USL PRO 2014: Things get better

USL PRO 2014: Things get better

Though the league office in Tampa remains oddly silent (officials had have been hinting since November that announcements would be imminent after an annual meeting that ended almost a month ago), there are reasons to believe that 2014 could be a big one year for USL PRO.

With Orlando moving up to MLS (which also added a second New York club) in 2015 , an expanding partnership with the top league, multiple USL PRO expansion possibilities, and rival-league NASL looking to add a minimum of five teams over the next two years, North American soccer is in the midst of a stunning expansion. The full results may not register for some time, but a massive change is afoot.

It’s unclear what it all means, but here’s a theory: 2014 will be an important transitional year for down-pyramid leagues, with 2015 remembered as the first year in a new era in North American soccer.

OK, that’s just me talking. What does it mean right now?

QUESTION 1: HOW MANY TEAMS?

Answer No. 1 is that despite a two-team expansion, there’s reason to believe that USL PRO will remain at 13 teams for 2014.

The two new arrivals are no mystery: Sacramento FC has been in the works for years. Oklahoma City‘s new entry, the Energy, has a Sounders-looking color-scheme and logo, plus former Sporting KC keeper Jimmy Nielson as its first coach.

The departures are not yet confirmed by the league, but it looks like both Antigua and VSI Tampa Bay have disappeared into the fog that surrounds lower-level soccer.

Several published reports have cited various sources — none of them official — for both shutdowns (though this one sounds definitive). I’ve been able to confirm both through off-the-record sources with connections to the league, but the league itself has not yet replied to my request for official confirmation.

The buzz around Tampa Bay ever since the club entered the league was that its management — which runs youth soccer leagues and training programs in central Florida — saw USL PRO as a means of boosting its core business, and never took the challenges of running professional franchise seriously enough. Though the Flames bedeviled the Battery in their one year of play and threatened for a playoff spot, they averaged fewer than 400 fans and played in a baseball stadium 45 minutes outside of downtown Tampa. It says something about the profound lack of respect the company showed to fans last year that its decision to “cease operations” with the Flames didn’t even warrant a “thank-you” on the team’s few fans on the club’s Facebook page.

Antigua, on the other hand, was a cool concept in 2010 that fell apart in 2013. Originally a government-sponsored club for the Antigua and Barbuda National Team, it lost that distinction last season and played 26 road matches, earning not not a single point. It looks like the Barracudas could re-emerge next year in a new Carribean league, and we wish them well.

Net result? The Battery would play the same number of matches but lose a home game from 2013 if this scenario plays out.

Answer No. 2 is a bit less likely, but there are reasons why I’m not ready to rule it out. Published reports from November suggested that both the Los Angeles Galaxy and FC Dallas of MLS have been working to develop reserve teams that would play a full schedule of matches against USL PRO opponents (more on Dallas here, more on Los Angeles here).

Again, there’s no confirmation, and in general it takes more than a few months to work out the infrastructure for a new franchise (a lesson VSI Tampa Bay learned the hard way). But with their active youth academies, U-23 squads and the usual compliment of MLS reserve players, both Western Conference clubs could easily field competitive teams. Plus they’ve already got front office staffs in place, stadium deals, etc.

And let’s be blunt: There simply aren’t enough USL PRO teams to go around at this square dance. So something like this makes a certain amount of sense. The New York Red Bulls, Seattle Sounders and RSL are also rumored to be interested in creating their own USL PRO affiliate clubs. Orlando and NYCFC are expected to do the same, perhaps as early as 2015.

If this second scenario plays out, the Battery would play a 28-game schedule, or one more home match than 2013.

BUT THAT DOESN’T ADD UP

You’re right, and that’s because last year also featured an odd arrangement in which most MLS clubs had their reserve teams play a home-and-away series with a USL PRO side. The results of those matches counted in the USL PRO standings, but also in the MLS Reserve League(s). Such as it is.

With more MLS teams signing affiliation deals (see below) or maybe starting their own USL PRO teams (see above), there’s a big question whether the 2013 experiment of paired teams playing home-and-away series will continue in 2014.

Again, there’s no official word from Tampa HQ on this, but sources connected to the league have said that the exchange program is expected to continue for at least another year. It’s also unlikely that Charleston would be paired up with Houston again, thanks to the Dynamo signing an affiliation deal with another team.

So, best-case scenario? Start with 13 teams from 2013, subtract two teams (Antigua + Tampa), add four teams (Sacramento, Oklahoma City, Galaxy Reserves, Dallas Reserves), carry the a home-and-away MLS reserve exchange, and subtract the bonus home match we got from Antigua last season. That’s 28 matches total, with 14 home dates.

I’ll say this though: With Brian Strauss quoting club Dallas’ technical director in December as saying that FCD has decided to wait until 2015, I’m not inclined to favor anonymous reports that put FCD in USL PRO in a couple of months. We shall see.

DIDN’T PHOENIX DIE?

Despite the expansion team’s obvious 2013 death spiral, Phoenix rose from its ashes, which surprised plenty of observers after last season’s embarrassing meltdown the in the desert.

While the Wolves started in grand fashion, by season’s end they were scraping by at a recreation complex, skipping payroll, and generally failing at life. In Year Two, they’re back with (one hopes) a more sensible management group, and USL PRO continues its fingernail-grip on one of the country’s best untapped professional soccer markets.

ISN’T OKLAHOMA CITY A TAMPA-ESQUE DISASTER IN THE MAKING?

If there’s a dark cloud over this season’s new additions, it’s the chaotic birth of the Oklahoma City franchise last summer.  Without going into the mind-numbing details, suffice it to say that two Oklahoma sports companies each wanted an USL PRO club, and that one of them (Prodigal LLC) beat the other (Sold Out Strategies) to the punch. Prodigal’s entry is now the Oklahoma City Energy FC, and Sold Out Strategies (now OKC Pro Soccer LLC) is set to begin play in NASL in 2015.

Cease-and-desist letters and other precursors to lawsuits immediately followed.

So the question with the Energy (other than “Why did they have to pick such a lousy name?”) is: Can two lower-league soccer clubs succeed in a city with an NBA franchise and an absolute obsession with gridiron football? And wouldn’t the lower-league club automatically lose out (as happened in Tampa)?

Only time will tell, but there are a couple of reasons to be optimistic for the Energy. First, the USL club will have a year to build a fan base before the NASL rival plays its first match. Second, Sporting KC proved itself a legitimate high-quality MLS partner in 2013, and the senior club looks dedicated to establishing OKC as its long-term affiliate (see below). And while the driving force behind both ownership groups appears to be an entry in the ongoing MLS gold rush, let’s not forget that participation in higher leagues typically comes with higher operating costs.

QUESTION 2: WHO GOT MARRIED?

The MLS/USL PRO partnership came about in January 2013, late in the off-season for both leagues and with plenty of unresolved questions. That gave last year’s cooperative moves a sort of ad hoc feel, and only a few clubs (Philadelphia and Harrisburg, SKC and Orlando, DC United and Richmond, New England and Rochester) signed formal affiliation deals.

That list gets a lot longer for 2014.

The Philly-Harrisburg, DC-Richmond and New England-Rochester deals all continue. With Orlando set to move up to MLS in 2015, SKC has chosen to keep its successful relationship with the Lions going… and add a second partner. The expansion OKC Energy can only hope to receive the kind of talent Kansas City shipped Orlando’s way last season. But yes, having two affiliates is still kinda weird.

So far this offseason, four clubs — Houston Dynamo and Pittsburgh Riverhounds, plus Columbus and the Dayton Dutch Lions have tied the knot.

A mild surprise could be pending nuptials between Portland Timbers and expansion Sacramento. Again, no announcement, but Prost Amerika is one of the most reliable and well-sourced soccer news sites in the Pacific Northwest. San Jose was considered the obvious frontrunner in nailing down Sacramento as a partner, but geography isn’t everything. Brian Strauss reports that the Earthquakes have been lobbying MLS to grant Sacramento to them, and that co-affiliation “remains an option.”

Another unconfirmed affiliation is Toronto and Wilmington.

Then of course there’s the head-scratching tale of Charleston and Vancouver. Talk to folks from the Battery and it always seems like an affiliation deal is tantalizingly close, or at the very least a complicating factor in off-season planning. Absent new information I still expect it to happen, but keep in mind that Vancouver is in such management/coaching turmoil at the moment that there might not be much rush on Daniel Island to make the match official.

That would leave only a few remaining potential partnerships (thanks to the Galaxy, Red Bulls, Fire, Sounders, NYCFC, Orlando, RSL and now Dallas all allegedly pursuing the “build your own affiliate” route). The Colorado Rapids are expected to wait for the USL PRO expansion Colorado Springs franchise in 2015. San Jose — with its strong Charleston connection in Coach Mark Watson — is still out there.

Once you remove those clubs, everything that remains is problematic. Chivas USA is the runty offspring of its far-more-accomplished Liga MX parent club, and it was the only MLS club that opted out of the cooperation agreement entirely last season. Montreal is Chivas’ Francophone partner in bizarre front office behavior, and has been rumored to have an interest in supporting a Quebec City partner… in the NASL. So we’ll see.

On the USL PRO side of things, Charlotte is in the midst of a pending an ownership transition (see below), the nomadic Los Angeles Blues are hard to figure under the best of circumstances, and though Phoenix remains a promising market, nobody in their right mind is going to partner with that club until it shows some stability.

QUESTION 3: WHAT ELSE CHANGES?

The end of the Eagles?

Charlotte has MLS aspirations… and that could mean the end of “mission-soccer” in the Queen City.

The Charlotte Observer reported last week that a new ownership group with a plan to push Charlotte up to MLS by 2020 has a deal in place to purchase the USL PRO rights currently owned by the Eagles.

The sale of Charlotte’s USL franchise rights must be approved by the USL. McPhilliamy said the Hounds group has an agreement in place to acquire the rights for about $500,000 at the end of the season. USL Commissioner Tim Holt wouldn’t comment on the deal Wednesday.

The Eagles, who have been Charlotte’s lone pro soccer presence since 1993, will play one final season in USL Pro this summer at the Queens Sports Complex before moving down a notch to the USL’s Premiere Development League in 2015. The Eagles are a faith-based organization that has won two USL titles and played in the championship game last season. But they never have had a stadium of their own and struggle to attract a large fan base…

“It really needs a lot of long-term emphasis, investment and marketing, and that’s not something that is a strength of ours as a nonprofit,” said Eagles executive director Tom Engstrom.

Louisville sneaks past St. Louis?

With the Orlando City Lions set to  make their MLS move after the 2014 season, what becomes of the USL PRO franchise rights that belong to the current ownership group?

Apparently they don’t go away, and apparently that could give the Lions a built-in, vertically integrated USL affiliate once they join the top league. Lousiville, Kentucky, became the favorite last week, largely because it’s the home of OCL minority owner Wayne Estopinal,

St. Louis is a relatively large Midwestern market with a great soccer heritage and a terrible recent track record with the professional game. Or maybe it’s bad luck. There’s no doubt that soccer fans in St. Louis want and deserve a franchise in one of the three professional leagues. The question is, which one? And when?

The Beckham Factor

All sorts of things go into which markets get franchises in various North American leagues, but the strangest of them all is former British international David Beckham.

The deal that brought the superstar to America in 2007 included a provision that gave him the right to purchase an MLS franchise anywhere in America for a flat fee of $25 million. When Portland and Vancouver bought into MLS two years later, the cost of a franchise was running about $40 million, but by 2013 Orlando’s expansion fee had risen to an estimated $70 million (NYCFC’s fee was reportedly in excess of $100 million).

That makes David Beckham a $50 million coupon for any prospective ownership group capable of adding his name to its masthead. The drawback, of course, is that you have to convince Mr. Beckham to join you — and a celebrity of his stature isn’t likely to sign on for a market like St. Louis, Minneapolis, Atlanta or Cleveland. Where’s he going to shop? The Mall of America?

All of which points to Miamiat least in the view of people who pay close attention to such things. MLS Commissioner Don Garber has indicated that the league will make an announcement about Beckham in early February.

It also raises one great question: How many times does the dream of Miami soccer have to crash and burn before MLS vows “never again?” Anyway, another Florida team in MLS could certainly affect the calculus of Southeastern soccer.

QUESTION 4: WHO GOES WHERE?

One of the things that made the Portland Timbers’ 2010 team so much fun to watch was that it’s easier to sign certain types of players when they know they’re signing with a team that’s about to move up. Prospects Khalif Alhassan and Bright Dike both signed for Timbers during the club’s final season before making the jump.

So who’s the first player to make a similar MLS signing for Orlando? Kevin Molino. So we get another year of him. And there’s plenty of reason to think more top signings could follow. Dammit.

Harrisburg, on the other hand, has taken it on the chin, losing strikers Lucky Mkosana (to the NASL Rowdies) and Sainey Touray (to the NASL Scorpions of San Antonio). Winger Yann Ekra, who apparently trialed with the Philadelphia Union around the same time as Battery forward Dane Kelly, signed with the team and shows no sign of coming back (source: Reckless Challenge).

Richmond took a bit of a hit when Houston signed its deal with Pittsburgh. Last season the Kickers benefited from key loans from both clubs. Pittsburgh, BTW, has been making ambitious MLS noises and talking about the goal of selling out their new riverfront stadium every match. Not bad for a team that was playing to crickets in a high school football stadium not long ago.

But the big situation to watch is what happens with players leaving the wreckage of VSI Tampa. The club featured at least three former Battery men — strikers Sallieu Bundu and Tony Donatelli, plus valuable defender and fan favorite Kyle Hoffer. With Cody Ellington unlikely to return and Captain Colin Falvey in the mix for a possible MLS call-up, a veteran like Hoffer could make a great signing at centerback.

For what it’s worth, Coach Mike Anhaeuser recently suggested that he’d be looking at former players this offseason as he builds the 2014 roster.

And there were some decently talented players on that roster, too.  Twenty-five year old journeyman Chad Burt, for instance, scored six goals and chipped in five assists under less-than-ideal circumstances for Tampa last season.

But the honest answer is, USL PRO is typically too ephemeral to think too much about this topic so early in the year. Chad Hollingsworth at Reckless Challenge has the best round-up of player moves so far, so go there.

One place to look for players is the upcoming USL PRO combine this weekend in Florida. And if you really want to geek out on scouting, you’ll be able to watch the combine scrimmages on live stream.

Two College of Charleston players are on the combine-invite list: Scottish defender Thomas “Tam” McGowan and English striker Luke Huggett. McGowan is a wiry and vocal competitor. Huggett missed the chance to compete last fall on one of those stupid NCAA rules and spent the fall serving as an assistant coach. When he’s on, he’s a bull.

As for the top local prospect, Cougars goalkeeper Kees Heemskirk was invited to the MLS combine earlier this month, and Simon Borg called him “a professional goalkeeper biding his time in college.” A product of the Ajax youth academy, Heemskirk is 6-4, commanding and smart. But he’s also something of a sleeper, since injuries kept him out of most the Cougars’ fall campaign. All 19 MLS clubs passed on him during the two-round SuperDraft last week, but the next two rounds (formerly called “the supplemental draft”) take place on Tuesday. Cougars assistant coach Troy Lesesne said he expects Heemskirk will be drafted, and with options here and in Europe “will take it from there.”

Another thing to keep in mind: Just because a player was drafted by MLS doesn’t mean we won’t be seeing him suit up in USL PRO this spring. Our league feasted on MLS reserve squads in 2013, proving to the senior league that their young prospects are no match for mid-career veterans. Will that mean more rookie loans to USL PRO? That’s what I’m guessing.

Which means this developing story about Whitecaps pick Andre Lewis has particular interest to Battery fans.

QUESTION 5: WHAT LOOKS DIFFERENT?

Obvious Answer No. 1: The livestreaming.

Say goodbye to last season’s often-spotty UNation connection. This year we’ll be watching away games via YouTube, the popular Google-owned video service.

That was the big news out of the League HQ last week. And there was much rejoicing.

That said, let me offer a cautionary opinion. The problems we experienced last season with Battery away days were typically problems on the home-team end of the uplink, not necessarily UNation itself. Unless the league gets serious about that and starts punishing teams that skimp on their broadcast responsibilities, not much is going to change.

But YouTube almost certainly means progress, and with new technologies like Chromecast, the livestreaming experience keeps getting better.

You know who really deserves better? Tommy Snee, who hosts the official Battery Away Game Viewing Parties. It’s one of the great fan experiences we get here in Charleston, and the only thing that detracted from it were the occasionally dodgy video connections.

And it’s possible that we’ll be seeing some other digital improvements. The LA Blues are touting a big “New Era” makeover on Feb. 5, and USL PRO says change is coming to its digital presence, too. The current site, with an obsolete design and spotty content, provides reliable statistics and game reports. But it has its problems. Like the fact that my antivirus software tries to block the site every time I visit.

Wilmington just upgraded its website, and the Hammerheads also ditched their horrendous logo for one that looks at least marginally better. Still not as cool as the one we imagined, but you know. Wilmington.

The Battery made their big digital leap forward in 2013 with a comprehensive web makeover that vastly improved usability. While the team site remains incomplete in odd areas, it’s a shining city on a hill compared to most of the websites you’ll find around USL PRO.

OH, AND GOODBYE CITRUS BOWL

The Battery came close, but they never beat the Orlando City Lions at the Citrus Bowl. Now it looks like it’s unlikely that will ever happen. The venue is undergoing renovations this year, and the Lions will spend their final minor league season playing in the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. It’s likely they’ll play in the Citrus Bowl in 2015 while their downtown soccer-specific venue is under construction, but barring a friendly match or a USOC pairing, the Battery is unlikely to play there again.

The Lions are also changing their horrid current logo.

NOTES

Complete USL PRO attendance stats here.

Useful North American Soccer Almanac here.

USL PRO Colorado Springs 2015 expansion announcement here.

USL PRO Tulsa 2015 expansion announcement here.

Excellent Brian Strauss SI article on USL PRO expansion here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

  1. Very thorough work, Dan.

    You might have to update the piece soon, through, if Nick Murray’s teaser from this morning comes to fruition.