With a successful debut season in the books for the Swope Park Rangers the eyes of the world have turned to the USL offseason. There aren’t any official words regarding roster moves for the club (though we have some ideas what may be happening) so we look for broader news. That news comes in the form of USL President, Jake Edwards, commenting about the expansion of USL, how ownership will work for MLS clubs going forward as well as the splitting of the divisions further.
Division Two Status Means Bigger Stadiums
For the USL to overtake the NASL as the Second Division in the US Soccer Pyramid, they need to have all their teams with minimum stadium capacities of 5,000 seats. The Swope Park Rangers are one of several teams that don’t currently meet that criteria. Swope Soccer Village only has a capacity of 3,500 seats as this time. According to an interview with Soccer America, Edwards stated:
“The vast majority [of our teams] meet or exceed the requirements. As a league we’re giving them a deadline of next season. Everyone has to meet the standards whether they are an independent team or or MLS second team.”
According to SA, “clubs must present business plans detailing contractors and vendors, seat plans, timelines and costs.” Obviously Sporting Kansas City’s owners have the financial capacity to expand Swope Soccer Village as necessary. One has to wonder if they will do that or move the team to another market. Team owner Robb Heineman previously indicated some games could be played in Omaha, Nebraska.
Chance of a package of @SwopeRangers games in Omaha in the future....what do u think?— Robb Heineman (@RobbHeineman) September 8, 2016
How long until the team just moves there? Edwards says teams have one year to figure it out. There is talk of the Portland Timbers 2 moving to Boise, Idaho as well (likely for this same reason). It would grow the brand and probably the attendance but no doubt it would bum out many local fans.
USL Expansion is Slowing Waaaaay Down
The USL only had 11 teams back in 2012. By the start of 2016 that number was 29. Next year the league will grow to 31 teams by adding Reno 1868 FC (San Jose Earthquakes affiliate) and two former NASL teams, the Ottawa Fury (who were previously coached by now former SPR coach Marc Doc Santos) and Tampa Bay Rowdies as well as losing the Wilmington Hammerheads (who dropped down to the PDL).
The expansion slowdown isn’t an accident. The USL are looking to move to the Second Divison, as mentioned above. To do that the USL has to meet the aforementioned stadium requirement and they are taking it further than that. After Nashville join the league in 2018, “ all teams must have soccer-specific stadiums with a capacity of 8,000-10,000, which may move the timeline when clubs join the league back a few years.”
In the Future MLS Clubs May Not Own Their USL Team
Now, SPR are good as they are grandfathered in with SKC owning them. But going forward it looks like the league wants a model similar to Rio Grande Valley FC and Reno. Both clubs have independent owners and operations but on the technical side they have staff, coaches and players from an MLS club. RGV with Houston and Reno with San Jose.
While the cost savings are a benefit for some of these MLS clubs, it has to be looked at as a disadvantage to not have your second team practice with the first team. That would leave competitors like Dallas, Colorado and Chicago on the outside looking in. Only time will tell if it will really hurt those clubs.
The USL Will Soon Have a Central Conference
While on Cincy Soccer Talk (hey, they had me on once too!) Edwards dropped the bomb that he plans to add a Central Conference. Currently there are Eastern and Western Conferences but that can leave some teams fairly isolated. The Rangers, just to use an example, are stuck traveling great distances to play their counterparts in Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Sacramento. One look at the beautiful map below shows SPR are prime candidates for that Central Conference.
The league already schedules very lopsided to help keep costs down. For example, SPR played St Louis, Oklahoma City and Tulsa four times each. They played a majority of the rest of the conference just one to two times. A new central division would allow all the Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri teams to join clubs like the Colorado Switchbacks, Louisville City FC and FC Cincinnati (until they become an MLS expansion team).
The USL Will be on Television a Lot More
Edwards indicated to The Mane Land that there are lots of things in the work between local TV, ESPN and still maintaining online content.
“We’re in discussions now with ESPN to build on the partnership and build on the work we’ve done together. We’re working on three levels now with the launch of the new USL productions company that we’ve created here. We’ll have an expanded footprint on national TV with ESPN next year.
We’ll also have local television and regional sports networks, and we will have a system where clubs can make deals with their local [channels] and we’re in the middle of facilitating those negotiations as we speak, and many of the teams have already secured their local TV rights for home and away games with the new system next year — the league is taking control of all broadcasts next year. We’re working with a production company on that for over 500 games, plus other content that will be distributed across the networks.
[We will] remain highly committed to the online streaming as well, we’re in discussions with the digital distribution partners. There will be an expanded partnership with ESPN next year, both linear and digital. That’s something we’re wrapping up at the moment, and should be able to make an announcement on in the coming weeks.”
These new changes may challenge the cord cutters of the world. Bringing the production in house and having more games available nationally should continue to help grow the game.
Overall, it sounds like a lot of change is coming to the USL as it continues to grow. It will be interesting to see how it impacts the Swope Park Rangers. Whether it be a bigger stadium, a different home location, a new conference or the way we as fans consume the game, things will definitely be changing.