(Editorial) – In the United State Soccer Pyramid, the NASL sits as the second division below MLS. The USL sits as the third division league, but only in title. With an offseason rebrand, success in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and more buzz within the league and attention from MLS, the USL is rising above the NASL.
Besides the name and color change, the USL established several new initiatives that are key to the future growth of the league. As part of an affiliation with MLS, all MLS teams now must have a USL affiliate.
MLS sides can form their own USL side, such as LA Galaxy II or Real Monarchs. Clubs can also establish an affiliation with an existing USL side, such as the Chicago Fire and Saint Louis FC or D.C. United and the Richmond Kickers.
This partnership provides USL with quality young talent from MLS. MLS teams see it as a chance to give players who are outside the 18 a chance to get regular playing time. From a marketing and publicity side, MLS fans now pay more attention to USL because of their club’s affiliation with a USL side. This relationship improving the quality on the field, making USL more appealing to the fan in a USL market.
As of last year, every USL league match is streamed live on Youtube for free. This makes the product easily accessible. The league has also set a stadium initiative to have every club owning or being the primary tenant in soccer-specific venues by 2020. Half the league currently does not fulfill this requirement. Ambitious, but encouraging.
The league has their eyes set on something bigger though . . .
Division 2 Status:
The biggest power move of USL Rising was the league’s application for Division 2 status in the U.S. Soccer Pyramid. U.S. Soccer updated the standards for Division 2 status in 2010. IMSoccer News reported the detailed changes.
Both the USL and the NASL are a bit short at the moment. Here are some of the highlights:
– Eight teams with at least 75% in the USA
– By year six have US teams in at least three time zones
– At least 75% of teams must be in market greater than 750,000
– Minimum seating capacity of 5,000
– Principal Owner (35%) having net worth of 20 million dollars
– All owners must have at least 5% share
In a statement about the updated standards, Tampa Bay Rowdies Owner Andrew Nestor said “that they are a necessary next step for the growth of soccer in North America. Our ownership group and organization meet the standards and I am confident that our NASL partners do as well.”
It is a bit unclear how the NASL currently stands as the second division with the new standards. With no relegation-promotion in the work, the rules do allow multiple leagues to occupy the same tier simultaneously.
Should the USL beat the NASL to meeting the new standards, they would jump the NASL for second division status. If and when the NASL met the standards, they would join the USL and U.S. Soccer would have two second division leagues.
It is difficult to predict which league will reach the requirements sooner. It is also a bit unclear how much the MLS owned USL teams (of which there are eight) will push to help meet these standards. That could require resources the owners would rather spend on the MLS franchise.
A soccer arms race has begun between the two leagues. This has already manifested itself in competition for aspiring markets and ownership groups.
Founder of Sac Republic FC, Warren Smith said “it was the affiliation with MLS that USL PRO has that made this finally a trigger point for us. Had NASL been the MLS partner, perhaps it would have been a different dialog.”
Again, a healthy partnership with MLS benefits the USL. As for the NASL . . .
The original NASL has often been described as the Wild Wild West. Then there’s the ugly history of the New York Cosmos having financial issues that were partially responsible for the league going under in the 1980s.
While the new version of the league has worked to improve its image, there are still issues. Aaron Davidson was one of the FIFA executives arrested earlier this week. He is the Chairman of the NASL’s Board of Governors and owner of Traffic Sports USA. Traffic Sports has had a significant stake in NASL in the past, but has moved away from the league recently. Traffic currently owns the Carolina Railhawks. The league has suspended Davidson and will likely assume control of the Railhawks.
As discussed on Last Word Soccer Club Radio this week, while long term damage is unlikely, the league has and could suffer some bad PR in the future.
The NASL has also had a strong undertone of wanting to compete with MLS as the top league in American Soccer. Expanding to Miami (one of MLS’s primary targets for expansion) certainly seemed like a power move. Where the USL sees MLS as partner to help both leagues and thus American Soccer, the NASL seems willing to help itself at the expense of MLS and the sport.
One thing the NASL does have going for itself is the new partnership with ESPN3, something even MLS could not get. The NASL averaged 5,501 fans per game in 2014, while the USL only drew 3,114. While both are still far below MLS, this is one area that the NASL has and still beats the USL in.
On The Field:
With promotion and relegation, it’s well established that higher leagues in European Football are better than the lower leagues. No one will argue that League One is better than the Championship. In the absence of soccer’s natural selection, the lines become blurred. Note from the U.S. Soccer standards for Division 2 that there are no requirements about the quality of play. The standards emphasize finances and infrastructure. It is possible for a third division league to have a higher level of play than a second division league.
That could very well be the case presently. The NASL has image of being higher than the USL by seniority, but is only one year older. Players who’ve played in both comment that the only key difference is experience; the levels of play are similar. An argument can be made that once said USL player becomes more experienced, their play will exceed that of the NASL player.
In head-to-head match ups, the USL has made a major statement. This past week, USL teams went 7-0 against NASL teams in the U.S. Open Cup. Some did so convincingly: Richmond blanked Jacksonville Armada FC 3-0. Only two NASL teams remain in the whole tournament. The Cosmos defeated Jersey Express 3-0 and the Atlanta Silverbacks needed extra time to beat Chattanooga FC 2-1. Seven of 24 USL sides are still in.
While teams from both leagues had to juggle their lineups due to league play, if NASL were truly a higher level of play, their reserve side should be competitive against a USL first team. In many of these matches, both sides were playing a mixed lineup, and the USL consistently did better.
The difference in player quality appear small. It is possible that the USL is overachieving. If so, credit the USL coaching staffs. They’re doing more with less.
The jury is probably still out on this topic because of how young and fluid the two leagues are. An argument can be made that the USL is trending above the NASL and is better. Their relationship with MLS is healthier and more beneficial. This partnership has made the MLS fan more interested in the USL as well. The NASL is like the medium-sized company trying to compete with the big corporation. The USL is the new-age start up company being mentored by a corporate partner.
There are possible negative affects of the USL-MLS partnership that haven not come to fruition. Perhaps MLS sides treating the USL like a reserve league could affect the quality of play and integrity of competition. Maybe this hampers growth in the years to come. Only time will tell how MLS (the league as a whole and the teams individually) treat the USL affiliation and what long term affects these will have on the USL.
Other than San Antonio, the short list for MLS expansion is made up of USL cities. The NASL has a history of bad PR, and the FIFA arrests are not helping that front. The Open Cup results indicate that the on field product in the USL is competitive with and possible better than the NASL.
It has a better and more positive image. MLS fans are becoming USL fans. The league has a plan going forward. It has a goal: Division 2 status. USL Rising is upon us. The USL may already have risen above the NASL.