Since the 1970s, the bell cows of American soccer have been the National American Soccer League and, eventually, Major League Soccer. Though these two have garnered most of the headlines and attention of the general public, beneath the surface of the soccer pyramid an entire world of semiprofessional and developmental football bubbles underneath.
Record Breaking USL Attendance
This season saw a major milestone reached for the first time in the United Soccer League’s nearly fifteen year history. The USL eclipsed the one million fan attendance mark, which is always a cause for celebration in the sporting world, be it a team or a league. According to a kenn.com blog post that included a statistical breakdown of club’s gate totals, factors such as an increase in USL membership and the domination of first division ready cities were highlighted. There were some notable exceptions to the increase in supporters. The bottom four clubs in attendance were MLS reserve sides. This is no surprise since only four of the twenty-four clubs in the league are unaffiliated with a first division club. For young men entering into their professional careers, what were their impressions of playing in the United Soccer League?
In America’s lower divisions, the crowd figures crop up with nearly every game that’s live tweeted or in a game recap. A very important figure, no doubt, but one that belies the impact of a league like the USL. When interviewed, players from lightly attended sides like FC Montreal and New York Red Bulls II, affiliates of Impact Montreal FC and New York Red Bulls respectively, still value the professional approach they have to take into each match and training session.
“It’s a big step coming from the academy level to a professional league. I think I came into the league as a child and I came out a man, only after one year,” FC Montreal defender Zachary Sukunda remarked. “When you step onto the field…teams like Louisville and Rochester with thousands and thousands of people watching, that brings another vibe. The speed of play is so much faster, you can never really experience that except in pro soccer.” Sukunda noted the fervor of the Louisville supporters section, but was happy to get a 4-0 result when they traveled there.
Alex Clay, a defender from Red Bulls II also noticed he had to raise his game. “It’s been unbelievable, honestly. The level we play here at training and in games has been a huge step up from college. At first it took me a little while to adjust. I feel I’m getting the hang of it and progressing really well as a player.” Clay’s teammate, Stefano Bonomo found it a bit shocking at first. “Adjusting to the culture and system has been good for my game. It’s incredible, I love every second of it. Not having to worry about school is pretty nice, all of my focus is on soccer,” he said with a chuckle. To a man, the players appreciated the approach they had to take to what was now their job.
Each player had different clubs that they felt had strong support and were tough opponents, but 2015 champions Rochester Rhinos kept cropping up in conversation. Flying in the face of the need for a huge crowd to be successful, Rochester’s attendance would have rivaled those at some of England Power League 2 sides. Their overall game and what the venue brought made them a challenge for everyone. Alessandro Riggi of FC Montreal said, “Rochester, for sure. They have a lot of fans, the pitch is like a carpet and the ball was very bouncy. We weren’t used to it. And they’re just an experienced team. Playing them a real, ‘Welcome to the league.’ with the fans shouting, the pitch, it was very difficult for us.” Riggi also notice the crowd gaining in size as the season went on, a healthy sign for the league in general.
By worldwide domestic league standards the United Soccer League is barely an infant. None of that matters to the young men looking to make footballing a career or the fans that cheer them on. Whether it’s 15,000 in Sacramento, 5,000 in Rochester, or the hundreds that gather to watch in Montreal or New Jersey, what is of greatest importance to them is watching and supporting the local club. That is the lifeblood of soccer the world over.
Thanks in part to clubs like Charleston Battery, Louisville City FC, Tulsa Roughnecks FC and their support, the profile of the league has gone up along with the amount of eyeballs watching what many thought would be a backwater, farm-system league. In the United States, before we had soccer specific stadiums and yearly summer barnstorming tours from European sides looking to extract revenue throaty Yanks, leagues like the USL and those that came before it were what represented the game in America: people who played hard no matter the crowd the stands.