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USL PRO rebrands, sets collision course with NASL

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Soccer-wars reignited as USL clearly states D2 ambitions.

USL press release

Locally the change is minor. The league in which Sounders 2 will play has simplified its name, going from USL PRO to just USL. That's the key element to the rebrand by the current D3 level of the American soccer system. The 24 teams competing in USL are divided in their organizational structure. Four teams are fully independent, eight teams are owned and operated by an MLS side and twelve others are affiliates. They are also split into conferences with quite limited play across East and West.

Together they are united in the league. USL is pushing that element in their new brand.

UNITED ACROSS NORTH AMERICA - All aspects of our league have been elevated, both on and off the field, to the extent that the time is right for USL to re-establish its Division 2 status. This year the League will apply for USSF Division 2 sanctioning to accurately reflect the quality of our league, our ownership groups, our stadiums and our fans. We are United.

And that's where the North American soccer wars return. USL says that it is rising. It's quality of play is, as there will be hundreds of fringe MLS talents in the league in 2015 and beyond. The league is improving its broadcasts, stadiums and sponsorship deals.

All of that and now pushing toward D2 status. That status is currently held by the NASL. There is no indication from USSF or the CSA that the two leagues could or could not co-exist. D2 status is mostly about status. The functional differences are small. Those differences are marked by entry into the US Open Cup and the minimum bond required to compete. That bond helps ensure that players and other debtors are paid in case a team fails.

The standards that must be met for D2 are achievable for USL and NASL. Each is currently a bit short.

  • Eight teams with at least 75% in the USA
  • By year six have US teams in at least three time zones (NASL doesn't meet that)
  • At least 75% of teams must be in market greater than 750,000
  • Minimum seating capacity of 5,000 (USL doesn't meet that)
  • Principal Owner (35%) having net worth of 20 million dollars (USL doesn't meet that)
  • All owners must have at least 5% share

As the quest to rise to D2 takes place in 2015 Sounders 2 will need to help USL by expanding Starfire, or helping the league get a waiver for that rule. It will also need to fill "all required positions" with full-time staff, that may already be done. USSF has not released what the required positions are.

For fans of the game of soccer, the change is minor for S2. The league name is simpler and there will be some co-branding that mirrors MLS.

USL team branding

For fans of sport as business the soccer wars continue. There are two pro leagues below MLS at this time. One has Reserve Teams operating within it (as is typical in most of the world). The other doesn't exist in the West and had a team trade a player for hotel accommodations. Neither have 100% participation in Academies and most teams that do have them still are pay-to-play (which is nearly gone in MLS).

Soccer in America has come a long way. In 1995 there were four fully pro outdoor teams in the United States (two in Canada). In 2015 there are 17/3 MLS teams, 9/2 NASL teams and 21/3. Soccer in North America is exploding. It's been a rough growth, with a lot of bumps along the way. This may be another bump, but it isn't a sign that American soccer is failing.

To paraphrase today's announcement by the USL, soccer in North America is rising.