We end 2017 with a countdown of the 10 biggest stories of the year on Soccer Stadium Digest, as chosen by editors and partially based on page views. Today, #6: USL expansion.
One of the biggest stories of 2017 was the shifting landscape of the major soccer leagues in America – evidenced by the health and future growth of the United Soccer League.
The USL is slated to feature 33 teams in the 2018, with five new franchises expected to join.
Expansion franchises set to join the league in 2018 include Fresno FC, Las Vegas Lights FC, and Nashville SC. Additionally, North Carolina FC is joining from NASL, and Atlanta United FC is adding a Gwinnett County, GA-based USL affiliate for next season.
The USL’s growth is driven by three factors: the decline of the North American Soccer League, impressive attendance figures, and the promise of an established path to MLS.
There was a time when USL was perceived as a third division soccer league, with the NASL widely perceived as the second division. That state of affairs is no longer the perception, or the fact.
The NASL is currently in court fighting for their survival. A decision is expected in the next week on the league’s case seeking an injunction against the USSF to save their second division status for 2018, a designation critical to its survival. The league has only 5 teams remaining from last season, with several other teams waiting in the wings waiting to determine if the league will survive. The recent folding of this season’s league champion San Francisco Deltas, and the defection of North Carolina FC to USL, both added to the perception that the league is doomed.
It’s perhaps no surprise that new franchises are looking to USL as a more attractive alternative – attendance figures in the league set new records this season. The league’s 30 teams drew a total of over 2 million fans, with a per game average of 4,300. League average attendance was up more than 25% over 2016. Two USL clubs that moved into soccer-specific stadiums this season saw substantial rises in attendance, with Rio Grande Valley FC averaging 7,067 fans for its first season at H-E-B Park, and Phoenix Rising FC drawing more than 6,000 fans in its first season at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex.
The franchises at the top of USL in attendance were truly impressive – with Sacramento Republic FC averaging over 11,500 per game and FC Cincinnati boosting their MLS expansion bid with an astonishing average attendance of over 21,000 fans per game.
Indeed, the Cincinnati experience is indicative of perhaps the most significant factor driving USL growth – the league is now seen as the gateway to a potential MLS expansion franchise. A few years ago, Cincinnati was not on the radar of most forecasters, but they proved that through success in USL, establishing huge fan support in the community, that the city could support an MLS side and a new stadium. Many of the teams joining USL now have dreams of MLS in the future.
Growth beyond next season is also assured for USL. Memphis and Birmingham are set to join in 2019, Chicago in 2020, and Oakland East Bay in 2021. Austin was previously announced for 2019, but questions about that plan have arisen because of the city being engaged in a pursuit of MLS’s Columbus Crew SC. Presumably, the league will continue to expand its footprint in the coming years.
Overall, 2017 has been a great year for USL, and the league holds great promise for further growth in 2018 and beyond.
Previously in our Top Ten Stories of 2017 List: