By Scott Adamson
Major League Soccer is top dog when it comes to the hierarchy of the sport in North America, but the United Soccer League has grown into a worthy member of the pack.
The USL, which serves as pro soccer’s primary second division in the United States and Canada, has doubled in size since 2014 and is adding three new teams (Nashville, Fresno and Las Vegas) in 2018.
Birmingham and Austin are set to join in 2019.
Once those expansion clubs are in the fold, the USL will feature 35 teams, and currently 22 USL squads have direct affiliations with MLS. All but one MLS franchise (Minnesota United FC) has a “feeder club” in the United Soccer League.
“We work with MLS and their clubs to evaluate their affiliation models to see what makes sense for the USL and what makes sense for MLS, and it’s not a one size fits all situation,” USL president Jake Edwards said during a conference call earlier today. “I think right now after a few years, on an annual basis they have to evaluate from a business point of view and technical point of view how those partnerships work.”
Farm club status notwithstanding, the USL had its most successful season this year.
“The 2017 season had been incredibly successful – not just for the league, but for all of our clubs,” Edwards said. “We surpassed 2 million fans in total attendance, setting a record for a second division league in North America.”
USL attendance in 2017 averaged 5,700 fans per game, a 23 percent increase over 2016. And several teams put up crowd numbers that would make an MLS franchise proud.
“Since 2011, total league attendance has grown at an annual rate of 36 percent,” Edwards said. “This season nine of the top 10-attended professional soccer markets outside of MLS were, in fact, from the USL. Of those, seven USL clubs drew more than 100,000 fans to their games this season.”
FC Cincinnati averaged 21,199 fans per match as the city continues to make a strong push to gain entry into MLS, while Sacramento Republic saw an average of 11,569 fans click the turnstiles for home matches.
Seven other teams averaged more than 5,000 fans per match.
In all, per game averages showed a marked increase over the 2016 average of 3,439.
“This significant increase is the result of several factors,” Edwards said. “It certainly includes the improved quality of play on the field, increased exposure we’ve received through USL Productions and new media partnerships, and a significant investment made by our first-class ownership through infrastructure and stadiums, and the fan experience.”
Edwards says that more than half of the league’s teams play in soccer-specific stadiums, with a league goal of having all of its franchises housed in stadiums designed primarily for soccer by 2020.
The USL was created as USL Pro in 2011, and formerly featured first and second divisions under the umbrella of United Soccer Leagues. A merger with the MLS Reserve League in 2013 led to one unified second division league.
“We’ll continue to attract top quality players for an even more competitive season (going forward),” Edwards said. “Our overall goal is to be one of the top Division 2 professional soccer leagues in the world.”
The 2017 USL Cup championship will be played Monday at 9 p.m. when Louisville City FC hosts Swope Park (Kansas City) Rangers.
ESPNU will televise the match.