With no third division league in the United States in 2017, the United Soccer League (USL) has announced on Thursday that it will launch a third-division league in 2019, essentially a USL 2 like they used to have back in the last decade.
“We are in a unique position to lead the sport’s next phase of growth with a proven and exciting competition model, the same which has made the USL the top Division II league in North America,” said USL CEO Alec Papadakis. “With elite competition and strong ownership groups providing unrivaled fan experiences, the USL will continue shaping the future of professional soccer through a third-division league, cultivating and bonding local supporters through the ‘beautiful game’ for generations to come.”
The USL is currently the largest second division, in terms of members, in the world and it is expected that this lead could well make that smaller. That would make the two leagues more manageable and could potentially see a return to inter-conference play in the top USL division.
“The league will focus on launching new third-division clubs in markets that possess strong local ownership groups, populations with broad-based diversity, a vibrant millennial and strong family base, established corporate support, and stadiums to properly showcase the sport for fans, partners and the public.” Says the league statement, which suggests that this will be a league of newly established clubs rather than clubs that are currently in USL and don’t meet division two standards, a spokesman confirmed that USL are currently in discussions with new markets “with numerous potential owners.”
Despite those statements it seems clear that part of the intent of the USL2 will be to improve the current USL and boost their chances of getting second division sanctioning permanently. With a number of teams currently not meeting second division status relegating those teams to the third division will boost USL’s chances of receiving that sanctioning.
USL state that they have been working on this idea for 18 months, and the league will include access to all the current USL features, including USL productions. There was no mention in the announcement of what markets they are looking at for this new division, but it could potentially include a number of successful Premier Development League (PDL) markets switching to professional teams.
For Texas an obvious candidate for this league is a return of the Austin Aztex, who are currently in hiatus due to being able to find an appropriate venue for second division soccer. Their former home venue of House Park would be good enough for third division standards and playing would help bring in investors that could potentially help make a leap to a second division venue and the second division.
The elephant in the room is what the status of the Major League Soccer (MLS) reserve teams will be, with many fans desiring that those teams would compete in the third division. Despite that wish, a number of the MLS reserve teams meet second division standards, as being a reserve team is not a disqualifying issue, and as such USL may want to keep at least some of them in the second division. In addition, the last final was contested between two MLS reserve sides (New York Red Bulls II and Swope Park Rangers) with the 2015 final featuring an MLS reserve side, LA Galaxy II, so their performances would not justify such a relegation.