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New on SocTakes: Unraveling changes for 2019

unraveling changes - USL

Photo credit: Robbie Mehling/Soc Takes

2019 already has the makings of a historic year for soccer in North America with not one, not two, but four new leagues launching next year. This piece here should hopefully straighten things out by summarizing and explaining what we currently know.

First up, let’s talk some USL. The top league in its system is now the USL Championship and will likely comprise 36 clubs for 2019. Teams in Austin, Birmingham, El Paso, Hartford, Loudoun, Memphis and Albuquerque are all joining the league. FC Cincinnati is set to join MLS, while Toronto FC 2, Penn FC and the Richmond Kickers will all leave the league for the new third-division USL League One, with Penn FC delaying its debut to 2020.

Moving on to USL League One, the league currently has 10 teams confirmed for 2019. These teams are new teams in Chattanooga, Madison, Greenville, Lansing and Frisco, along with former PDL (now League Two) members FC Tucson and Tormenta FC. Joining them are the aforementioned teams from Toronto and Richmond, as well as a returning Orlando City B side. The Rochester Rhinos are set to end their hiatus by joining alongside Penn FC in 2020.

Then, there’s the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), formerly run by Peter Wilt. Wilt has left to spearhead the USL League One efforts in Madison. In his absence, the league has regrouped and announced four markets along with one actual team. The first team to be “officially” revealed is San Diego 1904 FC, a club which was originally announced as part of the canceled 2018 NASL season. San Diego will be joined by clubs in Charlotte, Philadelphia, Atlanta and somewhere in Connecticut. NISA does have something of a time advantage on both USL leagues, as NISA is planning to operate on a fall-spring season beginning in August of next year, rather than March/April as is the norm for MLS and USL. The league plans to have 8-12 teams announced for the inaugural season.

In addition to NISA, the NPSL, a long-established amateur/semi-professional league, has announced a new professional tournament to be known as the Founder’s Cup. So far, 11 clubs have been revealed: Chattanooga FC, Detroit City FC, Miami FC (former NASL), Miami United FC, Milwaukee Torrent, New York Cosmos (former NASL), FC Arizona, ASC San Diego, Cal FC, California United Strikers FC (former NASL expansion) and Oakland Roots SC. The league is currently dividing its clubs into Eastern and Western Conferences, with plans to add one more club to the West. The inaugural campaign will run from August through November, with plans for a full spring-to-fall season in 2020.

To finish things off, Canada is finally getting a proper top division, the Canadian Premier League, planning to kick off in April. Seven teams will contest the 24-game season. Check out our CPL primer for a much deeper look at the league.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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New on SocTakes: Forward Progress: FC Dallas’ quest for DP talent

DP talent

Photo credit: Michael Barera (Creative Commons license)

I’ve supported FC Dallas in MLS since the 2011 season. The 2010 MLS Cup final was the first MLS game I ever watched, and their 2011 home opener was the first pro soccer game I ever attended. Over the past eight seasons, there’s been one overwhelmingly common complaint among fans: “FC Dallas needs a proper forward.” This comes in a few variations, all containing the desire for some sort of idealized goal-scoring superstar.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about this and wondering how to approach such an article. My first idea was to compare FC Dallas to league averages and adjust for the team’s total goals scored, but that ended up without any meaningful conclusion. My second idea was an attempt to prove that Dallas can do just fine without a proper forward, but that ended up getting both boring and directly contradicting the point of this piece. My third idea was to take every Dallas DP, forward, attacking mid, etc., and figure out the best values by taking the statistics from those players, comparing it to their wages and analyzing the outcomes. That was alright, but I honestly lost interest pretty quickly.

So, I’ve come up with a new plan, one I’m sticking to. Let’s take a walk through Dallas’ history of designated players and their impact, or lack thereof, on the club’s performance.

We begin in 2007 with the introduction of the designated player rule, and the signing of Denílson.

Denílson de Oliveira made a splash at age 17 with his debut for São Paulo FC back in 1994, winning that year’s Copa CONMEBOL and earning a spot on the Brazilian senior national team. His profile grew in 1997 as he won the Golden Ball at the Confederations Cup. In 1998, he joined Real Betis on a then-world-record transfer fee of £21.5 million (~$35 million). After five years spent with Betis, he found himself riding the bench in Spain and out of the national team. He spent a single season with Bordeaux in Ligue 1, starting regularly as his new club finished second, but found his wage demands unmet by season’s end. He then joined Saudi side Al-Nassr in the summer of 2006, making 15 appearances and scoring three goals.

On Aug. 24, 2007, Denílson joined FC Dallas as the club’s first designated player for a guaranteed $879,936 and made his debut on Sept. 1, as a 55’ sub against DC United. What followed ranks among the biggest disappointments for designated player signings in league history. After scoring a penalty kick goal against Toronto in his first start, Denílson went scoreless through six starts, finding himself out of the starting lineup by the Open Cup final in October. He finished the season with just the one penalty kick goal, no assists and a grand total of 606 minutes played, and had his option declined in the offseason. FC Dallas offered him a new, non-DP contract at a much lower wage and was turned down, with Denílson joining Palmeiras in his native Brazil.

Following three goals and 30 appearances, mostly off the bench, Denílson turned down several offers from Europe, mainly on wage issues, and eventually signed for Hải Phòng F.C. in Vietnam for the 2009 season for a V.League record salary of $5.5 million. He scored a goal from a free kick on his debut, got injured not long after, and was gone only three weeks after signing. His debut in Vietnam ended up being his final professional appearance, as he was injured not long after. He signed a contract in Greece with then-first-division Kavala F.C. He showed up out of shape, out of form, and without having participated in meaningful training for over six months. Needless to say, the club was unhappy, and despite the club’s struggles, he was cut just four months into his contract without ever making an appearance.

FC Dallas’ leading scorers that season were Carlos Ruiz and Juan Toja. Ruiz actually posted his worst season for Dallas that year with only seven goals, but was comparatively a bargain at $435,000. He left Dallas during the offseason, ending a highly successful three-year stint with the club in which he scored 31 goals and assisted on another 10. After initially being traded to the LA Galaxy, Ruiz was injured during the season opener and found himself replaced by Edson Buddle in the starting lineup. After making 10 appearances, mostly off the bench, he was traded to Toronto FC and unfortunately failed to succeed. He spent the next few years a journeyman, playing for Olimpia in Paraguay, Veracruz in Mexico, and DC United. He then returned to his original club Municipal in Guatemala, playing 18 months in what was arguably his most successful spell in nearly a decade. Finally, he signed on as a late-season addition with FC Dallas in the latter half of 2016, making just a single appearance as a substitute but scoring a goal in his 14 minutes on the field. He retired at the end of the year.

Toja, meanwhile, had a very unusual career. He was a regular in Dallas until suffering an ankle injury during the 2007 All-Star Game, which led to a reduced role and declining performance the following season. In August 2008, he moved to Steaua București in Romania. His strong performances there allowed him to crack the senior Colombian national team for the first time that October. His performance began to wane with Steaua, and he was transferred to Aris in Greece on a three-year deal, but following two seasons in which he again failed to meet expectations, he returned to MLS through the allocation process in August 2012 and joined the New England Revolution. By then, injuries had taken a significant toll on his abilities, and he made just 23 appearances through the end of 2013 and quietly retired at age 28.

This concludes part one of many on the ongoing struggle for FC Dallas to sign a top-tier goalscorer. As long as Dallas continues to sign designated players who fail to meet expectations, there will be fresh material to discuss.

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New on SocTakes: MLS Cup Playoffs: Conference semis 2nd-leg scenarios

The Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs return this evening with the Seattle Sounders hosting the Portland Timbers to kick off the second legs of the conference semifinals. The three other second legs go down Sunday. Here’s a visual of all the second-leg scenarios:

Seattle vs. Portland

Sporting KC vs. Real Salt Lake

Atlanta United FC vs. NYCFC

leg scenarios

New York Red Bulls vs. Columbus Crew SC

leg scenarios

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New on SocTakes: MLS Cup Playoffs: Conference semifinals radial bracket

2018 MLS Cup radial bracket

The eight remaining MLS sides will play out the second legs of the conference semifinals beginning Thursday evening with one match on the docket and finishing up with three more Sunday. Who do you think will advance to the Eastern and Western Conference finals? Let us know in the comments below.

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New on SocTakes: MASL preview: Southwest Division

Southwest Division

Photo credit: Dravecky (Creative Commons license)

Welcome back to our series of previews for the upcoming MASL season. This edition focuses on the Southwest Division.

If you missed the other parts, click here to read those. With that done, let’s jump back in.

The Southwest Division has gained one team returning from a season-long hiatus, and lost one team that has exited the league entirely. The Dallas Sidekicks are back, as promised with their announcement last September, and have a reorganized front office containing a number of fantastic soccer people. Meanwhile, the Soles de Sonora have stepped away from the MASL and are instead contesting the Mexican LMFR-Pro. This leaves the division with four teams, same as before.

Dallas Sidekicks – Allen, Texas

  • Founded: 2012
  • Home venue: Allen Event Center (6,006)
  • Head coach: Simon Bozas
  • Last season: hiatus

When the Dallas Sidekicks were refounded back in 2012, they were an absolute juggernaut in the MASL, finishing 13-3, 14-2 and 14-6 in their first three seasons. Despite not winning a championship, the team was undeniably among the strongest in the league on and off the field. That is, until a combination of financial issues and broken contracts led head coach and legendary player Tatu to step away from the team, with new ownership coming in and Simon Bozas appointed as Tatu’s replacement. Immediately, things fell apart. The Sidekicks went 7-13 two seasons in a row, well outside playoff contention, and saw their attendance plummet below 2,300. Then, the hiatus, which I actually wrote about earlier this summer. They’re officially back now, and things are already looking promising. In conversations with minority partner Michael Hitchcock — also of Fort Worth Vaqueros and Denton Diablos — the attitude is incredibly different and, in my opinion, much improved. I’ll 100 percent be at the home opener.

El Paso Coyotes – El Paso, Texas

  • Founded: 2016
  • Home venue: El Paso County Coliseum (6,500)
  • Head coach: Jose Luis Trevino
  • Last season: 11-11, 3rd in Southwest, DNQ
  • Average attendance: 2,067, 12th in MASL

The El Paso Coyotes had the absolute worst debut season in MASL history, going 0-20 in the 2016-17 campaign. Improving from that catastrophic debut to 11-11 the next year made them undeniably the most improved team. They actually looked consistently solid, even holding their own against a stupidly dominant Monterrey Flash side. Honestly, given the departure of Sonora, the Coyotes could easily contend for the playoffs this season. The battle between them and the Sidekicks is going to get interesting, as that second playoff spot in the Southwest is likely going to one of those two teams.

Monterrey Flash – Monterrey, Mexico

  • Founded: 2013 (2017-18)
  • Home venue: Arena Monterrey (17,500)
  • Head coach: Mariano Bollela
  • Last season: 20-2, 1st in Southwest, lost final to Baltimore
  • Average attendance: 3,006, 6th in MASL

Monterrey joined back when the league was still the PASL and made an immediate impact, finishing just one game behind dominant Dallas and Hidalgo squads. The next year, Monterrey came out swinging, losing just twice en route to a first place finish. They flattened Dallas 11-1 in their first playoff game and cruised to a championship title. Then they took two seasons off stemming from financial issues. The Flash returned last season and dominated the Southwest Division, and lost the championship game at home by just a single goal. Monterrey has regrouped and improved, and they’re such an easy favorite to do what they do once again.

RGV Barracudas FC – Hidalgo, Texas

  • Founded: 2014
  • Home venue: State Farm Arena (5,500)
  • Head coach: Genoni Martinez
  • Last season: 3-19, 4th in Southwest, DNQ
  • Average attendance: 1,361, 15th in MASL

RGV took the 2016-17 season off, following their second MASL season in which the Barracudas finished 8-12. Despite the on-field performances declining in their return campaign, winning only three of 22 games, attendance climbed substantially, with the team posting their highest average yet. This offseason, they’ve retooled their roster around several significant additions from Sonora and Monterrey, and at the very least should have their offensive issues from last season resolved. If they can figure out how to stop leaking goals, they might be alright.

Soles de Sonora – Hermosillo, Mexico

With the four returning teams out of the way, here’s a brief summary of the current situation in Sonora. The Soles, who made the finals in 2016 and 2017, are electing to sit out the upcoming campaign. It’s believed that they’re likely to field a team in the Mexican LMFR-Pro, and they have left the door open for a potential return in the future, but it might not be under the Soles name. Considering how strong the team was on and off the field, there’s no doubt that the league wants to return to Hermosillo, but the big question is ownership. Right now, that’s about as much as we know.

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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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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.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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