Month: October 2018

New on SocTakes: MASL preview: Pacific Division

MASL Pacific Division

Image credit: MASL

Welcome to another part of our MASL season preview series. This installment focuses on the Pacific Division and its four teams along the West Coast of the United States.

As before, if you haven’t read the previous installments, click here. With that out of the way, let’s get back to it.

Ontario Fury – Ontario, Calif.

  • Founded: 2013
  • Home venue: Citizens Business Bank Arena (9,736)
  • Head coach: Jimmy Nordberg
  • Last season: 10-12, 3rd in pacific, DNQ
  • Average attendance: 2,378 11th in MASL

Not to be confused with Ontario, Canada, or the Ottawa Fury based there, the Ontario Fury have been part of the league for five seasons now. Last season was the first time in the MASL era that the Fury finished below .500, and they missed out on the playoffs by just a single game. This followed two consecutive 12-8 seasons which, because this is the MASL, led to a fourth and second place finish in a fluctuating Pacific Division. Honestly, considering how close they’ve been to the playoffs in their two most recent non-playoff seasons, the Fury are probably fine this year if they can handle Tacoma.

San Diego Sockers – San Diego

  • Founded: 2009
  • Home venue: Valley View Casino Center (12,920)
  • Head coach: Phil Salvagio
  • Last season: 19-3, 1st in Pacific, lost Western final
  • Average attendance: 3,284, 5th in MASL

San Diego has been undeniably among the strongest teams in the league. Through nine seasons in their current iteration, the Sockers have four titles and have never missed the playoffs. This includes last season, where San Diego lost just three of 22 regular season games, dispatched Tacoma in the division finals and only lost the Western Conference final to Monterrey by two goals. Even if they haven’t made a championship game/series in the MASL era, it’s not for a lack of effort or quality. I firmly expect San Diego to once again dominate the Pacific Division, leaving the remaining three teams to fight over second place.

Tacoma Stars – Kent, Wash.

  • Founded 2009 (2014-2015)
  • Home venue: ShoWare Center (6,500)
  • Head coach: Darren Sawatzky
  • Last season: 11-11, 2nd in Pacific, lost Division final
  • Average attendance: 2,635, 7th

Tacoma has an interesting history, even if we exclude the previous teams under the Stars name. The team joined the professional ranks for 2010-11 after winning the semi-pro Premier Arena Soccer League title the previous season, had a great debut season and then missed the playoffs twice. They self-relegated for a year, then elected to participate in the Western Indoor Soccer League. The Seattle/Tacoma market was then filled for 2014-15 by the Seattle Impact. The Impact’s brief tenure in the MASL featured, among other issues, the entire front office core walking out just before the season began, several sexual harassment charges against owner and player-coach Dion Earl from dance team members, and the resignation of 22 players in November of that season. Roughly six weeks later, the Stars bought out the Impact and took over for the rest of the season. Since then, the Tacoma Stars have been almost as good as their jerseys, and last season they held their own against San Diego in the playoffs. Just like in the original MISL, never sleep on Tacoma.

Turlock Express – Turlock, Calif.

  • Founded: 2011
  • Home venue: Turlock Soccer Complex (700)
  • Head coach: Art Pulido
  • Last season: 3-19, 4th in Pacific, DNQ
  • Average attendance: 428

Turlock is an oddity within the MASL. First up, look at the average attendance and venue capacity. Those aren’t typos. Turlock plays in a tiny and comparatively basic arena, so their total attendance of 4,706 was smaller than the crowds at three individual playoff games. That said, Turlock keeps coming back year-in, year-out, and I have nothing but respect for them. Last season was particularly rough for the Express, mainly because of San Diego’s continued dominance, but that doesn’t mean there’s no point in their continued participation in the league. They’ve come agonizingly close to playoffs twice in the past four years, and if a few pieces come together, they might actually get it done.

I personally am ridiculously excited for the MASL season, and as we get closer to kickoff, I’ll have some more things on team jerseys, streaming and more.

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New on SocTakes: MASL preview: South Central Division

South Central Division

Image credit: MASL

Welcome back to our preview series for the upcoming 2018-19 Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) season. If you missed part one, click here to take a look.

The South Central Division is new for this season, comprising teams from the Eastern and Central Divisions last season. With five teams, it’s the largest of the four divisions and covers the largest geographic area, stretching from Milwaukee to central Florida.

Florida Tropics SC – Lakeland, Fla.

  • Founded: 2016
  • Home venue: RP Funding Center (6,500)
  • Head coach: Clay Roberts
  • Last season: 10-12, 3rd in Eastern , DNQ
  • Average attendance: 2,433, 9th

The Tropics have switched divisions, joining the recombined South Central Division, meaning that they might actually have better luck at making the playoffs for once. They’ve come awfully close twice now, and in their third season, few things would be nicer than postseason play. The coaching staff has all returned for a third season, though their seats might start to get warm if the Tropics once again finish below .500.

Kansas City Comets – Independence, Mo.

  • Founded: 2010 (2014-15)
  • Home venue: Silverstein Eye Centers Arena (5,800)
  • Head coach: Kim Roentved
  • Last season: 7-15, 3rd in Central, DNQ

Ever since Vlatko Andonovski left the Comets in the summer of 2016, the team has gone through a noticeable decline. In his three seasons as head coach, Andonovski won the final MISL championship, then debuted in the MASL with a 20-0 season and a conference finals appearance followed by a 17-3 season and another conference finals appearance. Under Roentved, the Comets finished below .500 for the first time since their debut in 2010. Not good. They’re bringing back some talented players and retooling the roster, so maybe this season will be better, but honestly, who knows?

Milwaukee Wave – Milwaukee, Wisc.

  • Founded: 1984 (2014-15)
  • Home venue: UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena (9,500)
  • Head coach: Giuliano Oliviero
  • Last season: 17-5, 1st in Central, lost Eastern Conference final
  • Average attendance: 4,101, 1st

The Milwaukee Wave are the oldest continually operating professional soccer team in the country. Period. They’ve existed without missing a season or reorganizing as a new entity ever since their founding in August 1984. They’ve been playing since before Harrisburg coach Pat Healey was born. Anyway, last season was yet another solid campaign for the Wave, making the conference finals for the second consecutive season, and finishing its ninth consecutive winning season. Always expect the Wave to be good. Always. They haven’t finished a season with a losing record since 1993. Literally the only complaint I have about Milwaukee is the switch from blue as the accent color to electric lime. It’s not nearly as pretty or wavy.

Orlando SeaWolves – Kissimmee, Fla.

  • Founded: 2018
  • Home venue: Silver Spurs Arena (8,000)
  • Head coach: TBA
  • “New” for 2018

Orlando is kind of half an expansion franchise and half what remained of the Cedar Rapids Rampage, which folded at the end of last season. Most of the players on the roster came to Orlando from Cedar Rapids, although there’s entirely new ownership, management and likely coaching staff as soon as it’s announced. Considering the Rampage were easily the second-best Central Division team last season, Orlando has a promising core already.

St. Louis Ambush – St. Charles, Mo.

  • Founded: 2013 (2014-15)
  • Home venue: Family Arena (9,643)
  • Head coach: Hewerton Moreira
  • Last season: 3-19, 4th in Central, DNQ
  • Average attendance: 2,605

The Ambush, in five professional seasons including four in the MASL, have never made the playoffs, have never even come close to a .500 record and have won just nine games across the past three seasons combined. That’s pretty horrible, and attendance has consequently suffered. Hewerton Moreira took over as head coach last season and while there was an improvement — three wins compared to one — it’s still not looking great. Short of poaching all the former staff from Sonora, St. Louis is in for a slow rebuild.

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New on SocTakes: 2018 USL Cup radial bracket: 2nd round

2nd round

Eight teams remain, four in each conference, with the second round of the USL playoffs set to kick off this weekend. Which four sides do you think will advance to the conference finals? Drop a comment below with your predictions.

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Purely Speculation: A Non-Existent League

It’s become a recurring joke, bordering on meme territory, that the weird world of American soccer relies heavily on rumor, anonymous sources, and outright speculation. So much is said, maybe not publicly, but far more than is actually done. Not that it’s a bad thing, it’s in line with routine punditry found among any sport. However, the jokes of “60-90 days” or “sources say” or “announcement for an announcement” have increasingly permeated soccer culture.

Maybe that’s why Asbury Park FC is a thing. If you’re unfamiliar, Asbury Park FC is a fake team, an anti-team, a parody of modern soccer and modern professional sports. There’s a website where jerseys and scarves are sold, and occasional news updates of fake player transfers. But there’s a heavy joke-y nature to the whole thing. It’s very punk rock satire.

This has me thinking about rumor and speculation and the disconnect from reality. Asbury Park FC isn’t a thing, but it’s definitely a thing. And there are dozens of teams around the country that were announced, named, and never signed a player. What if that were the entire game? What if the entire point of a league was to not actually exist? No players are signed, no tickets are sold, no balls are kicked, but that doesn’t prevent the existence of statistics tracking goals scored, game day attendance, and team standings.

This is something of a thought experiment, and I’ve yet to fully convince myself that this idea isn’t completely stupid. It’s at least somewhat amusing to me, and gives me complete creative freedom, but at the same time, it’s inherently pointless.

And maybe that’s the point.

So. What the hell, let’s see where this train of thought goes.

For this, I feel the need to establish some sort of basic rules for myself to remain consistent for whatever this ends up being. The league needs to have a name and branding, for certain. There needs to be a process for team announcements. Everything is going to be as real as a fake endeavor can possibly be. Even if it’s parody, or fan fiction, or the logical extension of “Whose Line?” scoring, it’s not anarchy. And where would American soccer be without the existence of and reliance on arbitrary regulations?

First up: the name. Hypothetical Soccer League, known as the H-League for short. This is as straightforward as something this arbitrary can be. The logo is a combination of a question mark, a lightbulb, and a key hole. As per industry standard, all of these elements represent some flavor of obligatory nonsense. The question mark represents the speculation and quasi-rhetorical questions found everywhere in soccer media, the lightbulb represents the idea of creating a new league or team, and the key hole represents the secrecy and anonymity maintained by the media. The “H” in the center is indicative of a dead filament, representing failed plans, and it also stands for “Hypothetical”. Poetry.

.League Wide.png

 

Of course, there will be teams, and those are sure to be announced in the coming days/weeks/months, and I’ll let you know when those announcements are coming, but for now, this is all.

On Driving and Writing

One of the oddest things I’ve noticed is how much a long drive does for my creativity. Seriously, I’ve had moments during my old commutes from Dallas to Fayetteville where I’d have to stop for a while to just sit and write. I’d usually also use that time to eat something as well.

I’d get an idea on the highway, start developing it in my head, and as soon as I was able to stop, I’d be able to throw a good 400-500 words together in half an hour, easily. Maybe it’s because I’m not using my writer brain when I’m driving, or because my brain is thinking about writing to keep me awake and focused, or what. I don’t really know.

However, this has led to an interesting thing where, whenever I’m feeling stuck on something, I’ll get in the car and just drive somewhere. I’ll pick a coffee shop or restaurant or something of note that’s half an hour to an hour’s drive away, and just go. It’s been unusually helpful for some of my projects where I’m not making any progress, or for where I have a rough idea for something but don’t really know what to do from there.

So, to anyone who happens to be reading this stuff, you might consider trying this. I’ve had similar experiences with public transportation, so I don’t think driving is a requisite task, but for me, I spend a good 5-7 hours in the car each week. Anyway, just something I’ve been thinking about and felt like posting.

New on SocTakes: MASL Preview: East Division

MASL

Image credit: MASL

MLS and the USL are approaching or have already begun their postseasons. And while that does mean that there’s less soccer to appreciate, it doesn’t mean one has to turn to European leagues for entertainment. Why not play inside instead?

Yes, it’s almost time for the Major Arena Soccer League season to begin. This season brings the return of the Dallas Sidekicks, a handful of offseason moves, a new team in Canada with Dwayne De Rosario and yet another realignment. Of course, we’ll dive in to all the details, but first a primer on arena soccer for anyone unfamiliar.

The sport of arena soccer dates back to the original NASL days, with the first tournament staged in March 1971. The rules, oddly enough, haven’t changed much since. The sport is fairly straightforward: take a hockey rink, boards and all, and cover it with turf. Remove the center walls at both ends and stick a half-sized goal in that space. Play with five field players and a goalie, with unlimited free substitution and the boards in play as in hockey or box lacrosse. There are even two-minute “blue card” penalties that result in a powerplay for the other team. The only major rule departure is the clock; a game is divided into four 15-minute quarters.

So, that’s the sport in a nutshell. Higher scoring, fast paced and very, very fun to watch. Onto the league itself.

The Major Arena Soccer League is the top professional league in the sport of arena soccer. Originally founded as the Professional Arena Soccer League in 2008, the league rebranded for the 2014-15 season with the admission of six remaining Major Indoor Soccer League teams. Currently, 17 teams are set to contest the upcoming 2018-19 season.

The league is divided into two conferences, Eastern and Western, with each conference further divided into two divisions in line with previous divisional alignments the league has used. However, there has been movement among teams, leading to a new map for this season, and a few oddities that I’ll be pointing out along the way.

The league has been pretty fantastic regarding the fan experience whether it’s actually attending a game or streaming online through YouTube.

For this piece, to minimize excessive lengthiness and hold myself to two #HipsterManifestos per fortnight, I’ll be dividing up the season review/preview segments into four separate articles by division, starting here with the Eastern Division in the Eastern Conference. (Note: The season in parentheses after a founding date indicates the first season played in MASL.)

Baltimore Blast – Towson, Md.

  • Founded: 1992 (2014-15)
  • Home venue: SECU Arena (4,000)
  • Head coach: Danny Kelly
  • Last season: 17-5, first in Eastern Division, won championship
  • Average attendance: 3,941, fourth

Baltimore has always been a stronghold for arena soccer and this past season was no exception. The team finished first in its division for the fourth-consecutive MASL season, finished with a winning record for the 11th-consecutive season across three leagues and won their third-consecutive MASL championship. Baltimore is the benchmark for the rest of the league, full stop. Coach Danny Kelly always manages to get results no matter what sort of roster turnover he’s forced to confront, and it’s a safe bet for Baltimore to win the division again.

Harrisburg Heat – Harrisburg, Pa.

  • Founded: 2012
  • Home venue: New Holland Arena (7,317)
  • Head coach: Pat Healey
  • Last season: 6-16, fourth in Eastern Division, DNQ
  • Average attendance: 1,459, 14th

Harrisburg has consistently struggled since joining the league for the 2012-13 season, going 2-18 in 2014-15 and 1-18 in 2015-16. Then, they seemed to figure things out, finishing 10-10 and 2nd in their division two years ago. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have been a permanent change, with Harrisburg regressing to a disappointing mean last season. To address this, they’ve brought in the father-son duo of Kevin and Pat Healey from Baltimore, which is pretty much the smartest possible move the team could have made. Already, the Heat have a better-looking roster than a year ago and could very easily start taking the fight to Baltimore. I’m excited.

MASL

Image credit: MASL

Mississisauga MetroStars – Mississauga, Ontario

  • Founded: 2018
  • Home venue: Paramount Fine Foods Centre (5,612)
  • Head coach: Phil Ionadi
  • New for 2018-19

Professional arena soccer has finally returned to Canada, with the Mississauga MetroStars set to contest the upcoming season. Mississauga, located due west of Toronto, is occasionally considered a suburb of Canada’s largest city but is big enough to stand on its own. The MetroStars are the only true expansion team in the MASL this season, and as a result, are the one team without meaningful data to adequately preview the upcoming season. I’ll just end with this: The MetroStars coaxed Dwayne De Rosario out of retirement for their inaugural season.

Utica City FC – Utica, N.Y.

  • Founded: 2010 (2014-15)
  • Home venue: Adirondack Bank Center (3,860)
  • Head coach: Ryan Hall
  • Last season: 13-9, 2nd in Eastern Division, lost division final
  • Average attendance: 2,398, 10th

During the offseason, the Syracuse Silver Knights relocated 50 miles east to Utica and rebranded as Utica City FC in partnership with the Utica Comets in the AHL. This gives the team a much bigger and wealthier front office, while keeping the fairly successful soccer side intact. The Silver Knights did pretty well last season, too, only losing by a single goal each in two playoff games against Baltimore. A comfortable expectation for the first season in Utica is modest growth on the field and more substantial growth off.

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New on SocTakes: Brief history of USL

history of USL

Photo credit: Robbie Mehling/Soc Takes

With the United Soccer League set to field three separate divisions for the first time since 2009, I think it’s time we talked about the history of the various USL-operated leagues, and of the USL as an organization. Consider this adjacent to my recent “Understanding the pyramid” piece. The USL has a really interesting history and an unlikely origin story, and it knowing those can help one to understand the league’s current plans.

The USL actually dates back to 1985, shortly following the demise of the original NASL and the birth of the Major Indoor Soccer League. Francisco Marcos, former vice president of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Dallas Tornado and Calgary Boomers, founded a development league to the Major Indoor Soccer League known as the Southwest Indoor Soccer League. Five teams contested the inaugural SISL season during the winter of 1986-87, with three based in Texas, one in Albuquerque, and one in Oklahoma City. The league grew to six teams for the following season with the addition of Marcos’ own Austin Sockadillos, and again to nine teams for 1988-89 with the addition of teams in Wichita, San Antonio and Houston.

For the summer of 1989, the league staged an outdoor season as the Southwest Outdoor Soccer League, with six of nine indoor teams participating alongside teams in Denver and Tulsa. Following the successful completion of the 12-game outdoor season, the league rebranded as the Southwest Independent Soccer League for the 1989-90 indoor and 1990 outdoor seasons, reaching 17 teams for the indoor campaign and 14 for the outdoor. The new name lasted a single year, with the league rebranding again to the Sunbelt Independent Soccer League for the 1990-91 indoor and 1991 outdoor seasons following the addition of teams in Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee. The league continued to grow, fielding 18 teams indoors and 17 outdoors.

The league rebranded yet again, changing names for a third time, to the United States Interregional Soccer League for the 1991-92 indoor season, and continued under this name through the 1994 outdoor season, growing to a truly national footprint and a whopping 69 teams that season. This made the USISL the largest single league to that point in American soccer history.

Following the 1994 outdoor season, the league once again changed its name, becoming the United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues as the outdoor league by now dwarfed the dwindling indoor league following the collapse of the original Major Indoor Soccer League (known as the Major Soccer League during the ’90-91 and ’91-92 seasons) and declining interest in the indoor game nationally. The existing outdoor league was renamed as the USISL Premier League, alongside a new and fully professional outdoor league known as the USISL Professional League. The new Professional League featured many of the previous top teams among the 55 teams participating that summer, while those that wished to remain semi-pro or amateur formed the 27 teams in the Premier League. The USISL also launched a women’s league known as the W-League, the highest level of women’s club soccer then offered featuring a handful of semi-pro and even professional clubs.

In 1996, the USISL added a third league operating at the same Division 2 level as the American Premier Soccer League, known as the USISL Select League, while the APSL took on the A-League name. These three USISL leagues, alongside the A-League, comprised the entirety of the organized professional system beneath brand-new Major League Soccer. After that season, the A-League and Select League merged to form a USISL-operated Division 2 league under the A-League name. The USISL Professional League, by now operating as Division 3, rebranded as USISL D-3 Pro, and the Premier League rebranded as the Premier Development Soccer League.

The ’97-98 indoor season proved to be the end of USISL indoor play, with only eight clubs entering and only five completing the season. Meanwhile, the W-League split into two tiers for the 1998 season known as W-League W-1 and W-League W-2. This two-tier format lasted through the end of the 2001 season after which the W-League returned to a single-tier format.

The USISL continued to tweak branding, changing its name to the United Soccer Leagues and rebranding the PDSL as the Premier Development League in 1999, and renaming D-3 Pro as USL Pro Soccer for 2003. The league also launched its first dedicated youth league, the USL Super Y-League in 1999, followed by a spun-off dedicated U20 league known as the Super-20 League in 2006.

The next significant branding overhaul came in 2005, with the USL’s top league, the A-League, becoming the USL First Division, and the second third-division USL Pro Soccer league becoming the USL Second Division. These four names lasted through the end of the 2009 season.

During the 2009 season, Nike, which by then owned all of the USL, sold the organization and its six existing leagues to NuRock Soccer Holdings. This led to an internal schism among First Division teams, with several teams allied with Traffic Sports announcing the creation of a new Division 2 league under a reintroduced North American Soccer League brand. This wound up becoming a complicated mess, and rather than go into the necessary depth, I’d like to point you in the direction of the book “Soccerwarz,” written by my friend and Soc Takes contributor Kartik Krishnaiyer.

In a nutshell, U.S. Soccer created new standards for Division 2 and 3 leagues known as the Professional League Standards. For the 2010 season, the USSF also combined the remaining USL First Division teams with the breakaway NASL teams into a one-off league known as the USSF Division 2 Professional League. For 2011, the NASL was to be named as the lone second-division league in the United States, while the remaining USL aligned clubs in the First and Second Divisions would form a new league at the third-division level known as USL Pro. The PDL, W-League and youth leagues would continue to operate as normally.

rec league

Photo credit: Robbie Mehling/Soc Takes

USL Pro launched with 15 teams including three in Puerto Rico and one in Antigua and Barbuda. However, only five weeks into the season, the league expelled the three teams from Puerto Rico for, among other reasons, economic issues on the island and medical issues among ownership of two of the three teams. The Antiguan team, Antigua Barracuda FC, was created as essentially a club version of the Antigua and Barbuda national team, due to the island nation advancing to the second round of World Cup qualifying for the first time.

During the winter of 2011, the United Soccer Leagues took control of the third iteration of the Major Indoor Soccer League, restoring professional indoor play to its operations for the first time in 12 years. The USL had previously planned to launch its own professional indoor league, to be known as the USL I-League, but ended up merging its plans into the MISL.

The following season, 11 of the 12 teams returned, with FC New York electing to drop down to the NPSL. Orlando dominated the regular season and finished a whopping 16 points ahead of Rochester in the standings, but lost its first playoff game 4-3 to Wilmington. Wilmington then went on to lose 1-0 to Charleston in the final.

United Soccer Leagues also announced the creation of a women’s youth league, a counterpart to the W-League known as the W-20 League, which would begin in the summer of 2013.

For 2013, two new teams joined the league, Phoenix FC and VSI Tampa Bay. Additionally, this season marked the beginning of USL Pro’s alliance with MLS, with four USL teams affiliating with MLS sides and matches between USL teams and MLS reserves counting in the USL standings. USL also extended the schedule by two games from 24 to 26. After Antigua and Barbuda lost all six games in the third round of World Cup qualifying, support for the USL Barracuda side evaporated. The club was forced to play its entire season on the road in the United States, losing all 26 games and finishing with a -80 goal differential. These records for futility will likely never be matched. At the end of the season, Orlando won its second title in a thrilling 7-4 final victory over the Charlotte Eagles, and was awarded an expansion franchise in MLS for 2015. Meanwhile, VSI Tampa Bay was a flop, averaging fewer than 400 fans per game, folding at season’s end, and Antigua Barracuda never recovered from the loss of federation support, folding as well.

During the winter, the USL-operated MISL played its final season, and following the completion of the indoor season effectively merged with the rival Professional Arena Soccer League. Six of the seven remaining MISL teams joined the PASL, which would rebrand as the Major Arena Soccer League, with the Pennsylvania Roar folding. After only three seasons, the USL was once again without a winter league.

Prior to the 2014 season, USL Pro gained two new expansion teams in Sacramento Republic FC and Oklahoma City Energy FC. The OKC announcement was particularly controversial at the time, given the announcement of an OKC team joining the NASL for 2015 had taken place just weeks prior. The USL once again extended the schedule by two games to 28. Additionally, the Phoenix FC franchise was revoked by the league and immediately flipped to new investors as Arizona United SC, and the first MLS-operated reserve team, LA Galaxy II, joined the league. This season also marked the end of the MLS Reserve League and led directly to the eventual rise of additional MLS-operated teams over the following seasons. Orlando once again finished atop the standings but went out in the first round of the playoffs to end its time in USL Pro, while Sacramento finished in second in its inaugural season and won the championship 2-0 over Harrisburg.

During the offseason, the league rebranded as the United Soccer League, dropping the “Pro” portion of its name. The league also grew dramatically, gaining four new expansion teams in Austin, Colorado Springs, St. Louis and Tulsa, along with seven MLS-operated reserve sides. Two founding members, the Charlotte Eagles and Dayton Dutch Lions, chose to drop to the PDL. Orlando, meanwhile, sold its franchise to Louisville to create Louisville City FC, and the Eagles sold their franchise to create the Charlotte Independence. This left the league with 24 teams for 2015, leading to the implementation of Eastern and Western Conferences. The mass influx of MLS reserve sides led to a debate over whether or not these teams belonged in the professional system that still continues to this day. Rochester finished the season with the best record in the league and won the championship in extra time 2-1 over LA Galaxy II.

Following the completion of the 2015 season, both USL women’s leagues, the W-League and W-20 League, folded, with six teams forming United Women’s Soccer and seven joining the Women’s Premier Soccer League. The USL also folded the Super-20 League and modified the Super Y-League rules to include up to six U-19 players in the U-17/18 bracket. This left the USL in charge of only three leagues, the fewest since 1994.

For the 2016 season, the USL extended the schedule for the first time since 2014, with teams now playing a 30-game season. Six new teams were announced, with San Antonio FC and FC Cincinnati joining as expansion sides alongside four more MLS reserve teams. The Austin Aztex, meanwhile, went on hiatus due to ongoing stadium issues. This left the league with 29 teams to contest the season. The biggest story during the season were comments made by Arizona United owner Kyle Eng in support of Donald Trump in the lead up to the 2016 election, which was followed shortly thereafter by the sale of the team. New York Red Bulls II dominated the regular season and won the championship 5-1 over the Swope Park Rangers, with only one independent team making the semifinals. Cincinnati, meanwhile, absolutely shattered Orlando’s attendance record, drawing over 30,000 fans for its first-round playoff game.

During the winter of 2016, the USL applied for Division 2 status with U.S. Soccer and was granted provisional status to operate at the D2 level alongside the NASL. Two teams, the Ottawa Fury and Tampa Bay Rowdies, defected to the USL from the NASL, joining a lone expansion team in Reno 1868 FC. The new owners of Arizona United rebranded the team as Phoenix Rising FC, and FC Montreal, the reserve side of the Montreal Impact, was folded following a depressing season on and off the field. The USL also finally eliminated a longstanding rule permitting five substitutions per game, put in place due to fixture congestion, and instead adopted the standard three substitutions policy. FC Cincinnati continued to set attendance records during the season amid its bid for an MLS expansion franchise, and managed to defeat the Chicago Fire in the Open Cup in front of over 32,000 fans. Louisville City finished the season as champions, handing the Swope Park Rangers their second-consecutive championship final loss and preventing back-to-back reserve team champions.

This brings us to 2018. During the offseason, the NASL lost its Division 2 sanctioning, leaving the USL as the lone professional league beneath MLS, and two more NASL teams joined the USL, the Indy Eleven and North Carolina FC. The Harrisburg City Islanders were sold to Rush Soccer and rebranded as Penn FC. Four more expansion teams joined in Fresno, Las Vegas, Nashville and Atlanta’s reserve side, while the Whitecaps elected to fold their USL team. Rochester and Orlando City B both took the season off. The 2018 season will be the last one for FC Cincinnati, with the team joining MLS in 2019. Nashville, meanwhile, will play just one season more before also joining MLS in 2020.

In 2018, the USL announced the creation of a new Division 3 league, filling the gap left by the USL’s acquisition of Division 2 status, alongside a comprehensive rebrand. The top D2 league in the USL will be known as the USL Championship in 2019, with the D3 league known as USL League One, and the PDL as USL League Two. The USL has announced seven expansion teams joining the USL Championship for 2019 in Austin, Birmingham, El Paso, Hartford, Loudoun, Memphis and New Mexico.

USL League One will begin in 2019 with new teams in Greenville, Madison, and Chattanooga, alongside former PDL teams from Tucson and Statesboro. Two teams participating in the 2018 USL season, Toronto FC II and the Richmond Kickers, will also join League One next season, with Orlando City B set to end its hiatus. Penn FC will take the 2019 season off and Rochester plans to extend its hiatus, with both teams joining League One in 2020.

From there, the most distant plans we know about currently include teams joining the USL Championship in 2021 in Chicago and Oakland, and FC Dallas planning to launch a League One team at some point in the near future. Everything else is just rumor and speculation.

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New on SocTakes: 2018 USL Cup radial bracket

 

2018 USL Cup radial bracket

The playoffs have arrived. Sixteen clubs will vie for the 2018 USL Cup in the league’s single-elimination postseason format. FC Cincinnati and Orange County SC earned the top seeds in the respective Eastern and Western Conference. Louisville City FC, the defending champion, is the No. 2 seed in the East.

The USL Cup final will take place Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. ET. Whichever club among the two finalists had the better regular-season record gets the right to host.

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New on SocTakes: Understanding the pyramid: American soccer explained

American soccer

Photo credit: AD Teasdale

So, you’re new to American soccer. Maybe you caught the MLS bug, maybe your city just joined USL, maybe you’re trying to figure out how the Open Cup works, or wonder what all this talk of divisions and tiers is about. That’s understandable! You’ve entered into something that is undeniably complicated. There’s a fair bit of chaos to unravel from the top down, and for the soccer novice, it’s far from simple. Hopefully this explanation will help.

Let’s start with the basics. Soccer leagues typically operate in some sort of hierarchy around the world, and the United States is no exception. However, because we have to be different, soccer operates differently here than it does in other countries, and it’s not quite the same as how other professional sports work in the United States. More on that later.

So, the pyramid. This is the (somewhat) organized hierarchy of leagues within the United States. Officially, there are three levels on the pyramid for professional soccer, and unofficially, there are several other leagues further down ranging from strictly amateur to semi-pro. These are known as “divisions” or “tiers.”

At the top of the three professional leagues, we find Major League Soccer, or MLS. MLS was founded as part of the USA hosting the World Cup in 1994, and began play in 1996. After originally launching with 10 teams, MLS has grown to 23 for the 2018 season with Cincinnati set to join in 2019 and Miami and Nashville in 2020. MLS is the top soccer league in the U.S., home to the best and highest-paid players from the likes of Zlatan to Giovinco to Josef Martinez. The league is divided into two conferences, East and West, with every team playing a 34-game season from March through October.

Two major trophies are awarded to teams in MLS annually: the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup. The Supporters’ Shield is awarded to the team which finishes the season with the best overall record in the league. Compare this to the winner of the Premier League or the President’s Trophy in the NHL. The other trophy, the MLS Cup, is awarded to the playoff champion at the end of the season, as unlike in much of European soccer, MLS ends the season with playoffs. Currently, six teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs and play two-game series until the championship game. The MLS Cup final is held between the playoff champions of both conferences, and the winner is crowned the champion of MLS for the season.

Now for the second division league, the USL. The United Soccer League has been around in some form since 2011, although the organization that runs it has staged leagues dating back technically to 1988. The modern USL began as the third-division league, was awarded joint second-division status for 2017 and is the only operating second-division league in 2018. The USL currently has 33 teams for 2018, again divided into East and West, and also plays a 34-game schedule from March through October. Like MLS, the USL also ends the season with playoffs, although eight teams from each conference qualify and every round of the playoffs is single-game elimination. The winner of the USL Playoffs is awarded the USL Cup and crowned league champion for the year. The USL is also growing, and rather quickly at that. Seven teams are joining the league next year in Austin, Birmingham, El Paso, Hartford, Loudon, Memphis and Albuquerque, and teams in Chicago and Oakland are expected to join the league in 2021.

The USL is a professional league and the players are all paid, but wages are lower than in MLS, stadiums are smaller, attendance is lower and so on. The best analogue to this is MLB and AAA minor league baseball, or the NHL and AHL, or the NBA and G-League. Many players in MLS either got their start or spent some time playing in the USL in the past, and it’s increasingly common for players who aren’t quite ready for MLS to spend a season or two in the USL.

If you look at the USL standings, you’ll see a number of teams with “2” or “II” in their name. That’s because MLS and the USL have an agreement in place where MLS teams can field reserve or affiliate teams in the USL. Almost every single MLS team actually has an affiliation with a USL team or a team they operate themselves. Compare this to major and minor league baseball. Some USL teams, specifically Reno, Rio Grande Valley and Bethlehem, are actually operated by MLS sides, although they play in a different city (or state) than the MLS team under a different name. The inclusion of these “2″ teams in the USL has been controversial to say the least. The agreement is up for renewal or renegotiation in a few years, so this might not be the case in several years’ time.

Unlike in other countries, there is no promotion and relegation between MLS and the USL. There have been some discussions in the past and within the USL organization about this, but there’s no plans to implement anything like this in the near future. This means that the only way for teams in the USL to join MLS is to apply for an expansion spot with MLS, put together a good enough bid — including a stadium — and hope that MLS selects it. Orlando City and FC Cincinnati are the two teams that have successfully joined MLS from the USL.

And now onto the third division: there isn’t one. Or, there isn’t one playing in 2018. For 2019, two different leagues have applied to start as division three leagues: USL Division III (USL D3), operated by the same organization as the DII USL; and the National Independent Soccer Association, or NISA. USL D3 currently has eight teams announced for 2019, with two (Toronto FC 2 and the Richmond Kickers) joining from the USL. NISA, meanwhile, expects to kickoff in August 2019 with at least eight teams. Both leagues could grow in number by the time a ball is kicked next year.

So, that’s the professional side of the pyramid. Now let’s try and tackle the wild world of amateur and semi-pro soccer.

Below the three official divisions as designated by USSF, there are several active leagues ranging from intrastate competitions to nationally sprawling leagues. All of these are sanctioned not by USSF directly but by the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA).

The top two leagues, commonly defined as the fourth division, are the Premier Development League (PDL), operated by the same body that operates USL and USLD3, and the National Premier Soccer League, which operates independent of any other league. These leagues are both massive, with 74 teams contesting the 2018 PDL season and 98 in the NPSL. Both are also growing constantly, with teams coming (and sometimes going) every single year.

Despite their national footprints, both leagues are heavily subdivided into smaller regional conferences comprising roughly six to ten teams each. Teams generally don’t play opponents outside their specific conference until the postseason. The two leagues play a much shorter season, with 14 games played by PDL teams from May into July, and between 10 and 14 games played by NPSL teams depending on that team’s conference. Both leagues feature playoffs that start off regionally and culminate in a league championship game.

Both of these leagues are technically amateur, although some teams do pay their players. The primary reason why a team would choose to remain amateur is due to eligibility rules with the NCAA, as players lose their eligibility if any of their teammates are professional.

Below these two, things start to get a bit odd. There are 16 leagues around the country designated as “Elite Amateur Premier Leagues” which is generally considered the fifth division, along with the massive United Premier Soccer League (UPSL), which operates between one and three divisions within the league depending on the region. For more on the UPSL, check out my “UPSL explained” post here. It’s also believed that some of the USASA leagues might join the new US Premiership, about which little else is known. To find out what little we do know, check out my piece on the league’s announcement over here.

Below the fifth division leagues, there are the regional leagues affiliated with USASA or US Club Soccer, which could be described as sixth division. These are essentially a step above local rec leagues, and are almost entirely fully amateur.

Another noteworthy tidbit is that the USL and its two affiliated leagues, USL D3 and the PDL, are all rebranding in line with the English pyramid. Starting at the end of the 2018 season, the USL will be known as the USL Championship, USL D3 as USL League One and the PDL as USL League Two. With the leagues explained, it’s time to talk about the Open Cup.

The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, as it’s officially known, is an annual knockout tournament dating back to 1914, and is the largest single soccer tournament in the entire country. With a few exceptions, just about every soccer team in America is eligible to compete each year. Every American team from MLS is automatically entered, as are the American USL teams which aren’t owned by MLS (“2 teams”), and for 2019, the teams at the third division. Moving down, the best teams from the semi-pro and amateur ranks play in a qualifying tournament to determine who gets to contest the actual cup. The qualification tournament is held every fall for the following year’s Open Cup. For 2018, 108 teams entered the qualifying tournament and 55 won their way into the competition.

The Open Cup begins in May with the first round, consisting entirely of semi-pro and amateur teams. The teams that win move on to play teams from the USL in the second and third rounds, and teams from MLS enter for the fourth round in June. The tournament generally runs from May through September, with the bulk of games played in May and June. The winner of the Open Cup receives a $300,000 prize, while the runner-up receives $100,000, and the last team from each lower-division league receives a prize of $25,000. It’s no secret that the Open Cup is one of my favorite things, as it’s one of the few chances where a team made up of amateurs playing soccer for fun on the weekends gets to take on a giant of MLS. And sometimes, those amateur teams win! There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in America.

 

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Now that you understand the leagues and the Open Cup, it’s time to discuss the Concacaf Champions League.

Every one of the six continental soccer confederations holds an annual Champions League tournament for all the top clubs in the region. The most famous of these, the UEFA Champions League, is arguably the most widely watched club soccer competition in the world. Our version of this in North America is run by Concacaf and operates pretty similarly.

Every year, the United States sends four teams to the Champions League, which will run from February through April 2019. Three teams are always guaranteed to be from MLS: the MLS Cup winner, the Supporter’s Shield winner, and the team with the best record from the conference opposite the shield winner. However, for 2019, this will be a little different. I’ll explain below. The fourth team is the Open Cup champion, which means that amateur teams can qualify for the Champions League in the United States, and that’s pretty amazing. It hasn’t happened yet, and no team outside MLS has won the Open Cup since 1999, but it’s possible, and that’s enough for me to remain excited.

So, the 2019 changes. The Champions League used to run from August through April, with teams participating in a group stage. That changed for 2018, and because of that, the teams that the U.S. sends in 2019 are a little different. The winners of the 2018 MLS Cup and Open Cup qualify, as does the 2017 Open Cup winner, and the team with the best overall record in MLS combined across the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Thankfully, it’s just for the one tournament, but it does make things confusing.

Who do these teams play? That changes every year, but there are a guaranteed number of spots awarded to several countries throughout North and Central America as well as the Caribbean. Mexico always sends four teams, the winners and runners-up of the two most recent campaigns; Canada gets one spot awarded to the winner of the Canadian Championship (their Open Cup), and Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama all send one team each. The remaining two spots go to one team in Central America, the winner of the annual Concacaf League tournament (yes, it’s a bit confusing) and one team in the Caribbean, the winner of the Caribbean Club Championship. This is not only a great opportunity for teams from different countries to compete against each other, it’s also the pathway to the annual Club World Cup. The Champions League is always a big deal (although not so much here in the United States, yet), and the games are generally amazing to watch. So far, Mexico has dominated the tournament, but the USA and Canada keep inching closer and closer to victory.

So, if you’ve made it this far, you might have noticed that technically an amateur team can win the Open Cup, which means technically an amateur team can win the Champions League. That also means that an amateur team from the United States could end up competing in the Club World Cup against the winners of the other five continental Champions Leagues, which means the likes of Real Madrid and Independiente. Yes, this actually could happen. Maybe it never will, but as long as there’s a chance, teams will fight for it.

I hope you enjoyed this slightly rambling explanation of how exactly soccer works here, and how all these different leagues fit into the system. Coming soon are explanations of how the women’s game works in the United States, as well as an explanation of the Canadian soccer system.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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New on SocTakes: Off the bench: The chronicles of rec league

rec league

Photo credit: Robbie Mehling/Soc Takes

Whenever people ask me what it is that I do, I answer that I write about soccer. I’ve been doing this to some extent for most of the past five years. Their follow-up question is, almost always, “Oh, so you play soccer?” or some other variation of the same.

I don’t play soccer. I’ve never played soccer. Not in school, not as a kid, not even intramural. The entire extent of my soccer-playing experience is two pickup games with some friends from college back in 2014, and about 10 minutes on the field in FC Dallas‘ stadium following the Dallas Beer Guardians vs. El Matador game earlier this year. In total, that’s less than half an hour spent on a soccer field for the purposes of kicking the ball.

This, I’ve found, is unusually rare among soccer writers. In my defense, I was diagnosed with arthritis when I was 19, so my physical activities have been rather limited for years. That said, I’m actually still in moderately passable shape, and a new treatment regiment has me to where I’m reasonably confident I might be able to actually play.

So, the actual point of this short post: I signed up for a rec league. More specifically, it’s the 7-v-7 coed rec league run by the Fort Worth Vaqueros this fall. It was a bit of an impulse decision, but I don’t regret it in the slightest (yet).

Following this decision to sign up, I went out and bought the requisite cleats and shin guards for the first time in my life. I went with something cheap and on sale at the local Academy because honestly, I’m not sinking in a tonne of money for something I know nothing about. Since then, I’ve been religiously checking the league website for the schedule release and to find out what team I’m on. I registered as a free agent, so I have no idea who my teammates will be, who my coach will be and how they will react to someone with literally zero experience joining their team.

The start of the season has already been delayed at least two weeks. The original start date was September 16, and then September 23, and now, potentially, this upcoming Sunday. On the off chance I find out about my team and teammates in the next 48 hours, I wanted to get this short (for me, at least) post up.

I know this is not what we normally do here at Soc Takes, but this is such an odd experience that I hope you’ll all find interesting.

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