’ll cheers to that.

USL D-III applies for USSF sanctioning with “at least 10” teams

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The USL’s D-III project will have at least 10 teams for its inaugural season next summer.

That’s one of the details from the league’s Tuesday announcement that it had applied to the United States Soccer Federation for Division III sanctioning.

The deadline for sanctioning applications is Wednesday.

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Already announced as USL D-III teams are Greenville Triumph, South Georgia Tormenta FC, FC Tucson, Toronto FC II, Chattanooga Pro Soccer, and Madison Pro Soccer.

USL CEO Alec Papadakis says the league is aiming for 24 teams by its third campaign in 2021, and says the other four teams are in “proven” and “thriving” markets.

“As a professional league, we are committed to providing a thrilling experience for fans and a top-notch experience for players – and a proper stadium plays a major role in that experience,” Papadakis continued. “USL Division III features two clubs – South Georgia Tormenta FC and Greenville Triumph SC – building new soccer-specific stadiums, equating to more than $30 million in construction and design, and much more in local economic impact. The league also features clubs utilizing and renovating existing infrastructure to provide the best experience while revitalizing community assets.”

Pure speculation, but could the league be adding some of the top PDL teams or some of USL or MLS-2 sides? Charleston Battery, Swope Park Rangers, clubs of that ilk could join, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Rochester Rhinos return from hiatus in the division.

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.

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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?

Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel via AP
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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.

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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.

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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?