What’s Next for the USL Championship?
Changes afoot in 2022
Correction: post has been updated to include the Tacoma Defiance as a team leaving the USL Championship.
Major League Soccer made a big – but entirely expected – announcement today, officially unveiling its lower-division league opening play in 2022:
Introducing: MLS NEXT Pro.
Established by @MLS, MLS NEXT Pro is a new professional league for the next generation of soccer stars in North America.
— MLS NEXT Pro (@MLSNEXTPRO) December 6, 2021
Setting aside the ludicrously ugly logo, this will have an impact on the USL Championship (and also League One) going forward. The Championship will lose a total of 6 teams, Sporting Kansas City II, Tacoma Defiance (owned principally by the Seattle Sounders) and Real Monarchs in 2022, Atlanta United 2, LA Galaxy II and Red Bull New York II in 2023. Additionally, DC United and LAFC will field teams in 2023. That almost certainly means Loudoun United, which is owned by DC United, will be finished. The Las Vegas Lights established an affiliation with LAFC this past season. That did nothing to improve the team’s on-field performance and it would not be a shock if they folded in the near future.
Three other Championship teams have affiliations with MLS clubs: San Antonio (NYCFC), the Rio Grande Valley Toros (Houston Dynamo) and the Colorado Springs Switchbacks (Colorado Rapids). All three MLS clubs will have teams in MLS NEXT Pro (MNP), but the affiliations are relatively loose and are unlikely to impact the USL teams significantly. Of the 3, RGV is most at risk, as coaching staff and player selection are controlled by the Dynamo (although the team is independently owned).
Note that MNP will not be a direct competitor to the USL Championship. The league has applied for (and presumably received) sanctioning as a 3rd tier league. That means it will be at the same level as USL League One, which will also lose teams to the new league (Fort Lauderdale CF, New England Revolution II, Toronto FC II and North Texas SC). MNP will have a total of 21 teams in 2022, all but one of which will be MLS-owned. The exception will Rochester New York FC, which is the resurrection of the late lamented Rochester Rhinos, which played in the USL Championship through 2017. English soccer star Jamie Vardy made headlines in June of this year by buying an interest in the team, immediately sparking speculation that the team would soon be back. This is the result. MNP is also open to other independent teams, but as yet none have applied for membership.
On top of that, there was the recent news that Charlotte Independence will voluntarily drop to League One. That is in anticipation of the rookie season in MLS of Charlotte FC. The Independence has also had some internal struggles, mostly around the ownership clashing with the fan base. This could well be the death knell for the team.
In similar fashion, it was already known that Austin Bold would move out of their city as a result of Austin FC in MLS making it very hard to compete for fans there. The team will be moving to Fort Worth, but it is possible it will be on hiatus for 2022 pending a stadium deal.
One more issue: in a completely unexpected turn of events, OKC Energy announced last Friday that it would go on hiatus for 2022. The ostensible reason is upgrade work at Taft Stadium (which frankly needs it desperately) by its owner, the city’s schools department. Apparently the team was unable to secure an alternative site for the season. The announcement was even a surprise to the team’s players, and in fact 2022 tickets had already been on sale. Not a good look, and a hiatus like this is yet another sign of potential doom. That being said, the team had long been looking to build an entirely new stadium, so who knows.
So, in total, the Championship will for sure lose 4 teams permanently in 2022 and another 3 in 2023. 2 more are in limbo for 2022 and 2 more potentially for 2023. All in, the league could lose up to 10 teams, although the permanent loss of the Bold seems unlikely.
But there’s good news too. The league will welcome Detroit City and Monterey Bay in 2022, and Queensboro FC in 2023. Also potential expansion teams in 2023 are Rhode Island and Buffalo. Beyond that, Des Moines is looking to join in 2024.
That’s 6 new teams right there.
Overall, these various moves should only be interpreted as a net benefit to the US soccer landscape as a whole, and to the USL Championship in particular.
The arrangement with MLS dated back to 2013, and it was a way for the two leagues to meet their own needs. The USL needed to grow, and MLS wanted to improve the standard of opposition for what was then its reserve league. It worked beautifully for both organizations, but it has outlived its usefulness.
Over the 9 seasons of the arrangement, MLS-owned or affiliated teams have won the title just twice (New York in 2016 and Real Monarchs in 2019). Most recently, the 7 teams most likely to go (the 7 MLS-owned teams plus Las Vegas) averaged a season total 25.6 points, or 0.75 per game. Of the group, only LA Galaxy II and Tacoma were not in the bottom of the league standings, and even they did not make the playoffs (they were tied on 39 points)
Moreover, attendance for those teams is generally weak. Data for the past 2 seasons is hard to come by, but in 2019, almost none of them broke an average of 1,000. Even then-champions Real Monarchs couldn’t top 2,000. Playing on TV to near-empty stadiums is not a good look. Poor records, competing with a parent club and the inherent instability of the roster combine to make it hard to attract fans.
In general, independent clubs in markets not served by MLS have a much easier time putting butts in seats and at the same time are able to field much stabler – and therefore more competitive – teams. That is especially true of those clubs who have made it their business to integrate themselves into the local culture. The Legion has worked hard on that front and with some degree of success. Others have done even better, and the incoming Detroit City probably has already a better job of that than almost any existing team. That is, they are already a successful organization and will be a strong addition to the league. As will, in all likelihood, the other expansion squads slated for arrival over the next three seasons.
League One won’t do badly either. It has four expansion clubs in the pipeline, which will match its losses, and will also, at least temporarily, gain the Charlotte Independence. And not only will it be in a position to improve its internal competition for the exact same reasons, it will now have a direct competing league at the same level. And yes, I know that NISA is at that level, but that league, which just lost its crown jewel in Detroit, has all sorts of problems, financial and otherwise, and may not last much longer.
In short, MLS is doing everyone a favor. Best of all, the USL Championship is about to get much tougher.