Analysis / Philadelphia Union II

Distance, time and money: USL conference realignment

logo courtesy USL

Soccer in North America is not like its counterpart in the Midlands of England where 33 miles separate Old Trafford from Anfield.

According to Google Maps and Google Flights, flight time from McAllen, TX (Rio Grande Valley FC) to Vancouver, BC, Canada (Vancouver Whitecaps 2) is 7 hours 15 minutes. Philadelphia to Liverpool across the pond sometimes estimates as 20 minutes less. The estimates vary noticeably depending on time of day and, probably, plane type.

Furthermore, North America east of the Mississippi is smaller than the trans-Mississippi west. Philadelphia to St. Louis is just under 900 miles, while St. Louis to San Francisco is slightly over 2,000. North-South dimensions are roughly similar.

Since the United Soccer League divides its current two conferences along the river, there is necessarily a travel imbalance between them that affects expenses and competition.

The imbalance affects both business and games.

Contemplate sardines…

In your imagination put James Chambers’ shoulders in the window seat of a Boeing 737. Next, sit Cory Burke’s legs and torso in the middle seat. Finally, add Hugh Roberts’ height on the aisle. The flight time to Orlando is 2 hours 20 minutes, and the round-trip commercial minimum is $85 per person. The Steel flew there and back for a recent game several days ago.

Yes, the veterans are the three tallest, broadest, oldest players on the Steel, and, yes, a player of more diminutive stature would much more likely take the middle seat. But we deliberately exaggerate to illustrate “sardines.” In 2016 Earnie Stewart sent Jim Curtin’s side to Portland a day early, paying an extra night in a hotel, an extra day’s local bus fare, and at least one extra practice field fee to mitigate 6 hours 25 minutes of the sardines effect.

… and wallets.

A Bethlehem travel party consists of the technical staff and the players. It consumes transportation, food and shelter.

Since a game-day roster numbers 18 and players each have a roommate on road trips, a normal player group needs nine hotel rooms. When traveling away, the technical staff consists of:

  • the head coach,
  • one to three assistant coaches, depending on the schedules of Reading and the Academy U-18s,
  • a trainer,
  • an equipment manager,
  • and a team coordinator.

That totals five to seven people, meaning three or four hotel rooms. We assume the head coach gets the single but uses his space for coaches’ meetings.

Probably a local luxury coach transports the team between the airport, practices, meals, the hotel and the game, since player development sides spend money on player development. The “extravagance” might irritate profit-oriented owners as it might highlight parsimoniousness to those owners’ players.

Pure guesswork

Here is an uninformed guess at the cost of the Steel’s recent trip to Florida. Notice it is cheaper to fly than to eat or lodge.

Air fare:         23 x $ 85 round trip = $1,955
Lodging:       12 x ($120 x 2 days) = $2,880
Meals:           23 x ($ 60 x 2 days) = $2,760
Local Bus:      1 x ($950 x 2 days) = $1,900
Total:                                             = $9,495

Here is a guess at the cost of a Rio Grande Valley Toros trip to Vancouver, British Columbia, both the longest trip within a conference in the league and also one originating in a U. S. transportation backwater. It assumes all costs but air fare are the same, which is unlikely, but they should be close.

Air fare:        23 x $640 round trip   = $14,720
Lodging:      12 x ($120 x 2 days)   = $  2,880
Meals:          23 x ($ 60 x 2 days)   = $  2,760
Local Bus:      1 x ($950 x 2 days)  = $  1,900
Total:                                              = $22,260

The Steel trip cost 43% of the Rio Grande Valley one. Put another way, the Toros spent roughly two-and-a-third times more than Bethlehem. Whether the Houston Dynamo subsidize RGV travel we do not know, since the relationship is not a wholly-owned affiliate.

Beware, thrice

First, we compare a major transportation hub to a transportation backwater. Flights to Disneyworld, aka Orlando, are extremely competitive with 11-14 non-stops per day from Philly. The fastest flight we found from McAllen, TX to Vancouver requires a 1 hour 17 min stop in Houston and would cost $28 more per person, an additional $644 for our example’s Toro travel party.

Second, by using quick searches of the internet, we make no allowances for group discounts or repeat business.

Third, our comparative example is extreme. We compare perhaps the most difficult travel example from the trans-Mississippi west –  longest by mileage and time, probably the most out of the way – to a comparatively easy one from the east that has major price and scheduling benefits because it occurs in a strongly competitive high-demand market.

Rio Grande Valley is so out of the way that all the destinations we tested required changing planes in Houston or Dallas-Fort Worth. It is actually faster to bus from McAllen to San Antonio than it is to fly, when you consider probable time spent transiting airport security.

Incidentally, extreme south Texas may be a transportation afterthought to the United States, but there are soccer-mad Mexicans across the Rio Grande who like to cross the bridge and buy tickets. RGV averages over 7,000 fans per home game, ranking 4th in attendance this season, after Cincinnati, Sacramento and Louisville.

Three, not two

The other travel challenges in the western conference are not as extreme as RGV’s, but their distances and expenses are still greater than those of the east. Mayhap in partial consequence, USL has at least twice hinted at realigning from two conferences to three.

Purely speculatively and for fun, we chart below how a three-conference league might look in 2019. We have substituted the parent club’s city in parentheses where the formal USL club name may not be easily recognized. And we wrote this before U. S. Soccer’s decision about the North American Soccer League.


Northeast South Central West
Ottawa Orlando* Vancouver*
Toronto* Tampa Tacoma*
Rochester St. Louis Portland*
New York* Nashville 2018 Sacramento
Bethlehem* Rio Grande Valley Fresno 2018
Harrisburg Oklahoma City Los Angeles*
Pittsburgh Tulsa Orange County
Richmond San Antonio Phoenix
Cincinnati (Kansas City*) Las Vegas 2018
Louisville Colorado Springs Reno
Charlotte Austin 2019 (Salt Lake City*)
Charleston Birmingham 2019

*wholly-owned MLS affiliate, aka, “MLS2”

Three points

Inter-conference: Some obvious cross-conference rivalries are:
• Louisville – Nashville
• Louisville – St. Louis
• Salt Lake City (Real Monarchs) – Colorado Springs
Our list is not comprehensive.

Sell tickets: We keep Louisville in the east because of the rivalry with Cincinnati. Charlotte and Charleston are east of the Appalachians, and the Battery is on old, original USL member as are Rochester, Richmond and Harrisburg.

MLS expansion: We make no allowances for departures to MLS by Cincinnati and Sacramento, our uninformed sentimental guesses as to the winners of the current competition. Were we to become correct, Colorado Springs would probably move to the West and the northeast would not replace its loss, making all three conferences ten in 2020.



  1. Scott of Nazareth says:

    Good stuff Tim!

    How many games per season? A balanced 4 (2 Home/2 Away) would be too many, and too few if it were just 1 Home/1 Away…

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Some variation on the current home and away plus four extra rivalry games, 2 home and two away.

      Next season the numbers will be different, unless the NASL situation throws a toolbox of wrenches into expectations.

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