USL League One takes its first strides

Nicholas Mendola

What does success look like for USL League One?

The newly-minted third level of American soccer, below Major League Soccer and the USL Championship, debuts Friday with South Georgia Tormenta FC hosting Greenville Triumph SC.

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[ MORE: PST chats with League One commish ]

Put plainly: There have never been more professional players plying their trade in the United States and Canada. Between MLS, USL, the Canadian Premier League, and select teams in the NPSL and PDL (not to mention the looming specter of NISA), jobs are there.

So what does that mean to the third tier in the United States? Good question, me.

Well first off, there are certainly names you’ll recognize. John Harkes is the manager of Greenville. American soccer architect Peter Wilt runs Forward Madison SC. One-time USMNT prospect Conor Doyle is with Chattanooga Red Wolves.

But really this feels like a chance for players who might’ve normally washed out of MLS, USL, or — once upon a time — the NASL to get a second look at growing their games at a professional level. Much like the New York Red Bulls have been lauded for producing gems from within their PDL and USL structure, League One can serve as that vehicle.

In other words, rejection by one wonky manager who only signs behemoths or European players won’t signal the end of a promising career built up through academy or college roots.

That’s not terribly sexy, though, and in truth more eyes will be trained on things like attendance figures, viewer counts, and the quality of goals that cut through the mess of highlights on social media and TV (a robust start-up TV deal will help League One here).

It will be interesting to see how USL League One teams handle success. Some, like Toronto FC II and Orlando City B, are just here to develop players for parent clubs, but most markets are going to have big ambitions. Certainly commish Steven Short and Co. will want to grow the league as a unit, rising tides raising all ships, but what happens when USL League One gets its own FC Cincinnati or Sacramento Republic? With no promotion and relegation, will the USL Championship find room for them? And how is the league equipping itself for those tests?

And player success: When a team is off to a roaring start and an MLS club offers a significant fee for the leading scorer’s services, a fee that might fund the roster for a year, how does a front office handle that for its fans?

A massive front office and cozy relationship with MLS will help, and USL owner Alec Papadakis is back on the U.S. Soccer Federation’s board of directors. Short has set himself up to be the right conduit between USL League Two (nee PDL) and the Championship. It’s not cynical to say that these facts strengthen the league and will also make owners think twice about their status in a very safe place.

Still, Friday night is an entertaining one even for those who have a pony in another part of the race, whether NISA, NPSL Pro, or some other nascent organization. Several new clubs and some old familiar faces — looking at you, Richmond Kickers — are taking shots at stardom in a combustible but growing climate.

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