There’s an awful lot of talk about USL PRO expansion these days, and with good reason. Soccer is taking off in North America this fall, and it looks like everybody wants in on the act.
With USL PRO and MLS now joined at the hip, and the two-season NASL apparently trying to establish itself as a top-league rival to Major League Soccer (despite being unable to separate itself from USL PRO in terms of competition and quality), would-be team owners and civic leaders around the country are trying various ways to hop into the pro- soccer market before the big TV contracts get signed and franchise fees up and down the pyramid get inflated.
So which teams and cities are likely to be in the mix? Damned if we know.
Here’s a list of what we know, plus a summary of what others are writing, reporting or talking about. If you have other reports to contribute, leave a comment here, or email dan AT danconover.com. We’ll just keep updating this post with the latest, and we’ll check in with the league from time to time to see what — if anything — they can tell us.
Known expansion clubs
SACRAMENTO: We’ve known about the team now known as Sacramento Republic F.C. for more than a year, and they appear to be doing everything right. Makes me nervous about the future of several of the Battery’s West Coast players.
OKLAHOMA CITY: In typically bizarre and probably insane Oklahoma fashion, OKC is adding TWO professional soccer teams in 2014 and 2015– one in USL PRO, the other in NASL. There are lawsuits that we don’t fully understand floating around this situation, too, and based on our experience of Oklahoma in general, we suspect it’s just best that we don’t look too closely.
Bottom line? The whole two-teams thing probably doesn’t bode particularly well for anybody except some Oklahoma lawyers, but at least this utterly improbable situation is something that the league has at least confirmed. The unnamed USL PRO team will begin play in the spring.
Possible clubs that might make sense
HAMILTON: Reports that Toronto F.C. is working with Canadian soccer and the Toronto Lynx of the USL PDL to create a new USL PRO franchise in Hamilton, Ontario, seem pretty well documented. But what’s the league stance on this so far?
LOS ANGELES: Could the only city that currently boasts two MLS franchises wind up being the only city with two USL PRO clubs? It is if you ask the L.A. Galaxy. Bruce Arena says the idea is to launch the team and have it playing “next year.”
Of course, these MLS-related developments are likely associated with the headline from the All-Star game that the top league wants all its clubs putting reserve players into USL PRO by 2015. Reading this article carefully probably raises more questions than it answers, and you have to wonder just how quickly the league office in Tampa would be able to respond to a bunch of new clubs. But there it is.
And keep in mind: Battery executives and other USL PRO poo-bahs gathered at the MLS All-Star Game for meetings, so it’s likely they were in on some of these discussions.
Stuff that we read
ST. LOUIS: Our new Twitter follow, @StLouligans, turned us on to this one: It’s an article at Soccer Made in St. Louis that says the owners of the USL PDL team in St. Louis and the USL MISL team in St. Louis are allegedly working together to put together a USL PRO expansion bid for 2014. Big market. Good soccer city.
Stuff that we hear
Mikey Buytas, president of The Regiment, said in comments here that he’s heard there’s a push on to relocate a club to Louisville, Kentucky. “Not sure if that is a current team moving there or a new team moving into the area.” I can’t find any independent reporting that would back that up, but Buytas always has good sources.
Current teams that we’re worried about
ANTIGUA: The Antigua Barracudas franchise, which just completed its third season in the league, started as a government-backed investment in the development of the national team of Antigua and Barbuda. It played two seasons in USL PRO as the club version of that national team from 2011-12, with regular league home-and-away series, and then stuck around in 2013 with a last-minute, makeshift roster that played a complete season of road games. The 2013 Barracudas were remarkable for their futility, going 0-26-0.
One way of looking at this is that the Barracudas were victimized by turmoil on their national team, and that they hung tough in 2013 with whatever players they could find as an act of good faith with the league. From that perspective, they’ll get their act together in 2014, and be back.
The other perspective is: WTF?
PHOENIX: So the folks at BDR Sports LLC didn’t have the best first year in the history of soccer. They launched the Phoenix FC Wolves in March with great fan support in a great potential market with a nice college soccer stadium for a home. But apparently they assumed a lot of success right away, failed to deliver, and then started dismantling their dreams in real time as their 2013 season fell apart around them. They overspent on leases and seating, annoyed fans with ticketing policies, then ran out of cash.
What began on March 30th with a win over VSI Tampa Bay FC in front of a standing-room crowd at Sun Devil Soccer Stadium devolved to the point that, by the time the Battery arrived in August, the team was playing in a municipal soccer complex. The Battery-Wolves game was supposed to start at 7, but the club had to move the start time up to 4 because a youth team had previously reserved the field for 7. Hence, the Battery beat the Wolves 1-0 in what amounted to an oven. Said one Battery player after the season: “Phoenix was insane. It was just survival.”
Will they be back? One certainly hopes. Phoenix could be a great place for pro soccer. But we worry. We’re worriers.
TAMPA: Once upon a time, Tampa was the home to Old School NASL and MLS clubs like the Rowdies and the Mutiny. Since 2009, it’s been the home of the reprised Rowdies, who currently play in the New School NASL (everything you loved about the old NASL, without the massive debt and cocaine). And since 2013, it’s also been the home of VSI Tampa Bay FC. Kinda. Sorta.
The expansion VSI Tampa team (a.k.a. “The Flames”) apparently thought they had a line on a stadium. They didn’t. With only days left before they were scheduled to begin league play in March, they still didn’t have a venue. They settled for the former Cincinnati Reds spring training facility in Plant City, about 30 miles east of Tampa.
So much for ticket sales.
Tampa actually fielded a pretty damned good veteran team in 2013. They beat the hell out of the Battery on their home field, earned at draw at Blackbaud, and stayed in the hunt until playoff hunt until the final week of the season. So there’s no doubt these people know soccer.
Will they be back for another year? We haven’t heard anything to the contrary. But if they don’t get a better home field in their second year, and get an early jump on selling season tickets, they’re really going to struggle as a business.
LA BLUES: Here’s another team that keeps moving around. It’s not that the squad sucked — they made the playoffs, and featured some scary-good players. It’s just that… well, you’re looking at a team that could well be the fourth among four teams in its market. They’re vagabonds, moving from Cal State Fullerton to UC Irvine, where they played the Battery, and then BACK to Cal State Fullerton. In Los Angeles traffic.
That’s like moving the Battery from Blackbaud Stadium to Summerville.
At one point this team looked like it might benefit from being first to market. Now, you just have to wonder.
What are we missing?
What reports haven’t we read? What should we be asking? Where should we be looking? Let us know, and we’ll update this page throughout the off-season… until we get the official announcement from the league.