The Swope Park Rangers, Sporting Kansas City’s USL Championship side, have been one of the most successful teams in league history in their brief time in the league. They started off their first two USL seasons by going all the way to USL Cup. Despite that, The Athletic is reporting that MLS owned clubs may be forced to drop a league.
The Rangers currently play in the USL Championship. It’s the official second division of the US Soccer Pyramid and is placed firmly beneath Major League Soccer in the pecking order. As of 2019, the USL has added a third division league, USL League One, which now sits in between the USL Championship (formerly just the USL) and USL League Two (formerly the USL Premier Development League).
Sam Stejskal of The Athletic is reporting that “all MLS-owned teams currently playing in the second-division USL Championship could be moved to third-division USL League One by 2021.” That is based on sources from around both MLS and the USL.
Sporting KC head coach and sporting director Peter Vermes has long wanted SPR to play the best competition they can. In their first three seasons they were a playoff team and only recently in the 2019 season as the team struggled. The struggle happens to correspond with Swope playing a much more youth heavy team. That’s exactly the kind of thing the USL Championship is trying to avoid.
The USL apparently has become concerned with not just the product on the field, but with the results in the stands. Per The Athletic:
“The nine MLS-owned teams are all in the bottom 10 of the USL Championship in average attendance. Tacoma Defiance, owned by the [Seattle] Sounders, draw the most of the group with an average of 2,202 per match. Five of the remaining eight teams average fewer than 1,000 fans per home game. Combined, the nine MLS-owned Championship teams draw an average of 1,731 fans per match; the 27 independent clubs average 6,066.”
According to Soccer Stadium Digest, the Rangers are the worst offenders when it comes to attendance. They rank dead last in the 36 team league with just an average of 434 fans coming to each game. They play at Children’s Mercy Park which holds 18,467 seats. We reached out to the club to see if they were concerned with SPR attendance.
“Swope Park Rangers matches are a great chance for fans to enjoy all that the USL Championship has to offer with highly competitive fixtures at a great value,” stated a team spokesperson. “Tickets are just $14 and fans can currently take advantage of Groupon deals to attend matches at half price. In addition, Sporting Kansas City Season Ticket Members can request complimentary tickets.”
Vermes has said in the past that attendance isn’t the goal. It’s all about developing a pathway to the pros and with an average age of 22 on the current roster, that is definitely what the team is working on.
The USL obviously wants competitive teams and full stadiums, so it’s clear why they might want to move MLS owned clubs down a league. But that doesn’t fit with what Vermes and other MLS club executives want.
“Sources from several of the MLS teams in question said they’re strongly opposed to the idea of dropping down a division,” continued Stejskal. “Unlike USL, they’re not worried about poor results or weak attendance with their Championship teams. Their main concern is in using USL to develop players for MLS. In the Championship, they feel like they can achieve that.”
“Whether they’re signed to the first team or on USL deals, 16 and 17-year-old academy products are tested against grown men in the Championship. They might thrive, they might sink. Their team might be strong, or they might finish last in the league. Regardless, clubs gain valuable data points and players have a chance to improve against significantly stronger competition than what they experienced in the youth ranks.”
“The MLS team sources felt that fielding teams in League One simply wouldn’t be as valuable for their clubs. One said that they felt moving all the MLS-owned USL teams into League One would turn it into a ‘Under-21-type’ circuit, in which young players would play almost exclusively against fellow young players. They feel like the benefits of having academy teenagers go up against stronger, more experienced players, like they do in the Championship, would be mostly lost.”
Stejskal goes on to confirm that such a move could result in the elimination of the U-19 academy teams. However, MLS currently mandates all teams field a U-19 side, so that would require further red tape.
What About a Return to Swope Park?
Many fans want the Rangers to return to Swope Soccer Village, where the club played during its first two seasons for nearly all their home games. When asked about it, SKC President Jake Reid stated Swope was “definitely where we want to be.” He went on to say the stadium needed to expand to 5,000 seats to meet division two standards and that he was “working on it.” If MLS owned teams were forced to the third division, they wouldn’t need to expand their stadium.
Definitely where we want to be, need to expand to 5000 seats per USSF DII minimum standards. Working on it https://t.co/T1OqmygPHq— Jake Reid (@JakeReid33) February 18, 2019
When we reached out to the team for official comment on the stadium situation, we were met with several responses about Children’s Mercy Park being a “world-class venue” and having “easily the best playing surface in the USL Championship.” But there was no official comment on if the Rangers were looking to return to Swope Park anytime soon.
The clubs response did mention how CMP has “ample amenities to accommodate not only SPR supporters, but also the teams and match officials, as well as fulfilling other key considerations such as producing a high quality broadcast for ESPN+.” Swope Soccer Village does have issues behind just seating capacity as the locker rooms are poorly located and there is a lack of amenities for fans, refs and players alike.
If we take a view outside of just Sporting KC, it’s easy to see why MLS teams would be upset. Real Salt Lake recently built a 5,000 seat stadium for the Real Monarchs that cost several million dollars. The New York Red Bulls spent significantly to upgrade Montclair State University Soccer Park to the higher standard for NYRBII.
Another sticking point when it comes to money, is all the investment MLS teams poured in to grow the USL which was struggling. In 2013, the league had just 13 teams. In 2014, the LA Galaxy became the first team to field a team in USL and they were the only expansion team that season. The Galaxy joining added further credibility to the league.
In 2015, the league grew by 10 teams. Of which, six of them were owned by MLS clubs. That year saw the additions of New York Red Bulls II, Seattle Sounders 2, Vancouver Whitecaps 2, Portland Timbers 2, FC Montreal and Toronto FC II. Now the league has grown to 36 teams.
Stejskal reported that a potential forced move to USL1 “isn’t sitting well,” and one MLS club source said that there is “no way we’d acquiesce” after all their investments into the USL Championship.
“We are in discussions with USL regarding the long term future of MLS second teams’ participation within USL,” MLS Executive Vice President, Competition & Player Relations Todd Durbin said in a statement. “Our primary goal is to provide the best development platform for our players, and therefore the level of play is central to our investment. We will continue to work with USL to determine a solution that considers their commercial goals and our need to ensure top competition for our players.”
Is the Move Definitely Happening by 2021?
The Athletic story does go on to say that if MLS owned clubs are successful both on and off the field that they would be welcome to stay in the USL Championship. That though seems like a harsh double-standard as with any league that large, teams are going to fluctuate in how they perform in the standings. There are many independently owned USL clubs that haven’t seen nearly the success on the field as SPR have over their first three seasons. There are USLC teams that have chosen to move down, but there has been no word that they were forced down. If the USL is going to force MLS-owned teams, they surely need to do the same to the independent clubs.
The Rangers are currently on their third coach in four years and are shifting to a more youth oriented approach with an inexperienced coach. That will surely mean it’ll take time for them to regain success on the field as is evident by their struggles in 2019. That doesn’t remove the fact that they were beyond fantastic in their first three seasons.
It will be interesting to see if they commit further funds to renovating Swope Soccer Village or some other venue to drive success off the field.
One possible avenue to off-field success could be to move SPR to another city. The Sounders did it when they moved S2 to Tacoma and rebranded the club as the Defiance. When we asked if the Rangers would entertain a move a team spokesperson instead talked about the investment in soccer in Kansas City between their training facility, CMP and the pro player pathway. I’m choosing to take that as a ‘no’ when it comes to moving.
The USL stands to both help and hurt their brand with this move. It might help to have TV audiences see full stadiums but it will hurt to potentially burn this bridge with Major League Soccer. It would have to give other entities pause in doing business with them knowing that they could take advantage of help provided by organizations like MLS only to shun them when they feel they no longer need them.
As far as attendance goes, if MLS teams (or even independent teams) are willing to keep putting out a product but not worry about filling the stands, that seems like it’s their prerogative. I’m not sure leagues can mandate an attendance standard.
As far as the concern that MLS teams aren’t putting out a competitive product, maybe they should consider Promotion and Relegation between the USL leagues. At the very least between USLC and USL1. The problem becomes some USL1 teams don’t meet the minimum stadium and other requirements. But perhaps US Soccer could grant them a waiver if they are promoted and allow them time to upgrade facilities.
Of course, this will likely never happen as expansion fees to get into USL are reportedly around $10 million while USL1 expansion fees are a comparably paltry $1 million. No team will pay $10 million knowing they could pay $1 million and field a better team to get promoted. Though in the past, USL President Jake Edwards, didn’t rule out pro/rel.
In the end, I hope Swope Park and other MLS-owned USL teams will remain in the USL Championship if that’s what they desire. They grew the USL and supported it in its early years. And it will mean tougher competition for teams full of players trying to develop to the next level. If they are forced to USL1, it’s a much longer shot to make it to MLS and it could ultimately stunt the growth of soccer not just for MLS players, but for future United States National Team Players.