Sports Illustrated soccer writer Brian Strauss reported that the USL is looking to create a new third tier league in the American soccer pyramid. Their provisional division two sanctioning combined with the NASL retaining their provisional second tier status left a vacancy at the third tier. The USL, which has operated leagues on multiple tiers in the past, is looking to fill that gap.
What a USL Third Division League Can Mean for American Soccer
Setting aside the meaningless nature of American soccer’s division sanctioning, there are many things that adding a new professional league can do for the game. First of all, it creates more opportunities for the seemingly endless line of cities looking to bring professional soccer to their community. It also provides more places for young, American players to develop their trade. Finally, it rallies the cries of the promotion/relegation crowd by providing a potentially feasible avenue in which to test the system in the United States.
More Professional Cities
Professional soccer leagues are in a state of constant expansion. MLS alone has 12 markets vying for a total of four new places in the league and I doubt Don Garber and company will stop after those four. The USL has more than doubled in size over the past six years and is showing now signs of slowing down. Their president, Jake Edwards, said so himself when I had the chance to speak with him a few weeks ago. The NASL, while struggling to get their franchises to survive, is going to be adding more teams in the coming years.
It seems there is no shortage of places that want pro soccer in this country. As more cities join the fold, there is less space in the existing league system. The USL, despite it’s rapid growth, can only get so big. A brand new third division league would ease these constraints.
A new league would have to use a regional model similar to that of the NPSL and PDL due to the small budgets these low level teams will have. Instead of one large league like the current USL, the league would need a grouping of smaller divisions that don’t play outside their own corner of the nation. This allows more space for more teams in smaller markets, further removing the shackles of league size.
Such a system should provide a natural way for amatuer clubs to turn professional with less risk. Clubs like Detroit City FC and Chattanooga FC have outgrown the confines of amateurism in this country, but also don’t have the capital required to jump straight into a second division professional league. A smaller, regionalized third division will soften the financial burden of going professional and provide a stepping stone for further growth.
Player Development Opportunities
I don’t think there is a shortage of places for young players to play in the United States, but having more professional options is not a bad thing. More places for players to play can mean more chances for players to reach the top of the pyramid after slipping through the cracks of amateur player development. It probably wouldn’t be long before a minnow club in this third division finds a gem of a player from the bottom of the barrel and converts him into an MLS player.
The pro/rel crowd will always make sure this gets brought up in every discussion of American soccer business. I tend to avoid these communities on Twitter in order to keep my sanity in tact, but I imagine they have already pounced on the opportunity to preach their gospel.
While a promotion/relegation system is still unlikely to come around, the USL forming a lower league provides a decent platform to at least test it out. A European style system will never settle in America without one body overseeing everything. The USL controlling two league provides this first of many roadblocks to a successful system.
Still, don’t count on the owners who invested large amounts of money in their teams to accept demotion to an even more obscure minor league.
A new professional league wouldn’t be all sunshine and roses. It’s entirely possible the entire idea falls flat before it ever gets going. We have to consider the possibility that the professional soccer environment in the USA is nearing saturation and there is no room for more pro teams, no matter how small they are. The quality of play in the league would not be very high. The players would be scraping by on minimum wage, if that. They would have to take up second jobs to survive simply because the money isn’t there to pay them.
Any excitement, if there even is any, for another professional minor league in this country would need to be tampered for any of this to work. Prospective owners can’t go into this expecting some form of get rich quick scheme. Teams will have to be run on a tight budget and not expect to be profitable in the short term.
However, with a lot of patience and hard work, a brand new third tier league can provide more opportunities for the game of soccer to connect with more fans than currently possible.