2017 USL takes shape

On Friday the United States Soccer Federation finally decided after a month of delays that Bethlehem Steel FC’s and Harrisburg City Islanders’ United Soccer League would be granted “provisional” Division 2 status.

The promotion had been sought formally for almost two years.

The North American Soccer League was also given “provisional” status as Division 2.

US Soccer asserted that pathways would soon be defined for both leagues to follow for the removal of the “provisional” tag. Each path will be different as the two leagues are different in their current conditions. 2016 Division 2 NASL has survived to 2017 only on sufferance of significant shrinkage, while 2016 Division 3 USL by contrast has grown robustly but needs remedial qualifying actions of various kinds.

The story of NASL surviving and moving into the future is one PSP may tell when more details come into focus. For now, we focus on the 2017 USL, since league members Harrisburg and Bethlehem have historic and current connections to professional soccer in Philly.

“Who’s New” and 2017’s size

On October 25, 2016, the United Soccer League announced that the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Ottawa Fury, both formerly of the North American Soccer League, had joined USL for the 2017 season.

The changed league affiliations brought the number of teams in the 2017 USL from 29 to 31, since Reno 1868 will also be a new franchise for 2017, but 2016’s Wilmington Hammerheads had left.

On December 9, 2016, Montreal Impact announced a hybrid affiliation with the Ottawa Fury and ended the operation of its wholly-owned affiliate FC Montreal, bringing the number of USL teams for the 2017 season down to 30.

2017 organization and schedule

Three other questions are:

  • how many conferences will there be in 2017,
  • how long is the season,
  • and what teams will be in which conference.

On Monday, the USL confirmed a 32-game schedule with Saint Louis FC rejoining the Eastern Conference along with former NASL teams Tampa and Ottawa, and expansion side Reno 1868 joining the West.

In a two-conference, 30-team league divided geographically, a 32-game, home-and-away schedule provides four additional regional rivalry games beyond the 28 home-and-away set to reach 32. Two would likely be home and two would likely be away, a nice revenue-opportunity equality and an easy tweak.

For the future, at least one USL executive has said publicly that the league is close to the possibility of having three conferences, a structure that would reduce distance, time, and expense, particularly in the trans-Mississippi West. While the distance from New York to St. Louis is roughly 1,000 miles, that from St. Louis to San Francisco is roughly 2,000, while Rio Grande Valley to Vancouver, BC, Canada is a bit more than 2,500. Reducing travel times and expenses can save some real money, if there are enough teams on the West Coast and enough in Middle America to each roughly equal the East Coast. Of course distances and therefore costs will never be equal as long a geographic organizational principle is used.

Game schedule

The USL game schedule should soon be released now that the competitive structure of conferences has been officially defined. Monday’s league announcement notes the regular season will start the weekend of March 24-26 and conclude the weekend of October 13-15.

Ticket sales departments have been ingenious so far — Bethlehem Steel have been selling vouchers, not tickets, for example — but actual tickets for actual games on actual dates will now become possible, and that will be none too soon.  The Steel’s first practice will be on February 1st.

A technical change to game management

For 2017 the number of substitutions allowed per game has dropped from 5 to 3, in line with worldwide professional practice.

The higher number had accommodated earlier USL scheduling patterns of weekend road trips with two games, on Fridays and Sundays.

Union fans will remember that a few years ago in the US Open Cup the Union benefited from the phenomenon in a game with the Rochester Rhinos played on a Tuesday night, right after Rochester has played two games over the weekend. It was a third game in five days and Rochester’s legs acted like it.

USL scheduling no longer follows that money-saving, leg-killing pattern.

Some quirky details

Last season the numerical imbalance of 14 teams in the East and 15 teams in the West meant Eastern conference Louisville played home and away against Western conference St. Louis. Those two 2016 games were the only interconference matchups until the league championship playoff final of New York Red Bulls 2 vs. Swope Park Rangers (Kansas City). The structure sketched above would make conference segregation even more absolute.

The Steel travelled by bus in 2016, except for their trips to Orlando and Louisville. In the West only the Cascadia trio and the Los Angeles duet seem candidates for travel on rubber. Furthermore, some distances in the west — Rio Grande Valley to Vancouver, British Columbia for example — rival eastern ground trip hours for hours spent in the air.

For the Steel, new competitor Ottawa will likely be a bus trip, like Toronto, while Tampa, like Orlando, will probably be an air flight. How newly-returning, former Harrisburg president Tiago Lopes will arrange City Islander travel is less clear, but it will probably be comparable.


  1. OneManWolfpack says:

    Is pro/rel between the USL and NASL an option at all? Since the USL seems to be more financially sound, given a lot of clubs being backed by MLS parents, I assume they could survive a fall to a 3rd division. It obviously seems like the USL will be granted 2nd division status in time. I don’t know exactly how it would work, but there would need to be benefits to staying in Div 2 – financial I would assume. Right now there is like 8 NASL teams (I think), and almost 30 USL teams… you could probably get to 40 or so total, and make two divisions – D2 and D3. Could be a good thing.
    I don’t know… just a thought…

    • The best idea I’ve heard is combining the leagues and creating two divisions with pro/rel between the two. You could take the top 12 or so independent clubs and create a 2nd division — I looked at this and there are 12 clubs with almost 5,000 a game attendance, the USSF’s requirement. I think this would give independent clubs with success an opportunity to start small in div 3 and build towards div 2. It would also be nice to put promotion and relegation to the test to see how it would work.

    • The whole appeal of the USL for the teams not owned by MLS is the reduction of travel budget. The whole setup is designed to reduce costs by not requiring as much to be spent on players (since they play multiple games against reserve teams) and the USL basically being two regional leagues (East and West) that only basically meet in the USL final. Those teams don’t want to be division team if that means they only have 11 teams or so to play against.
      Basically the teams in the USL don’t want to a pro/rel. That would increase their costs.

      • Is that true for the half a dozen or so USL teams that want to be in MLS? Don’t think so. I’ve never heard an owner of any of the bigger clubs in USL or NASL say they’re satisfied where they are.

      • At the moment there are four USL teams that have announced MLS ambitions. Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, Charlotte, and Sacramento from memory.
        Carolina has announced such a hope in the current version of NASL.
        The other five are trying to be like the Greek goddess of wisdom Athena and spring into existence fully formed from nothing, as she did supposedly from Zeus’s head.
        I am writing this from memory without checking, so don’t accept it without checking, save for Athena’s alleged birth method.
        Those who have announced I am sure of, but whether I got them all is in question.

      • Apparently next season in a fashion we will not know until the full games schedule is made public, St. Louis will continue to play Swope Park even though the games will cross the conference boundary.
        KC & St. L. Are big rivals in other sports.

        So the segregation is not perfect.
        Hadn’t seen that when we did the final edit.

    • Why would you call it pro-rel if both are division 2?

      • I still don;t see why we can’t have regional leagues and pro/rel from there, even if MLS stays as the top dog without pro/rel. this is kinda how it needs to form I think.

  2. Scott of Nazareth says:

    Would love to see a merger and two 20 team leagues with pro/rel.

    At a guess, the biggest obstacle would be what Tim touches on – travel expenses.

    Assuming a basic home/away schedule against the other 19 teams, smaller/independent teams like Harrisburg, Rochester or Charleston might not have the appetite or budget for 10-12 road trips where flights are involved.

    I’m guessing that The Steels 4 extra games will involve Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, RB2, and….?

    • Not sure, cause Richmond is DC’s affiliate for 2017. They are planning for their own in 2018 I have seen somewhere. Baltimore would be logical, but that is purely speculative. Logic only no evidence.

    • I played with the idea of a three conference USL last night with the purposes of eliminating the longest trips.
      Northeast, South Centraland West conferences would do it. distances in the NE would not change. But with Colo Springs & Real monarchs joins the 8 west coast teams, their longest is roughly 1,500 miles. And the South Central would have a long of 1,600 because Rio Grande Valley is a long, long way south.

      • What about 4 conferences or divisions or whatever.
        Divide 12 MLS sponsored teams into east/west. Throw in the under 5k stadium ones.
        Then split remaining independent teams into two regions that make most sense.
        Mls sponsored teams have no ambitions other than developing and rehabilitation. Obviously inter conference play good but separate standings.
        Different motivation and missions.
        Nasl rolls into the independent regions.
        I’m not a fan of pro/rel in US but this seems best path. The serious independents have shot at making their case while mls minor league teams still get competitive games without disrupting integrity of independent team standings.

  3. John O'Donnell Jr says:

    I don’t think NASL Is looking to become a D1 league anymore and is looking to make peace with the other two leagues. I was watching some of the combine games and the announcers mentioned that scouts and coaches from MLS, NASL & USL were in attendance. They would never say NASL before, so something has changed.
    Also it seems many of the players are foreign players who’ve come to America to get the college experience. Just as academy players are starting to make way into the first teams, the draft might turn into more players from over seas looking to get an education in the US for free.
    Could you imagine some kid from Spain or England one-day saying my dream is to get drafted by MLS after I graduate from college.

    • ~ that is something strange indeed.

      • Happening now already. Number of American universities have international players who would probably be lower tier back home.
        Not everyone has temperament of a Vardy to sacrifice school and stay at lower tier in hopes they eventually move up.
        Yankees former hitting coach Kevin long wrote about his harrowing time in minor league baseball and I imagine lower level soccer is very bit comparable.
        Helps to have that degree as safety net.

    • Good catch about the NASL presence at the combine, and it being mentioned.
      Union picks are 33,42,55 and 77 says their website.
      If we accept their overtly stated philosophy, we should count Derek Jones and Auston Trusty in some fashion. All the eggs are in the player development basket.

    • The Bill Peterson parting has a lot to do with it. They brought a knife to a gun fight resource wise with MLS and this shell of a league is the result. Get more money and better lawyers next time.
      Also, guys, just stop with discussing the words “pro/rel” and “NASL”. You’re watching a guy drown and casually chatting what he needs to do to win gold at the Olympics. USL’s stability comes from all the MLS $ in the reserves, the same reason MLS isn’t interested in pro/rel exists for USL. No matter how cool we think it would be Or player development reasons, remember those are ancillary benefits/motivators/(problems?) to ownership. Get paid is the first three on their list.

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