"Don't count us out just yet," seems to be the message from the United Soccer Leagues today. As anticipated by early media reports, the USL-1 upped the ante in the ongoing struggle over the future of Division 2 soccer in North America.
The league announced that Orlando will operate a USL-1 franchise beginning next season, as part of its plan to "re-establish" its first division, which is currently playing under the auspices of the U.S. Soccer Federation along with teams from the rival NASL.
The new franchise will be operated by NY Empire Lacrosse, LLC and will be called the Titans. NY Empire Lacrosse brought professional lacrosse to the Orlando market in January and appears to have settled on outdoor soccer as the best way to diversify its pro sports operations.
"We looked at several different options, including indoor soccer and hockey, but in the end, professional outdoor soccer made the most sense in terms of being able to utilize our staff on a year-round basis without a lot of overlap in the seasons," NY Empire president Steve Donner said in a USL press release.
The Titans have no playing facility yet, but the organization is "exploring options on a home facility and hope to make an announcement in the near future," according to the release.
There are currently three USL-1 teams: Portland, Puerto Rico and Austin. Portland will begin play in the MLS next season, so the introduction of Orlando means the number of USL-1 teams slated to play in 2011 remains at three. It'll be interesting to see if the USL has more such announcements up its sleeve, as there's purportedly a required minimum of eight clubs for sanctioning by the U.S. Soccer Federation (notwithstanding this season's six-team USL-2).
It's also more than a little interesting that there are now three D2 soccer franchises in Florida (Miami FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies are committed to the NASL).
The "NY Empire" moniker for the company might raise some eyebrows. Turns out that Steve Donner's sports background includes an ownership stint with the Rochester Rhinos. For background, see Jeff DiVeronica's post on the blog of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. (He's rather skeptical of this Florida venture.)
Complete announcement below. Orlando Titans Bring USL soccer to Orlando for 2011
ORLANDO, FL -- future of professional soccer in Central Florida began to take shape today with the announcement of a new United Soccer Leagues (USL) First Division franchise in Orlando. The Orlando Titans will serve as the principal owner and operator of the franchise, and will also be responsible for securing local minority investors.
United Soccer Leagues is planning to re-establish the USL First Division in 2011 and Orlando is scheduled to play in the league. In 2010, USL teams are competing in the USSF D-2 Pro League, currently the only sanctioned second division league.
The second division season runs from April through October, and in addition to league play, Orlando intends to compete in premier domestic and international tournaments and exhibitions such as the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League. The Orlando franchise is exploring options on a home facility and hope to make an announcement in the near future.
The Titans' parent company, NY Empire Lacrosse, LLC, brought professional indoor lacrosse to Orlando in January.
"It has been our intention since the beginning for the Titans to operate more than one professional sports franchise in this market and this announcement is the next logical step," Titans President Steve Donner said. "We looked at several different options, including indoor soccer and hockey, but in the end, professional outdoor soccer made the most sense in terms of being able to utilize our staff on a year-round basis without a lot of overlap in the seasons."
"The fact that this franchise will play in USL's top division means that we will be bringing an incredible level of professional soccer to Central Florida fans," Donner added.
In addition to securing local investors for the club, the team is expected to announce a professional player development agreement with a European professional team in the near future. The Titans will also pursue bringing major international exhibitions to Central Florida. Between the schedule and exhibitions, the Titans hope to stage up to 30 professional events in Central Florida in their first season.
Founded in 1986, United Soccer Leagues has become the largest organization of elite-level soccer leagues in North America by building on the vision, commitment, and passion of players, fans, and investors. Now in its third decade of operation, USL continues to be a driving force in the growth of soccer in the United States.
"This is the first of many important announcements we will make as USL moves forward with its plans to re-establish the USL First Division in 2011," USL CEO Alec Papadakis said. "We're most excited about the quality of ownership joining USL in the Orlando Titans and Steve Donner. Steve has an extensive and successful background with USL, and he's the perfect person to bring a professional team to soccer-hungry Central Florida. There's no doubt in our minds that Orlando will become one of our most successful teams."
Orlando is already home to USL Premier Development League (PDL) franchise Central Florida Kraze, who will partner with the new professional franchise.
"The Central Florida Kraze is truly excited for the Orlando soccer community," Kraze head coach Joe Avallone said. "Our local youth players now have a full progression of soccer to aspire to. We feel with the sports marketing knowledge of Mr. Donner and his history in professional sports, Orlando will have a sports franchise to be proud of."