In a landscape of American soccer desperately searching for its newest generation of stars (or at the very least relevancy), media pundits around the country continue to criticize the development of soccer players within the United States. For years American soccer has been plagued by a complicated web of leagues that either fizzle out within the first few years, or struggle to stay afloat, albeit with minimal fandom and little consistency. But with a new announcement from the United Soccer League (USL), perhaps the development of American soccer could be taking a step into a new brighter direction.
This past September, the USL announced a new branding of their league that will adopt two additional leagues, underneath their already successful, first league. Starting in 2018, the top division of the USL will become the USL Championship, a new league known as USL League One will be created, and the USL will adopt all 74 Premier Development League (PDL) teams and rebrand them as the USL League Two. In all, there will be upwards of 100 teams, in markets all over the country, falling under the USL branding.
So what does this really mean for US soccer? In player terms, it means that more American born players will get opportunities to pursue their professional dreams. In a larger sense, it means that the United States is finally attempting to adopt a format that has been wildly successful in European markets over the last century plus. Here is how the full USL pyramid will look, starting in the 2019 season.
The USL Championship is thriving today, and looks to continue to grow in 2019. With a massive fan population of over 84 million people, the top level of the USL has one goal: bring high level soccer to a country demanding it. Starting in 2019, the Championship will feature 35 teams in 35 very different markets. In the recent USL playoffs, we got to see just how dynamic this league really is with clubs like Phoenix Rising, Louisville City, and New York Red Bulls II making legitimate championship runs.
All three clubs boast very different dynamics and fan atmospheres that make them enticing for different reasons. For fans in New York, watching the Red Bulls II offers them a chance to watch high level soccer at an affordable price. Fans of the MLS Red Bulls can watch potential first-team players compete at the USL level, in hopes of a call-up. In Louisville, the defending USL champions represent the lone professional soccer team in Kentucky. Fans throughout the state drive to Louisville to watch players like Jamaican international Speedy Williams, play for their home state team. Of course, Phoenix Rising have become one of the most talked about clubs in the league, with wealthy investors and legends like Didier Drogba, hoping that they can eventually make the leap to the MLS.
The new USL pyramid does not bring any monumental changes to the top level. For fans of the league, the limited alteration of the USL Championship should come as no surprise. The league is thriving, and here’s to hoping for more of the same in 2019.
The USL League one is where things begin to get interesting.. Executives of the USL are branding the newly developed league “the foundation of professional soccer”. The new league, which will debut in 2019 with ten teams, is all about developing fan bases in places that have not been able to facilitate consistent team atmospheres. In short, the whole league is about building a foundation of US soccer. For coaches and players, this gives them a chance to gain more exposure as their teams will be operating under the USL umbrella, and for fans it gives them a chance to root on their teams and enjoy the wild fan experience that is completely unique to the game of top level soccer. Much like the USL Championship, this league brings soccer to communities that may never be able to facilitate an MLS or USL Championship team. The league is geared for markets with 150,000 to 1,000,000 in population. Next season, we will see teams like the Greenville Triumph SC out of Greenville South Carolina, the Richmond Kickers, out of Richmond Virginia, and Lansing Ignite FC out of Lansing Michigan. This league is completely unprecedented, and represents a phenomenal opportunity to prospective professional athletes hoping to carve out a career.
The final, and lowest, level of the pyramid is the USL League Two. The Premier Development League also known as the PDL, has now joined forces with the USL to make up the USL League Two. Currently there are an incredible 74 teams in the PDL, competing in four different conferences, and 11 different divisions, throughout North America. For the USL, this represents an opportunity to increase player scouting and development, for the PDL this merge represents an opportunity to have guaranteed sponsorship, financial support, and more name recognition. Today, it may be fair to say that this league is the most important league in North American soccer, with regards to player development. So here is what you need to know about the league..
First of all, the vast majority of USL League Two players are college players. This gives high level college athletes a chance to get their first taste of professional soccer, and gain invaluable exposure. The athletes can remain eligible with their college programs due to the fact that most USL League Two teams do not pay their players. This offers collegiate athletes a chance to gain more exposure, and experience their first professional coaching. While the partnership with the USL does not represent a monumental change for the PDL, due to the fact that the league has already been in operation for over twenty years (the league was founded in 1995), the change is the way in which USL League Two players will be scouted.
Despite the fact that more than 70% of all players selected in the MLS SuperDraft over the past eight years, played in the PDL, a large number of PDL athletes failed to move on from the PDL level. For a long time, the opportunity after playing with your PDL club was limited to moving up through your club ranks (such as Portland Timbers U23’s, to the Timbers II, to the Timbers), or making a lateral move to another PDL team. Now these USL League Two clubs will be scouted heavily by USL League One coaches and executives. Look for a number of League Two players to make the climb through the USL ranks, starting as early as 2019.
How Big Is This Move?
Despite the clear efforts by the USL to increase respectability in American soccer, some media pundits still do not think the move is enough. All I know, is that this is a clear step in the right direction. The layout of the league lends itself perfectly to a relegation/promotion system (look for this to be implemented in the next decade), allows small clubs to find league wide sponsorship, and helps athletes of all ages gain more recognition. This may not be the one step that fixes soccer here in the United States, but it does represent a positive change, and just one more chance for young dreamers to become a Legend.