In the first few days of January of this year, I posted a 3-piece Wishlist for lower division soccer. Now that 2013 has drawn to a close, I thought it would be a good time to dig up those 3 points and judge how well they were fulfilled during the year that was.
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.
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.
USL-Pro expansion didn’t go exactly according to plan in 2013. VSI Tampa Bay FC Flames, in addition to an awful name, only managed to draw an average of around 380; the lowest for any professional soccer team in the country. It surprised few that VSI has pulled the plug on its USL-Pro franchise after its first campaign.
Phoenix FC started its debut season well, but front office scuffles resulted in the team switching venues from Arizona State University to a local public park. It remains to be seen whether the slightly different ownership group can bring stability (let alone success) to the Phoenix club going into 2014.
2) New York Cosmos and Puerto Rico Islanders skip spring season to join NASL for its first 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?
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.
Fans and internet pundits alike had a mixed reception to NASL’s first season using a split format in 2013, with much of the resistance due to the New York Cosmos lifting the championship trophy despite only playing one of the two half-season tournaments.
That season format is only set to get more controversial for 2014, as NASL will split the season unevenly to accommodate a lengthy break during the World Cup. What would have been an even 10 game spring season, with Virginia Cavalry FC postponing its debut until 2015, the right to host the championship game will now be decided by a 9 game season.
Puerto Rico Islanders have all but folded and Commissioner Bill Peterson told the press that the club would have to apply as an expansion team to gain readmission into the league. On the other hand, taking off the 2013 spring season gave the Cosmos enough time to properly organize a championship winning team.
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 teams from USL-Pro teams and 3 from NASL. 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.
Even without sending 3 teams into the quarterfinals as it had the previous year, USL-Pro still produced a solid showing in cup this past year, along with the NASL. In the 2013 U.S. Open Cup, Orlando City defeated Colorado Rapids and Sporting Kansas City, Charleston Battery defeated San Jose Earthquakes, Carolina RailHawks defeated Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA, and Tampa Bay Rowdies defeated Seattle Sounders. 6 victories for NASL and USL-Pro teams in an atmosphere where MLS clubs take the cup competition more seriously is still an impressive figure.
The U.S. Open Cup adapted to league expansion in 2013 by entering several USL-Pro clubs into the competition in the First Round along with the amateur teams. A similar re-ordering is likely to occur as USL-Pro adds Sacramento Republic FC and Oklahoma City Energy FC to replace VSI Tampa Bay and NASL clubs New York Cosmos and Indy Eleven will also compete in the cup in 2014.
Judging the results:
On the first point, 2013 largely failed. One of USL-Pro’s expansion teams from this past year has folded (in addition to the ambitious project from Antigua and Barbuda), while the other was put on life support. 2014 can be a huge improvement over 2013 for USL as long as the league stops losing teams.
The second point is somewhat split. New York Cosmos stormed back to life in 2013 and, despite the controversy of only playing half a season, won the NASL Championship. On the opposite side of fortune, the Puerto Rico Islanders are more likely to pop up in a retro merchandise shop than a competitive league fixture.
The third point has to be adjudged a success. USL-Pro may not have repeated all of its achievements from 2012, but a couple of NASL teams picked up the slack.
With weaker clubs like VSI discarded, a Darwinian survival of the fittest philosophy may suggest a more vibrant dynamic in lower division soccer for the upcoming year with robust organizations like Indy Eleven and Sacramento Republic FC taking the place of poorly operated teams.
How would you judge the fortunes of the two lower division professional leagues in 2013? What are the most important changes necessary for 2014?