In the spirit of other 2013 wishlists (see here for Liga MX, here for U.S. Soccer, and here for Canada), I’ve decided to compile a little list of my own for lower division soccer. Let me know what you think about my list and what you would include in your own list in the comments.
1) Strong showings off the field from the USL expansion teams
More important than grinding out tough away results in my opinion, is the ability of the two USL-Pro expansion cities to establish themselves at home. This isn’t just getting wins against weaker teams, but doing the marketing and community work to draw in big crowds. Phoenix FC has already been doing some of this legwork and feel confident about their prospects for success off the field.
According to an article on Our Sports Central, more than 500 season ticket deposits have been collected for Phoenix FC’s first season. AZ Kicks It reported that the club, “expects to sell out every game but [club president Tim Thomas] said 3,500+ per game would be great”
A turnout of 3,500 would squarely situate the Phoenix franchise in the top half of attendance in the league. Based on my numbers for the 2012 campaign, that attendance would rank the Phoenix FC Wolves around fifth in the USL-Pro in terms of attendance.
VSI Tampa Bay faces a different set of challenges. They have a network of youth teams and leagues in the community, but may struggle for turnout. The team plans to play at the JC Handly Sports Complex in Brandon, Florida, but could find themselves competing for fans in the heart of Tampa with the Tampa Bay Rowdies of NASL located in nearby St Petersburg.
Both of these teams need to perform well off the field to show the viability of the USL-Pro business model. If these teams bounce games around venues like LA Blues, Dayton Dutch Lions, and Charlotte Eagles did in 2012 or if they replicate those teams’ attendance numbers (well under 1000 each) professional soccer in Phoenix or east Tampa might be fleeting.
2) New York Cosmos and Puerto Rico Islanders join NASL for their fall season
When NASL released the announcement in early September that the 2013 season would be split into two short tournaments, similar to much of Latin America, there was one question resounding from lower division soccer fans around the country: why?
“Our Scheduling Sub-Committee arrived at this recommendation after an exhaustive review of a number of alternatives,” said NASL Commissioner David Downs, “and the new format takes into consideration a variety of factors including fan and player comfort in our many warm-weather cities.” “But the bottom line,” Downs added, “is that we believe this new competitive format will bring more excitement and meaning to each of our regular season matches for all of our teams throughout the year.”
Apparently the interests of the many warm-weather cities beat out the cold weather teams like Minnesota, Vancouver and 2014′s Ottawa. Perhaps this announcement was also made with the knowledge (or hunch) that the Cosmos would not be ready for the spring kick-off. Brian Quarstad of IMSoccer reported December 2 that the Cosmos will skip the spring tournament as well as the U.S. Open Cup.
Due to potential changes in Puerto Rico’s government policy, funding of the Islanders is uncertain for 2013 and onward. Neil Morris of IndyWeek reported December 21 that the Islanders will miss the spring tournament but that the league expects the team to participate in the fall tournament in 2013. This leaves only 7 teams in the spring and either 8 or 9 teams in the fall.
Though in different realms, both of these franchises have a rich soccer history. With the NASL trying to establish a legitimacy above USL, two teams stuttering off the field (one before they had even started) could challenge the league’s hopes. On the other hand, taking a half-season off could provide the stability necessary for long-term success for both the individual teams and the league as a whole.
3. Continued positive performances in the U.S. Open Cup
The 2012 edition of the Cup saw three USL-Pro clubs reach the quarterfinals. Lower division teams beat MLS clubs in 9 matches, 4 by USL-Pro teams and 3 by NASL teams. While the format for this year’s tournament is not yet set in stone, it should be similar to last year’s with all the professional teams in the county participating. However, there are two more domestic based USL-Pro clubs to incorporate into the cup this year so things could be a little different.
Regardless of whether all USL-Pro clubs take part in the U.S. Open Cup, upsets make the competition more interesting. The cup draws attention to the lower leagues of soccer in the U.S. and amateur side Cal FC’s Cinderella run to the Fourth Round brought an appearance on Fox Soccer Channel. If the 2013 Cup brings more interest in USL-Pro and NASL among MLS fans or more televised cup matches, it would be a good year for American soccer.
These may seem like tame requests for a wishlist. After all I’m only asking that the new USL-Pro teams perform better off the field than the worst organizations in that league, that NASL not lose or postpone its teams, and that clubs from these two leagues kick off a cup fever for American soccer fans. My hopes would go far to provide stability and spark interest in leagues that need both. Even if these things aren’t in the cards for 2013, there will still be a lot of news, excitement, and speculation in lower division soccer in this country.