The New York Red Bulls II beat the Swope Park Rangers 5-1 Sunday for the 2016 USL Cup, a match that was televised on ESPNU.
But while the match showcased the best of the USL, it also revealed the challenges for the league in having two Major League Soccer second teams playing in the championship game.
Most of the 25,000 seats at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., were empty.
The USL announced an attendance at 5,547, unimpressive in the expansive stadium, but a huge jump over the Red Bulls II’s average regular-season attendance of 589, second-lowest in the 29-team league. The Red Bulls senior team averaged nearly 21,000 during its MLS Eastern Conference championship run.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
USL independent teams, such at the Republic FC, were by far the better draws than the 11 MLS-sponsored two clubs this past season.
The top 12 clubs in attendance all were independents, led by record-setting FC Cincinnati (17,296) and Republic FC (11,514). Sacramento set a club record for attendance this season because of another expansion of Bonney Field to 11,569 seats and one additional league home game. League attendance was up 33 percent over 2015.
While the MLS second teams have yet to make an impact in attendance, USL officials agree they have helped to improve the quality of play in the league and boosting its profile and bottom line.
According to Forbes magazine, the USL franchise fees have increased from $250,000 in 2012 to $3 million for 2016 and that valuations for existing teams have skyrocketed from $500,000 four years ago to $21 million this year.
USL adds two teams – The Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury FC have departed the second-tier North American Soccer League for the third-tier USL, a league that is trying to gain second-tier status.
While the USL continues to expand, the NASL is shrinking. Its top drawing side, Minneapolis United, is leaving for MLS next season. And despite the expansion San Francisco Deltas joining the NASL next season, the league could be down to eight teams if the financially troubled Rayo OKC and Fort Lauderdale Strikers don’t return.
Tampa Bay and Ottawa will give the USL two more strong independent teams. Tampa Bay is in the 11th-largest media market and also located where the USL is headquartered. The Fury FC ownership group also owns a Canadian Football League franchise and manages the 24,000-seat TD Place stadium, which is home to both teams.
Tampa Bay had an average attendance of 5,878 and Ottawa 5,521, which would have placed them fifth and sixth, respectively, among USL teams this season.
With the addition of the expansion Reno 1868 FC, the USL now has 32 teams, though that could change before the league kicks off the new season in March. Expansion Nashville FC is scheduled to join in 2018.
Jahn signs new contract – Former Jesuit High and Stanford star Adam Jahn re-signed Tuesday with the Columbus Crew. Jahn played for Republic FC – on loan from the San Jose Earthquakes – this past season and in 2014.
Jahn was traded by the ’Quakes to Columbus late in the season and scored five goals in 12 games for the Crew. Jahn had six goals in 62 games during his four seasons with San Jose.
New ARC stadium – The American River College soccer program will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 4 p.m. Friday before hosting a doubleheader at its new 1,000-seat, lighted stadium.
The stadium includes a 75- by 120-yard grass pitch, a concession stand, press box, restrooms and scoreboard. It’s part of a $5.5 million physical education and athletic renovation project that will include a new football practice field.
The ARC women will play Cosumnes Riverat 5 p.m., followed by the ARC men against Folsom Lake at 7. Admission is free.
USL CUP CHAMPIONSHIP RESULTS
2011: Orlando City SC 2, Harrisburg City Islanders 2 (ORL wins 3-2 in penalty shootout) (Attendance: 11,220)
2012: Charleston Battery 1, Wilmington Hammerheads FC 0 (A: 4,963)
2013: Orlando City SC 7, Charlotte Eagles 4 (A: 20,886)
2014: Sacramento Republic FC 2, Harrisburg City Islanders 0 (A: 8,000)
2015: Rochester Rhinos 2, LA Galaxy II 1 (OT) (A: 5,247)
2016: New York Red Bulls II, Swope Park Rangers 1 (A: 5,547)