Getting to Know USL, Vol. 1: The History

by Scotty Smith

In Vol. 1, we look at the USL from an outsider’s perspective, using only memory (and Wikipedia* where memory fails). Here is the USL’s reputation as seen through the eyes of a guy who has had no real reason to engage with the league until now. For what it is worth, I have tried my best to have a layman’s knowledge of all elements of US Soccer since 1994. 

THE BASICS

On January 8, 2018, the city of Memphis was announced as the 36th member of the USL, the top division of the United Soccer Leagues. The United Soccer Leagues company is a unified group of soccer leagues working out of the same office in Tampa, Florida. The company started in the 80s, but did not use the name USL until the late 90s. Through the years, the league office has controlled USISL, the W-league (women’s), A-League, and USL-Pro, as well as several youth and indoor leagues. Their top division, known simply as USL, represents the second-highest level of professional soccer in the United States behind only Major League Soccer.

USL is not completely new to the Bluff City. Memphis had a team in the USL Premier Development League (the nationwide amateur league) from 2002-2005. The team, known as the Memphis Express, played at Mike Rose Soccer Park. They wore all white kits with purple and black trim. FedEx was the shirt sponsor. Former Memphis Rogues legend Toni Carbognani was the manager/coach.

In 2018, Memphis will field a team in the USL Premier Development League for a second time. The team name and colors have not yet been announced. The PDL season will run from May to July, and will end in a national playoff to crown a national champion. The PDL team will be organized by the Memphis Redbirds ownership group, the same group responsible for bringing the second division team to Memphis in 2019.

THE CONFLICT

The history of American soccer is the story of people who cannot get along with each other. And though this has been true in other walks of life (see War, Civil), the damage done by these disagreements has steamrolled every real effort to grow the game in this country. If we go all the way back to the ASL of the 1920s, we see a nation that had HUGE soccer potential. Alas, arguments about having to play in the US Open Cup caused the destruction of that league in 1933. It was generally regarded at that time as the second most popular sport in the United States, behind only baseball. It is painful to consider what might have been.

Now, if we had somehow been able to learn from the failures of the past, we might have learned the importance of unity. Instead, people started fighting again. Since 2009, or possibly even 2008, there has been a war between USL and NASL 2.0. In Monty Python terms, NASL 2.0 are splitters (SPLITTERS!). Journalist and former NASL employee Kartik Krishnayer, in his book Soccer Warz (available on Amazon), outlines the reasons why these tensions boiled over and the NASL group split from USL. I will not recount them here, but you really need to read that book.

(Note: Here is the link to the Kindle version. For a mere $4.99, you can start reading it today on your phone on the free Kindle app. It’s worth every penny.)

At any rate, NASL emerged from the warz as the nation’s second division, and, with the big name edition of New York Cosmos, set their sites on being the anti-MLS. USL was relegated to the third division, which was definitely the right decision at that time. They needed time to “get their act together” after the split that almost destroyed them. They needed to make smart decisions. They had to develop a plan. Any missteps along the way would result the league folding. That’s when they “got down to business,” and business, from that point forward, was good.

After a failed plan to bring in several teams from the Caribbean, they ultimately settled on partnering with the most stable soccer body in the nation, Major League Soccer. The move flew under the radar in 2013, with most of the feedback focusing on the fact that NASL was not partnering with MLS. This was seen by many as the end of all hopes regarding a promotion and relegation system between MLS and NASL.

USL maintained a low profile for the next few years. They quietly went about the business of making good decisions. They hired Jake Edwards, an Englishman who had split time between England and the US in his youth and college days, as the successor to departing commissioner Tim Holt.  He had worked hard to learn the business side of the game while playing professionally in England, and he was the perfect man for the job.

USL was able to use the success of Orlando City SC to lure markets like Oklahoma City, Phoenix and Sacramento — cities where there was no MLS team. Soccer Twitter began to rumble about why these cities had chosen the third division USL over the second division NASL. When Orlando City moved up to MLS, USL was firmly established as the path to MLS expansion.

Charlotte, St. Louis, Tulsa, Nashville and Cincinnati all chose USL over NASL. At the same time, MLS teams were creating reserve sides to play in the league. It seemed that with each passing month, the league was announcing a new team. The league has now grown from 12 to 33 teams in its first eight years. Sure, ten of those teams are MLS2 sides, but nobody’s perfect.

Still, USL was winning the soccer warz. Sacramento and Cincinnati ended up being huge launches. The idea of 20,000 people showing up to watch third division soccer was crazy talk, but it was happening in real life. All told, USL was making the decisions necessary to win the soccer warz. The nails in the NASL coffin were hammered home when Ottawa, San Antonio, and Tampa Bay jumped ship from NASL to USL.

Before the 2017 season, USL applied for and won second division status. After the 2017 season, NASL was denied second division status. For the 2018 season, NASL is on hiatus. USL is the only men’s second division soccer league in the United States. They have plans to introduce a new Division 3 league in 2019 that will bridge the gap between USL and PDL. They have essentially taken control of lower division soccer in the United States.

THE OUTCOME

In the end, USL is like the proverbial ship that has weathered the storm. Right now, it is enjoying calm waters. The sun is shining. A gentle breeze is in the air. There is no Storm on the horizon. It looks like smooth sailing from here on out, or at least until one or more of the MLS applicants fails to make it to the first division.

What does all this have to do with us, and what value does it ultimately hold for Memphis?

In this shifting soccer landscape, Memphis has aligned itself with a stable league. The USL is here to stay, and will likely still be around when my 7-year-old son is old enough to buy season tickets. It’s not as sexy as the idea of NISA or any league built on pro/rel** and open soccer, but it is stable. Based on the events of the last few years, I’ll take stability.

Like most businesses, stability is earned through the decisions made by the leadership. Many people criticize USL for crawling into bed with MLS, but it ended up being the right decision for long-term success. The decision to make Jake Edwards commissioner has been a huge plus. When we interviewed Commissioner Edwards, I was incredibly impressed with how remarkably down-to-Earth he was. He was calm, relaxed, and even witty. Even after we turned off the mic, he just hung out like one of the guys. He seemed to be the perfect contrast to Bill Peterson, the blustering bully who spent most of the Soccer Warz as commissioner of NASL. Commissioner Edward’s demeanor was equally distant from the arrogance of MLS commissioner Don Garber, who comes across as the smartest guy in the room according to Don Garber.

Due to these factors and a few others we will address in subsequent articles, USL is the right league at the right time for Memphis. It has the leadership and stability we need. If the team does not succeed, it won’t be because we play in a shaky league with a world of problems. If the team does not succeed, it will be because Memphis did not go out and support it. The USL will do its part; we have to do ours.

 

 

*Yeah, yeah…I know you are not supposed to use Wikipedia in research. However, this was just basic recall stuff that has been pushed out of my crowded mind, so I allowed it.

**It should be noted that Edwards has mentioned the possibility of promotion and relegation with the new Division 3 league in two separate interviews (Jonathan Tannenwald and The USL Show).

 

(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

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