The United Soccer League is on a roll. Memphis is getting on board.
Last week, it was announced that a new USL Memphis franchise will be joining the league in 2019.
Along with the announcement that NASL club Indy Eleven will join the league for the 2018 season, USL is rapidly cementing its place as the premiere second division in U.S. soccer.
Trinity Sports Holdings, owners of the AAA Cardinals affiliate Memphis Redbirds (and winners of Ballpark Digest’s 2017 Organization of the Year) will be the owners of the new USL franchise. AutoZone Park in downtown Memphis will be the home of the new franchise.
The organization made a big splash at its opening press conference. Cheered on by vocal fans who marched over from a local soccer pub, U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper Tim Howard led off the announcement. Howard is a Memphis native and has been advising the ownership group.
“I have no doubt the city is going to grasp this with two hands,” said Howard, “If today is any indication, I think we’re gonna fill some seats and this will be an exciting place to watch a game.”
This sentiment was echoed by Peter Freund, Principal Owner of Trinity Sports Holdings (and minority owner of the New York Yankees), in an interview with Soccer Stadium Digest. “We believe that soccer in downtown Memphis will provide an affordable and incredible pro sports option to an entirely new demographic and activate Saturday nights from March to September where soccer is the main event downtown. We think that USL is the perfect complement to the NBA Grizzlies and PCL Redbirds.” The downtown location of AutoZone Park, two blocks from Beale Street, will be a key to the team’s success, according to Freund.
AutoZone Park will also lend itself well to soccer. Jake Edwards, USL President, noticed this immediately during a site visit to the stadium early in the process. “It’s a fantastic stadium,” he said. “A lot of baseball stadiums don’t shape out well for soccer. But when you watch a game here, you won’t feel like it’s a soccer stadium jammed into a baseball stadium.”
Freund also believes that the stadium will work well for soccer. “The capacity is similar to what it is for baseball as the main seating bowl and club/suite levels will provide optimum viewing for the soccer pitch.” He expects a slight drop in capacity due to sightlines, from about 10,500 for baseball to approximately 9,000 for soccer.
Though the stadium was built for baseball, Freund says they hope to create a soccer experience for fans on gameday. “We want to transform AZP for each home match, so you don’t feel as if we are playing at a baseball only stadium. From signage to food offerings to merchandise, when you walk into AutoZone Park for a soccer match, you will feel as if we have transformed the place.”
The baseball to soccer transformation will be achieved with some minor renovations. “There will be renovations done enabling us to provide our players and fans an optimal experience. This will include everything from a soccer-only clubhouse to new group areas to a netting system that can drop for soccer matches,” Freund said.
If the current alignment of teams and stadiums carry over into 2019, Memphis will be the 10th USL team playing in a Minor League Baseball ballpark.
Freund is thrilled to be joining USL, and sees Nashville’s USL to MLS path as evidence of enthusiasm for soccer in the region, but not a blueprint for Memphis. “We are 100% committed to the USL and are incredibly impressed by their growth model and the market footprint they have created.”
With the star power of Tim Howard, a dynamic ownership group, and a downtown stadium with great soccer potential, Memphis should be an excellent addition to the USL. With the recent trajectory of the league, it is certainly getting on board at the right moment.
Rendering courtesy USL.