by Neil Morris
Last month, USSF instituted a series of stringent financial and facility requirements for Division 2 clubs, ostensibly to cultivate a long-missing stability in the lower tiers of American soccer. With a Sept. 15 deadline looming for applications to USSF for D2 sanctioning, Carolina RailHawks’ owner Selby Wellman recently told the Cary News that the NASL will submit their bid for the 2011 season, with Carolina, Tampa Bay, Miami, Rochester, Minnesota, Baltimore, St. Louis, Montreal, Puerto Rico, and a new franchise in Edmonton as prospective member clubs.
There is a temptation to view today’s announcement by USL as further window-dressing and posturing between the warring leagues. Indeed, other recent pronouncements from USL regarding the formation of an indoor soccer league — I-League — and a new franchise based in Orlando headed by controversial ex-Rochester Rhinos owner Steve Donner raised unintended eyebrows.
In conjunction with today’s announcement, Triangle Offense spoke by telephone with USL President Tim Holt. Holt had just left a meeting with representatives of clubs that will predominantly comprise USL PRO next year. Holt declined to list the clubs that will make-up USL PRO, saying further details about teams and divisions will be forthcoming over the next 30-45 days.
Nevertheless, a merger of USL-2 and the remnants of USL-1 would include current USSF D2 club Austin Aztex and this year’s six USL-2 clubs: Charleston, Charlotte, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Maryland, and Richmond. The Dutch Lions of Dayton, OH announced in July their intent to jump to USL’s pro division. Further, there remains the possibility of teams in New York City and Orlando, along with a division located in the Western U.S. made up of new franchises or current USL PDL clubs.
According to day’s press release, USL PRO will consist of “as many as four geographic regions in 2011.” Holt reiterated this point to us, stating that while four divisions are possible next season, the league might launch with just two or three divisions. These divisions will be formed around and feature regional competition designed to exploit natural rivalries and reduce travel costs.
Travel costs are just one of many concerns that led dissident owners to migrate to NASL or, like the Charleston Battery, abandon D2 soccer altogether and self-relegate to USL-2. The most persistent complaint about USL, however, is the lack of individual team ownership or control. USL PRO seeks to address this concern with the formation of a Board of Governors that will be tapped with major decision-making responsibility for the league, including competition format, expansion, and marketing.
Holt said that the Board of Governors will include one representative from each of the member USL PRO clubs plus two officials from USL corporate. The BOG will also form various subcommittees geared towards specific league issues. When pressed on whether the BOG would have binding authority over league decisions or merely serve an advisory capacity, Holt responded, “USL PRO will be team-controlled; I don’t know how else to say it.”
“Our feeling is, based on where the marketplace, is that the merger of the USL First Division with the USL Second Division into a single pro league, USL PRO, that sits on top of our system of leagues — our soccer pyramid, if you will — is the appropriate model for professional soccer in this country beneath MLS,” said Holt. “We think we’ll have the strongest and most visible league in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean below MLS with the changes we’re making today and changes we’ll be making in the ensuing months.”
This statement is revealing for several reasons. While USL PRO will obviously seek USSF sanctioning, Holt would not say at this time whether the league will apply under the auspices of D2 or D3, nor would he reveal whether member clubs would attempt to abide by the new D2 guidelines. However, USL PRO will likely organize under the D3 umbrella to avoid those guidelines and the distraction of last year’s sanctioning squabble with NASL.
Moreover, Holt’s statement flies in the face of those who believe USL is merely ceding second division supremacy to NASL. Should NASL fail to obtain D2 sanctioning — like last year — USL PRO could position itself to serve as the de facto U.S. second division soccer league. Further, these attempts to address longstanding complaints — whether sincere or lip-service — could assuage otherwise uneasy clubs to align themselves with the more venerable and deeper staffed USL.
Reached for reaction on USL PRO, NASL representatives declined to comment at this time.