On July 6, I posted a Twitter poll asking which of four ideas I should write up next. The people answered, with “UPSL explained” getting 50 percent of the vote. So, let’s do this.
The United Premier Soccer League is one of the more interesting, and downright confusing, leagues below the organized U.S. Soccer pyramid. It’s also a league that has drawn a fair bit of mockery and derision — some of it deserved — for the personalities of its leadership, operating principles and ridiculously rapid expansion.
Let’s start at the beginning. The UPSL was founded in 2011 as a higher-level alternative for clubs in the Los Angeles area to play in something beyond their normal local leagues. The league initially played a fall-spring season with 10 teams, and gradually began to grow throughout Southern California. In 2015, the league had grown to 30 teams across three conferences, with teams in California, Nevada and Colorado. The season had also grown to run from May through October. 2016 marked the introduction of the split season format, with separate spring and fall seasons played annually. For that year, the spring season ran from January through May while the fall season ran from July to December. The league also reached 47 teams for the fall season across five conferences, including the new Nevada and North Conferences.
The next major development came in 2017 with the addition of promotion and relegation. That spring, the SoCal Division of the Western Conference split into two separate leagues, UPSL Premier Pro and UPSL Championship, with promotion and relegation between the two. This same structure was then brought to the Colorado Conference for the fall season.
And this brings us to 2018.
For the 2018 spring season, the UPSL fielded a record-high 171 teams. Yes, one-hundred, seventy-one teams. These were divided into eight conferences (Central, Colorado, Midwest, Mountain, Northeast, Southeast, Southwest and Western), and further split into 20 divisions. The 2018 fall season is set to feature even more expansion, with the UPSL currently listing a frankly ludicrous 222 clubs. Yes. More than 200 clubs. More clubs than members of the United Nations.
Anyway, let’s get back into how the league actually works.
Don’t think of the UPSL as a single league with hella teams, think of it as a collection of regional leagues under the same organizing body. Teams only play those within their respective division in any given season, save for the addition of friendlies against other opposition. While this is true for the NPSL and PDL as well, it’s done to a much greater degree within the UPSL.
In several discussions with UPSL owners, including the owners of Keene FC and OKC 1889 FC, the biggest draw for clubs is the lower cost of entry. UPSL is significantly cheaper for new clubs than either of the “fourth division” leagues, and for community-run or small town teams, that matters. UPSL is also much more focused on hyper-regional alignments, making travel times shorter and travel costs lower. Just looking at the Texas-area teams in the three leagues shows this: It’s 540 miles from Fort Worth to Brownsville for those NPSL teams, 600 miles from Oklahoma City to Corpus Christi for those PDL teams, but only 225 miles from Oklahoma City to Keene, Texas for those UPSL teams. That adds up, especially for players who have families and day jobs.
This, to me, is the biggest strength of the UPSL’s growing footprint. Having your longest road trip at maybe three and a half to four hours is much, much easier than having six- to eight-hour trips to games. Or, as is the case for WSA Winnipeg in the PDL, trips as far south as St. Louis. That’s at best a 16-hour drive each way.
I’ve made the case on several previous occasions for the creation of “state leagues” like they have in Brazil, and UPSL has implemented something I would argue is actually better.
And now to a primer on the UPSL’s promotion and relegation. For the 2018 spring season, promotion and relegation was in use in two divisions, SoCal and Colorado. Both divisions are split into two levels, with the highest designated as Pro Premier and the second as Championship. There are plans for a third tier, which will be designated League 1, in Colorado and Florida, with the Florida Central Division splitting into two tiers for the 2018 Fall Season. That Floridian second tier will actually be designated as a third tier under the Florida Central League 1 name, with the higher league designated as a second tier. Confusing as it may be, it actually has meaning within the UPSL’s regulations for clubs, and allows the league to spread pro/rel to other regions based on identical standards.
In my discussion with Keene FC’s co-owner Matt Kahla, he mentioned one of the best arguments for pro/rel that I’ve ever heard. Since implementing promotion and relegation in California and Colorado, the number of blowout wins has decreased. Teams that go out every week and lose 5-0, 8-0, even 11-0, can drop down to a level where they’re playing much closer competition, and teams that win those blowout games can move up to a tier better suited for their level of play. It really makes perfect sense at the amateur level where the resources available to different teams can vary dramatically. With the lower costs to enter the league comes with it wildly varying ownership, and it’s been the case for years in amateur soccer where some teams have what others simply don’t.
To wrap this up before reaching full #HipsterManifesto, here are a few additional points that don’t really fit in anywhere else:
The UPSL has much higher churn than other amateur leagues, namely the PDL and NPSL. But that’s honestly not surprising, nor is it that much of a problem. There are thousands of teams across the country that want to move into a national league, and when a league makes it as easy and affordable as possible to join, there will be teams who stretch their resources thin in doing so. But, failure in the UPSL is much, much cheaper than failure in the NPSL or PDL, and a team going under isn’t likely to cripple the club permanently. Many teams that leave the UPSL simply return to their local amateur leagues rather than fold outright. While I do personally find it amusing that the “Former Teams” section of the UPSL’s Wikipedia article vanished, it really doesn’t matter that much with the way the league operates. And that’s not to say that new teams aren’t being vetted by the league. They just have lower thresholds to meet than they do elsewhere.
The UPSL put a team in Alaska. That team, Alaska City FC, has actually been around in the Alaska Soccer system since 2011, and has now become the first member of the new Alaska Division in UPSL. Yes, they’re planning a full division of teams in Alaska. Because why wouldn’t they? As long as there’s enough interest, and it sure looks like there is, it’ll work. The biggest reason why there’s no Alaskan representation in NPSL or PDL is because of the lack of local opposition. Having an entire division within the state makes that easier. There are already a number of youth soccer clubs across the state (well, the inhabited parts) that this division will undoubtedly draw from.
Several UPSL conferences use only a handful of venues. The SoCal Championship division has 10 teams playing at the Lake Forest Sports Park in Lake Forest, Calif. while the Florida South division has nine of 12 teams based at Ives Estates Park in Miami. The most interesting of these, though, is the Atlanta Caribbean division, where every single game is played at Southeast Sports Complex in Livonia, Ga. Most, if not all, of the eight teams in the division have strong Caribbean roots, and many of these teams have been playing in Atlanta-area leagues for years. But it’s still amusing to see only one venue listed for the entire division on Wikipedia.
The UPSL is also building a women’s league as well as a youth league. The women’s league, known as the WUPSL, has seven teams confirmed in California and Colorado, but will likely continue to grow at the same ridiculous rate as the men’s league. The academy league currently has 10 teams confirmed, all at the U18 level.
OK, so that’s enough rambling for one day. I hope you learned something new about this slightly odd, probably misunderstood and undeniably unusual league.
Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.
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