USL Championship, League One, and League Two… Premier League? USL Cup? Promotion and relegation?!? Let’s look at the possibilities.
On Tuesday, the United Soccer League announced a new brand identity that aligns the three leagues formerly known as USL, USL D3, and PDL under one central brand. If you have been following us here at Soccer ‘n’ Sweet Tea for awhile, you know we first reported on the potential of this rebrand nearly a year ago. Nonetheless, it was an exciting day for the organization and the fans of the three leagues.
The new names? USL Championship, USL League One, and USL League Two.
Now that the new branding is officially out in the open, many fans are left to wonder what this actually means for the future of soccer in this country.
Is the USL looking to become the EFL of the United States, as we suggested last November? Will they eventually work towards a USL “Premier League” to compete with Major League Soccer? Could promotion/relegation (put on your tinfoil hats) be on the horizon?
Let’s jump in and examine the vast array of possibilities with this new restructuring and how it might affect soccer in the Carolinas.
Next Steps for USL
Seeing that this rebrand has been in the works for quite some time (the trademarks and Twitter accounts were created nearly a year ago) would indicate that the organization as a whole has some big plans and dreams moving forward. While many of the things that fans are dying to see may still be a few years away, there are some obvious first steps that the USL as a whole needs to take before any of those plans can commence.
Step 1: Freeze Expansion at the Championship level
There are currently 33 teams in what will be the USL Championship; 16 in the Eastern Conference and 17 in the Western Conference. While two of those teams have already announced a move to League 1 (Toronto FC 2 and Richmond Kickers), there have also been nine expansion teams announced for the Championship level over the next few years.
If the league were to freeze expansion at the teams currently announced and zero teams move down to League 1, that would put the total number of Championship teams at 40 for the 2021 season.
Step 2: Grow League 1 through expansion and “relegation”
While the move to League 1 is not technically considered “relegation” at this point, it is something that needs to be done to a few teams to trim the number of Championship sides while continuing to grow the League 1 division.
Additionally, League 1 could become the entry point for new franchises looking to enter the fray.
League 1 is planning to field just eleven teams in their inaugural season. If the league could organically add nine expansions teams, and take on ten teams moving down from the Championship level over the next three seasons, that would put the two top divisions of USL at 30 teams each.
Step 3: Organization of leagues for a USL Cup and Promotion/Relegation
If both USL Championship and USL League 1 could get to 30 teams, each with two 15 team conferences, that would lay the groundwork for a “USL Cup” competition. While there is no way to know exactly what the geographical makeup will look like in a few years, here is a suggestion for how to optimize such a tournament.
Each conference (Championship East, Championship West, League 1 East, and League 1 West) could be broken down into three groups of five teams each grouped somewhat geographically. You would then take one pod of five from the Championship level and combine them with the corresponding geographic pod from the League 1 level. Those ten teams would be randomly drawn to meet up in the first round of the tournament.
Draws would continue after each round as the tournament moved forward keeping conferences grouped together so that ultimately an East team would matchup against a West team for the final.
Having this type of conference organization also works well for the idea of promotion and relegation. When and if the USL wants to pursue the system of soccer used across the globe, it would make sense to promote the top Eastern and Western conference teams in League 1 and relegate the bottom Eastern and Western conference teams in the Championship. This would keep the conferences balanced and create minimal travel implications.
The Impact in the Carolinas
Currently, the Carolinas have three teams in the Championship (Charleston Battery, Charlotte Independence, and North Carolina FC), one coming to League 1 (Greenville Triumph SC), and six in League 2 (Carolina Dynamo, Charlotte Eagles, Myrtle Beach Mutiny, NCFC U23, SC United Bantams, and Tobacco Road FC).
The most obvious place of impact would be the expansion of the League 1 level of USL. The league has traveled to many cities across North and South Carolina as they have explored possible franchise cities for the league. While there is no way to know exactly what markets are the most attractive to USL, here is my best guess for cities that would be up for consideration:
- Columbia, SC
- Rock Hill, SC
- Hilton Head, SC
- North Augusta/Aiken, SC
- Florence/Sumter, SC
- Asheville, NC
- Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point, NC
- Fayetteville, NC
- Wilmington, NC
- Durham, NC (maybe, but less likely with NCFC nearby)
What about League 2?
No, I did not forget about our friends in League 2. However, at this point, League 2 cannot possibly be in consideration for promotion and relegation, and probably not the USL Cup either.
The bottom line is that League 2 teams are still amateur by designation, and their seasons are much more abbreviated. Could League 2 ultimately develop into a new “division 4” in the US soccer pyramid? Maybe? But at that point, the USL would need to dust off “USL Youth” trademark they took out last November to have a place for many of the current League 2 teams to go. Most of them likely have no desire to rise the ranks to division 2 or 3.
The Bigger Dream
Is there a world in which the USL looks to go toe-to-toe with Major League Soccer? Who knows? But it is fun to think about.
If the USL were to ever go “full-English” and develop the USL Premier League, could it be successful in a world where MLS has dominated the Division 1 market? I think so.
We have had some great discussion over on the SNST Slack (which you can sign up for here) about what a potential USL Premier might look like. As a part of that discussion, I took a look at “Division 1” teams across the four other major sports in this country (NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL). Of all the cities that have a team in at least one of those leagues, 21 of those cities do not have an MLS team.
That means there are 21 markets that currently support top level professional sports (in the United States) that could be ideal markets for should they hope to slowly infiltrate that top tier market. Several of them already have USL Championship teams, so maybe those could make the jump right off the bat.
Here they are:
- Las Vegas
- Milwaukee/Green Bay
- New Orleans
- Oklahoma City
- San Antonio
- San Diego
- San Francisco/Oakland
- St. Louis
- Tampa Bay
- *BONUS* Columbus (assuming that the Crew do, in fact, move to Austin #SaveTheCrew, pissing off soccer fans across the nation)
Is this USLPL idea far fetched? Maybe. But so was promotion and relegation just a few short years ago. And yet, we seem to be laying the very early groundwork for that very thing to take place within the soccer landscape in America.