The Championship and League One seasons have lengthened their season suspensions over the coronavirus pandemic, with the training moratorium moving to May 15. There is understandably no new target date for the restart of either seasons.
Given the delays into May and the number of clubs who are heavy on college players, it became increasingly problematic to consider a full season. All our best to clubs navigating a season without the game. Come back stronger.
The United Soccer League is prolonging its season suspension of the USL Championship and delaying the start of USL League One.
The Championship was originally suspended for 30 days in the wake of the coronavirus. That’s been extended through May 10, while the third-tier League One was set to begin March 27.
Wednesday’s move signals a shift that could reverberate in American soccer, as it explicitly cites the Center for Disease Control’s weekend recommendation not to gather in groups of more than 50 for eight weeks.
We will continue to monitor ongoing events, receive guidance from local, state and national health authorities, and participate in a national task force comprised of other professional sports leagues and organizations from around the country.
The USL announcing a move like this independent of Major League Soccer is interesting, especially as numerous national and regional leagues eye their summer calendars in suspense.
The CDC guidelines may loom large, and the USL has set a precedent in wisely following them.
CONCACAF has suspended play for a month, while UEFA postponed all fixtures next week ahead of a meeting to discuss plans for both club and international European competitions including the Champions League and Europa League.
Put plainly: There have never been more professional players plying their trade in the United States and Canada. Between MLS, USL, the Canadian Premier League, and select teams in the NPSL and PDL (not to mention the looming specter of NISA), jobs are there.
So what does that mean to the third tier in the United States? Good question, me.
Well first off, there are certainly names you’ll recognize. John Harkes is the manager of Greenville. American soccer architect Peter Wilt runs Forward Madison SC. One-time USMNT prospect Conor Doyle is with Chattanooga Red Wolves.
But really this feels like a chance for players who might’ve normally washed out of MLS, USL, or — once upon a time — the NASL to get a second look at growing their games at a professional level. Much like the New York Red Bulls have been lauded for producing gems from within their PDL and USL structure, League One can serve as that vehicle.
In other words, rejection by one wonky manager who only signs behemoths or European players won’t signal the end of a promising career built up through academy or college roots.
That’s not terribly sexy, though, and in truth more eyes will be trained on things like attendance figures, viewer counts, and the quality of goals that cut through the mess of highlights on social media and TV (a robust start-up TV deal will help League One here).
It will be interesting to see how USL League One teams handle success. Some, like Toronto FC II and Orlando City B, are just here to develop players for parent clubs, but most markets are going to have big ambitions. Certainly commish Steven Short and Co. will want to grow the league as a unit, rising tides raising all ships, but what happens when USL League One gets its own FC Cincinnati or Sacramento Republic? With no promotion and relegation, will the USL Championship find room for them? And how is the league equipping itself for those tests?
And player success: When a team is off to a roaring start and an MLS club offers a significant fee for the leading scorer’s services, a fee that might fund the roster for a year, how does a front office handle that for its fans?
A massive front office and cozy relationship with MLS will help, and USL owner Alec Papadakis is back on the U.S. Soccer Federation’s board of directors. Short has set himself up to be the right conduit between USL League Two (nee PDL) and the Championship. It’s not cynical to say that these facts strengthen the league and will also make owners think twice about their status in a very safe place.
Still, Friday night is an entertaining one even for those who have a pony in another part of the race, whether NISA, NPSL Pro, or some other nascent organization. Several new clubs and some old familiar faces — looking at you, Richmond Kickers — are taking shots at stardom in a combustible but growing climate.
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.
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.”
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.
Currently the United Soccer League is focused on establishing a successful new third division in USL League One to help fill out the professional U.S. soccer structure, which is a necessary precursor to any implementation of a promotion and relegation system. That said, the new structure does lend itself well to some form of promotion and relegation in the future.
That’s not a no, though USL would still not be an open system and it’s hard to see how the PDL (now League Two) could make that jump considering the majority of its current players are bound by the current NCAA window.
The naming of the divisions along the Football League model met with some derision online, but it’s a familiar tune for soccer fans around the globe.
“We are repositioning the competition under MLS with a new strategy, new names and logos,” said USL CEO Alec Papadakis. “As we look to the future, the USL is ready to put its fingerprints on U.S. Soccer’s drive toward becoming the best in the world, and its pursuit of winning a FIFA Men’s World Cup.”