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Clark: USL Pro League seeks to embrace regional model

By Travis Clark

After the September 8 announcement of the United Soccer League’s plan to merge its first and second divisions, there were more questions than answers left on the table. But the stated intention of embracing a regional structure could prove to have big benefits going forward.

In an effort to save costs on travel and stoke geographic rivalries, USL Pro – the new name for the league – will adopt a multiple conference approach in 2011, with geography and distance between teams dictating the league’s organization.

USL President Tim Holt re-emphasized that approach in an email interview with Potomac Soccer Wire.

“All other USL leagues are structured in a similar manner allowing for the maximization of local/geographic rivalries and an overall reduction of team travel during the regular season whilst bringing the best of the best all together in the post-season to crown a true national champion,” he said.

“Past experience has demonstrated that having a team fly thousands of miles to play a single regular season game does not provides any extra benefit to the fans, and that regional rivalries like the ones cities enjoy in other major and minor league sports actually lead to more desirable opponents and larger attendances.”

The emphasis on close proximity between teams was met with enthusiasm from Richmond Kickers coach Leigh Cowlishaw.

“We found it extremely refreshing that the individuals and organizations making these decisions have a clear understanding of what is going to be a successful professional league moving forward,” he said.

Beyond that, specific details are still being fleshed out, and with the USSF Division 2 League still in session, it’s too early to know what teams will be involved.

Cowlishaw, a firm proponent of a regional-based league, doesn’t see a lot changing on a day-to-day basis for his club, and only sees it as an opportunity for new challenges.

“I don’t envision huge changes to how we operate our business, which is one of the reasons we’re extremely excited about the creation of USL Pro,” he said. “There clearly will be a national footprint from coast to coast, but still set up with regional competition and local rivalries.”

The biggest question relates to what teams will be involved when the league kicks off in 2011. It’s expected – but not official – that the teams in USL-2 (Charleston Battery, Charlotte Eagles, Harrisburg City Islanders, Pittsburg Riverhounds, Real Maryland Monarchs and the Kickers) will all be taking part in USL Pro, which is gunning for 14-18 teams next year, and steady growth after that.

“Our league growth plan calls for 14-18 teams in 2011; 22-26 teams by 2013; and 28-32 teams by 2015,” Holt said.

Other options include the possibility of three expansion teams: two that have previously been announced in New York and Dayton, and a third rumored to start play in Orlando. Holt declined to comment on the status of any of the proposed expansion teams.

Elevating current Premier Development League teams to the USL Pro level is another possible avenue that could fill out the numbers. The Dayton Dutch Lions are doing just that after competing in the Great Lakes Division of the Central Conference in the PDL in 2009, and Holt backed up that suggestion.

“It is probable that the 2011 USL PRO alignment will include certain teams which competed in thePDL in 2010,” he said. “This will only occur to the extent that each of these individual teams are capable of meeting all applicable USL and USSF professional league standards, and are prepared to commit to USL PRO on a multi-year basis.”

Current USSF D-2 teams Austin Aztex and Rochester Rhinos are two other teams that have yet to officially attach themselves to an umbrella organization. Both were previously affiliated with USL in the past, and that partnership could potentially resume in 2011.

However, the aspirations of the league remains unclear. Are they striving to create a second level of soccer in the United States? Or are they deferring to the breakaway North American Soccer League?

The September 9 announcement that the Puerto Rico Islanders will join the 2011 NASL setup would seem to indicate that, for the time being, USL Pro will opt for the latter, steering itself towards third division status. It’s hard to envision some of the smaller market teams being able to live up to the stringent new standards the U.S. Soccer Federation has set forth for second division clubs, including a $750,000 bond and a primary owner worth $20 million.

But Holt expressed a desire to focus on a good product rather than being hung up on a level or status.

“Frankly, our focus is less on the regulatory issue of what category at which we are sanctioned than it is on doing those things necessary at the league and team levels to be the strongest and most visible professional soccer league below MLS in the US, Canada, and Caribbean,” he said.

Whatever the case, over the next month or two the new foundation for a restructured league will be laid bare, as the newly minted USL Pro heads towards a 2011 debut.