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.
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.
Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.
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