The USL Is Not Allowed To Take Expansion Teams That Infringe On MLS Territory

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Editorial (October 20, 2017)Earlier this month, Last Word on Soccer got to sit down with Johnny Freeston of Harpos FC. We discussed a number of topics within lower division soccer in America. A little over halfway through the interview, he said something that clicked with me: There’s supposedly an unwritten USL-MLS territory infringement rule. Let me explain.

Theory: The USL Is Not Allowed To Take Expansion Teams That Infringe On MLS Territory

The USL has had an affiliation with MLS since January 2013. The league re-branded in 2015 (originally USL Pro) and has seen unprecedented expansion, growth, and attendance ever since.

Their relationship with MLS has helped. The MLS 2 teams have added to the number of teams and provided the league with young and exciting talent (though there are some drawbacks). The independent affiliations have helped the USL teams improve their operations and business practices. This partnership helped Orlando City SC achieve MLS expansion. These relationships (league-to-league and club-to-club) are helping current USL sides contend for MLS expansion.

But here’s the thing. Other than F.C. New York, who last only one year in the USL, no independent USL team (past, present, or future) has ever shared a market with an MLS team. Most of the MLS 2 teams share a venue or practice facility, but are very much marketed as the reserve team. This could be intentional.

The USL-MLS Territory Infringement Rule:

Freeston joined Last Word SC Radio recently and discussed the future plans of his amateur club, Harpos FC. Based in Boulder, CO, they play their home games in various places. They’ve hosted matches at high schools throughout the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. They’ve also had home games on practice fields at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, home of the Colorado Rapids.

They are one of the most dominant clubs at their level of the pyramid and have larger ambitions. But they’ve having trouble making that happen (see time stamp 31:15):

“What we want and what we can’t have, straight from the horse’s mouth [referring to Steven Short, VP of Business Development for USL Division III], is the USL will not allow any club of any ilk to come in at the DII or DIII level and be based in Denver,” Freeston said. “The only way that we would be able to have a USL club at any level is if we were outside a certain radius of city of Denver and its suburbs. Boulder would potentially quality for that.”

It seems the USL would accept them as an expansion team, depending on where their home stadium is. And it’s entirely because there’s an MLS team based in the Denver area.

“It’s from a competitive standpoint and a handshake, and I’d say even a backdoor legal agreement between MLS, SUM, U.S. Soccer, and USL that no one else can infringe upon the Colorado Rapids territory.”

Freeston went as far to suggest this rule (should it be legit) has helped dictate what markets the USL expands to.

“The entire reason that the Colorado Springs Switchbacks exist and were given a franchise, not a membership, in the USL is because they’re in Colorado Springs and they are outside of Denver.”

So Is This Legit?

To be honest, I don’t know. I’ve had conversations with members of the media familiar with both leagues as well as those who work in the USL in various capacities. In hindsight, some of the things they’ve said supports what Freeston is saying.

Things akin to the USL being really interested in putting a team in Sacramento, but would never consider a team in the Bay Area. The league is looking at smaller markets that wouldn’t be on MLS’s radar. The league wants good business opportunities with clubs that can fill a void (i.e. no market saturation/competition). The NASL has taken on existing MLS and USL markets, and it’s been horrible for at least one of those teams (usually the NASL one).

Myself and others have suspected this was by design, even if it’s not with malicious intent. Whether it’s intentional, an unwritten rule, or a by-law clause that would nullify the USL-MLS affiliation, the data supports that it’s happening. Even if it’s not in a contract somewhere, the USL clearly understands expanding in an existing MLS market isn’t in their best interest.

Is It Good Or Bad?

I can feel the rage burning in the #ProRelForUSA crowd already. “Competition within markets would force bad MLS teams to improve or wipe them out!”┬áThis law would help prevent competition within markets and funnel profit towards existing MLS teams.

I can also see the USL purists with long term views being ok with this, for now. “The USL needs to grow stability and achieve DII status, then start USL II. Setting new teams up to potentially fold is bad optics and bad business.” For now, it’s helping the USL find stable and higher footing.

The USL is still learning and growing on the fly. Stability has been a big part of their success. Many of the teams have small local ownership groups. They play in minor league ballparks or venues fit for soccer where they’re not the primary tenant. Sometimes, they aren’t in the ideal downtown location.

The USL wouldn’t want one of these types of teams competing with an MLS club with a soccer-specific stadium and a huge budget. At the same time, MLS wouldn’t want an FC Cincinnati (huge attendance, great stadium location, on field success) drowning out a franchise like FC Dallas (suburban stadium, not great attendance).

MLS has absolutely acted its own best interest at times when it was to the detriment of soccer in America as a whole: single-entity, the franchise system, awarding expansion to NASL and USL clubs to absorb the competition, etc.

For now, I think it’s ok for this to perpetuate. There’s plenty of untapped markets that are worthy of lower division exploration by USL, an eventual USL II, or NISA. If you look at the best soccer nations in the world, they’ve got club teams at some professional level in every city and town. If American Soccer is going to become a world power, we need professional teams in Omaha, El Paso, Little Rock, and even Boulder, and Fort Collins.

We haven’t expanded out from a club level nationally yet. We need more markets, stadiums, fans, and kids watching professional soccer in their hometown. For now, that takes priority over engendering inner-market competition if you ask me.

How To Grow Out Of This:

Like my views on Pro/Rel, there will be a time and place where this rule (official or not), should be dissolved in favor of competition.

Again, I go back to the best soccer nations in the country. Look at London, England. In any given year, there’s between 4-6 top division clubs in the city. Go down the pyramid and there are over a dozen in the Football League. Look at cities like Rome, Milan, Glasgow, and Manchester that all have huge crosstown club derbies.

If you did it right, you could have five teams in New York City, one in each burrow. There could be several teams in Los Angeles. With how large of an area the Bay Area is, there could be MLS teams in San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose, with a few lower division teams sprinkled here and there.

Once we build out into all of these markets with a pro sports or soccer vacuum, the sport will grow more prominent. Then there will be the capital and momentum to pursue city and neighborhood-level competition. That might come in tandem with Pro/Rel, MLS taking the training wheels off single entity, etc.

Geography and history makes rivalries. I can’t wait for the day that New York City is like London with all the different teams and derbies (minus the Millwall supporters looking for a fight).

When that time comes, there will be winners and losers. But the sport will be at a level where it can afford this. For now, I think it would be a net negative to allow competition in existing markets while leaving others untouched.

How This Affects Recent Developments:

For those of you living under a rock, news broke this week that Anthony Precourt, owner of Columbus Crew SC, is considering moving the club to Austin, TX in 2019. Austin has not had a professional team since 2015, when the Austin Aztex were still in the USL.

Plans have been in the work to bring an Austin based team back to the USL in 2019 with no affiliation to the Aztex. The new club would play at a soon to be constructed soccer-specific stadium near or on the Formula 1 track site, Circuit of America. That is 5 miles as the crow flies (about 18 miles driving) from the center of downtown Austin.

By either metric, that is certainly inside the radius of the USL-MLS territory infringement. For MLS to sign off on Precourt’s relocation plan, there has to be a stadium plan. That stadium will definitely need to be downtown. If the Crew relocate to Austin, the new Austin team will be in violation of the rule Freeston described.

What happens then? I assume the USL will step aside being the little brother. This could be real-time evidence of this rule being legit. How does the USL handle that? What becomes of Bobby Epstein’s investment in the club and the stadium? What if his ownership group don’t want to be Austin Crew SC II?

It’s something to keep an eye on as this story unfolds.

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