Billy’s Soccer Beat
USL Pro, the de facto third division league in the American soccer pyramid, announced that they are rebranding as simply USL, and will apply for second division status this coming year.
While this may seem trivial to the casual observer of American soccer, it represents a massive change in the pyramid structure and reopens the promotion/relegation discussion that has been dead for so long. USL currently has 24 teams, with four operating independently, eight owned by MLS clubs, and 12 affiliated with MLS clubs.
Compare that with the current second division of American soccer, the NASL, which has 11 total clubs all operating independently. USL, with their adoption of a number of fringe MLS players has begun to make the case that they are the true second division of American soccer and that the NASL is more of a rogue league.
With so much on the line, it will be interesting to see how this works out.
As Bill Peterson, the NASL commissioner was quick to point out in his interview following the USL news, divisions don’t really matter in a system with no promotion or relegation. Without the ability to move up or down within the leagues, the system is stagnant, and leagues can either be professional, semi-pro, or amateur, without much room for ranking. However, if USL, a partner of MLS, makes the jump as the de facto second division of American soccer, it opens a door for promotion/relegation that NASL has failed to open. Additionally, the Montreal Impact have already given precedent for leaving the NASL and joining the MLS, though more recently, MLS has looked towards USL cities (like Orlando) to find its expansion squads. Attaching the second division brand to USL would only open up roads for those teams to make the jump to MLS.
While the competition between USL and NASL is certainly good within the second division of American soccer, the real question remains: how do we introduce promotion/relegation to the American public?
With the idea gaining steam as the American soccer populous becomes more and more informed, the idea of allowing every club, no matter big or small, the chance to make it to the top division remains especially compelling for American sports fans. We love the Cinderella stories of March Madness. Expansion MLS clubs from lower divisions are amongst the most feverishly supported clubs in the country. We’ve even added a bit of mystery to college football with the Playoff.
American sports fans simply love the rags to riches story. Thus, it is up to US Soccer, as the governing body of the beautiful game in the United States to find a way to incorporate MLS, NASL, USL, and all other soccer clubs in a pyramid that makes sense, and includes promotion and relegation.
Ultimately, what drives us as sports fans is hope. Hope that our team will win, that our city will prosper, that the fans we have suffered through hard times with will experience the joy that we all collectively deserve.
European soccer at every level offers that hope. Every small club in every tiny town has the reassurance of knowing that if they win enough games, one day they will be in the top division.
The United States is too big and too great a country to limit ourselves to just 20 top division soccer clubs. Even the rumored expansion of 24 teams is not enough. US Soccer must build this thing from the ground up, allowing every city to throw their horse in the race and find a way to reach the top. Then, and only then, will soccer have arrived in the United States.