The United States Soccer Federation’s decision to grant provisional Division II status to the USL on Friday for 2017 is further evidence that the growing league is making dramatic strides while the rival Northern American Soccer League barely holds on.
The NASL has been the sole D-II league since its re-formation in 2010. But because of its financial struggles and failure to meet the federation’s standards, it has provisional status.
It could drop from 12 teams to eight next season.
Minnesota United FC has departed for Major League Soccer, and the Ottawa Fury FC and Tampa Bay Rowdies have joined the USL. Rayo OKC and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers aren’t expected to return. The Jacksonville Armada and the New York Cosmos have financial troubles but are expected to return for the 2017 spring season. The San Francisco Deltas join the league as an expansion team.
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Meanwhile, the USL continues to grow, with attendance leaders FC Cincinnati and Republic FC leading the way. When Sacramento won the USL title in its inaugural season in 2014, there were 14 teams. This coming season, the USL, with the support of MLS, will have 30 teams.
U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati said after Friday’s meeting that his organization will create an internal group that will work with each league to set a pathway to meet the full requirements of D-II. According to the USSF Professional Standards, a second-division league must have at least 12 teams, 75 percent must compete in a market of 750,000 or more and have stadiums seating at least 5,000.
USL officials and club owners are confident the USL will shed its provisional status. They note that teams have spent $100 million in stadium development while drawing a league-record 1.5 million fans last season, a 33 percent attendance increase. Valuations of private transactions for existing teams have skyrocketed from $500,000 in 2012 to $21 million in 2016, according to Forbes Magazine.
“In this sport, we are judged by our actions and not just our intentions,” said Republic FC president Warren Smithin a release. “We are proud to be a part of a group that fulfills their commitments and does right by their clubs and fans.”
Republic FC coach Paul Buckle doesn’t see how the NASL can survive with the USL pushing all the right buttons.
“It’s sad to see something not work, but I think it bodes well for the USL,” Buckle said. “It’s getting stronger every year, and those teams that have left (the NASL) will make the USL stronger and put it more on the map. It’s also good from a selfish point of view because we have a chance to have good players like Adam Moffat come to us.”
Moffat, an eight-year MLS veteran, played the last two seasons for New York before signing last week with Republic FC.
But the USL has had some contraction, too. The Montreal Impact has dropped its FC Montreal affiliate, and the Wilmington Hammerheads FC have dropped to the fourth division Premier Development League for this coming season.
English connection – Buckle continues to build bridges with top soccer clubs in his native England.
Buckle spent nine days recently visiting English Premier League clubs Crystal Palace, Liverpool and Manchester City as well as Fulham of the English Football Championship League. He also saw Tottenham play Swansea City and the Queens Park Rangers go against the Wolverhampton Wanderers in league contests.
“I packed in quite a bit in a short period of time, but it was fantastic,” Buckle said. “I went to build on relationships we’ve already created and to start a new one with Manchester City. I was looked at royally by all the clubs I visited.”
An invitation has been extended to Crystal Palace to come to Sacramento this summer. Last year, the EPL club played at FC Cincinnati, and the match drew 35,000, believed to be the largest crowd ever to witness a soccer match in Ohio.
Republic FC has had its own series of successful home matches against the EPL’s West Bromich United, Sunderland AFC and Newcastle United and the Liverpool U-21s.
Experience counts – Republic FC had one of the youngest rosters in the USL last season. But now Sacramento has added some age.
Moffat is 30, Jeremy Hall 28 and Trevin Caesar 27; all signed with Republic FC last week.
Moffat and Hall, who played 11 games with Republic FC last season on loan from the Tampa Bay Rowdies, bring loads of MLS experience to the Sacramento midfield. Caesar, a forward, has played internationally with Trinidad and Tobago.
“I looked at the squad and thought we needed to bring in a touch more experience now to balance out the roster,” Buckle said. “All of our young players have done great, but there’s nothing like having experienced players on the field.”
It also may be important to have experience on the roster if Republic FC is unable to forge a new affiliation with an MLS team. Republic FC’s former affiliate, the San Jose Earthquakes, is now working with the new Reno 1868 FC USL team, which begins play this season.
Republic FC will play a friendly at Reno on March 11.