USL3

chattanoogafc.com

Chattanooga FC ready to face challenge from USL D-III

Leave a comment

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.

“Long may it continue” — Talking USL growth with Jake Edwards

Leave a comment

Jake Edwards sees the growth of the United Soccer League. He’s impressed, but far from sated.

The 41-year-old league president sounds more like a man focused on quality than quantity these days, though there’s little denying the USL’s rise beyond 30 teams is impressive.

In the battle to lay claim to markets, Edwards can’t help but note the strength of those markets as more important. Anyone can place a team in a city, or invite a group into a league, but fostering clubs that will endure? That’s a worthwhile target.

Edwards spoke with PST about that and more this week.

PST: Jake, let’s start with an outstanding week in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The USL has made no pretense about aiming to succeed in the tournament, so how did it feel to watch so many of your clubs win?

Jake Edwards: “It was a good week. We have nine clubs that have progressed to the fourth round. The U.S. Open Cup remains a very important part of the season calendar for our clubs. The last two non-MLS clubs to win the competition were the Rhinos and the Richmond Kickers, and Battery have been in the finals.

“The new clubs that have come into our league over the last year or two want to make their names and have a good run. It remains a vital part of this landscape. I sit on the committee, and the committee members and I discuss how to expand the awareness, perception, and value of this competition and there are some things that are being kicked around.”

PST: Surely there’s only so much you can say about those plans, but can you give us an idea of what you’d like to improve about the tournament?

Edwards: “One of the big things we need to address is the broadcast of the games and the exposure it gets. We have some at the very later stages of the competition, but we need to work that out in the earlier rounds. We had some challenges with the platform the federation used to showcase the games. We need to bring these games to a much wider audience.

“Another thing is we need to make sure we are playing those games in the right stadiums. The reward for a lower division team is to play a high division team in a big stadium. Perhaps they wouldn’t get that opportunity normally.”

PST: Let’s talk about USL3, the third division project you plan to launch in two summers. Your league hasn’t been shy about the project, sharing meetings on social media, and letting regions know what you’re doing in their town and when you’re there.

Edwards: “It’s important that we have people at the league office who are going across the countries, meeting with cities, with mayors, with investment groups in a number of communities we’ve identified and a number who’ve invited us there.  We’ve been working on this for the last 18 months, and we intend to launch the league in 2019. We’ll start to make announcements as we progress toward the fall this year. As a league and a group of clubs in the USL, we’ve strived hard to represent the game in the right way. I think people have seen that, and they believe they can also have a club in those communities that will be well supported. There’s no need to that behind closed doors.”

PST: Growth is important, I get that, but the benefits of growing in numbers are navigating the massive obstacle which is playing on such a gigantic continent.

Edwards: “I played in the UK for many years and you’re never that far from another club. It’s a much smaller country heavily populated with football clubs, but the major focus of our expansion push is to recognize the size and scale of North America and to understand as much as we are the world’s game, we have some inherent challenges and major ones are the landscape, the weather, and other sports that might drown you out.

“We’ve focused on the regionality and building those derb.y games. It’s been great to see this past year the amount of fans who can travel and support their teams away from home. We’ve seen that in Louisville, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, and between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, even Sacramento and L.A. that’s not that close. There are lots of markets at D-2 and D-3 level that can reduce our travel and costs.

“We’re working towards a three conference model and getting there within the next season or two to see the benefits of that regionality.”

PST: What’s the thing that isn’t being noted enough about USL, in your opinion? When you read an article, what leaps out as ‘Why aren’t they talking about this?’

Edwards: “The explosion of attendance and support that our clubs are getting in these communities. We’ve worked hard at the league levels to work with our clubs to engage the fan base, but what we’re seeing now is an engaged local ownership group at each of clubs who are making the requisite investment into those clubs. We’re seeing that pay dividends. We’re averaging about 6,000 fans a game, with a 30 percent increase in attendance, sponsorship, and engagement in our communities. We’ve had 1.5 million through our gates last year, and are on track to pass two million this year.

“Long may it continue, and I think it will with the new crop of team coming into our leagues in the next few years.”

PST: Obviously being with NBC we’re major fans of the Premier League. What’s your take on your hometown club?

Edwards: “I was born in Manchester, and I’ve always been on the red side of the city. I’m glad to see them back on track and into the Champions League next year. I was a lifelong supporter of the club. I used to go watch them in the 1980s when there were terraces. They were not as good as Liverpool in those days.

“I played against them a couple of times back in my playing days which was a big thrill for me. It’s nice to see them back where they belong. It’s funny enough when I was at Exeter City we played them in the FA Cup at Old Trafford, we drew 0-0 in 2005-06. (NBC Sports broadcasting wizard) Rebecca Lowe on NBC Sports, who does a great job, her husband Paul Buckle who’s now a head coach at Sacramento, he was my teammate at Exeter.”