The biggest thing this offseason is the restructuring of the soccer pyramid below MLS. The USL is setting itself up for promotion/relegation down the road as they follow an English style structure with the formation of the USL Championship, USL League One and USL League Two (the former PDL). It is interesting to see how this plays and I’m in favor of it. Without Pro/Reg, the structure still nicely mimics the North American minor league format (AAA, AA, A). Now if they would just get rid of those annoying MLS B squads and stick them in a different league. Only one team from last year’s USL is gone completely and that may be temporary as Penn FC says they’ll be back in 2020. At the Championship level, there are 36 teams with a whopping eight of them being a new franchise. We’ll still discuss the new homes here, but they don’t make The List because their field either doesn’t meet capacity standards or they are using a ballpark. There is one ballpark however where a soccer team is the sole tenant (to go along with the Tampa Rowdies’ Al Lang Stadium). Las Vegas Lights take over Cashman Field as the AAA team gets a new ballpark and it will be exciting to see what the Lights do with their own place in the coming years. That’s a team that had nice support in their first season last year. El Paso, Memphis and New Mexico will join the league using a ballpark, as will the re-branded Sounders 2 as they head to Tacoma. Good news there as plans are in the works for a Tacoma soccer stadium soon. Birmingham will use the soccer facility at UAB. That leaves three teams to discuss that have their own soccer stadium (most seat around 5,000). Hartford Athletic is poised to be the best success story as they are repairing and remodeling dilapidated Dillon Stadium into a nice little venue. Construction is delayed though and they’ll spend much of the year at Rentschler Field. The Austin Bold are an interesting team that is curious in existence since MLS granted the city a team. A cheap and quick facility at the Circuit of the Americas will be their home. The whole thing is a head-scratcher. Finally, it’s been a long (long) time for the often-delayed Loudon, VA project to get going. It looks like they will eventually be playing soccer in that county, but it won’t be until late summer (at least) for Loudon United to come home.
USL League One is made up of several new teams, a couple MLS youth squads and one long-time franchise dropping down a level (Richmond Kickers). There’s not too much to note here stadium-wise. If I had to pick one, it would be Madison sprucing up historic Breese Stevens Field. I am interested to see how the Chattanooga Red Wolves do. That city has been wonderful in supporting the NPSL team and there was a lot of controversy with competition coming in with the Red Wolves seemingly trying to sweep out CFC. Given the demographics, I don’t think that’s going to happen and look for CFC to keep on keepin on while the new Red Wolves in the fancy-schmancy USL struggle. One other USL note, going back to the Championship. The Bethlehem Steel will not be in the Lehigh Valley this year as they couldn’t get it to work with the light-less Goodman Stadium. They’ll be in Chester at the home of the MLS’ Union, playing in front of nobody instead. Speaking of MLS, we do have one new team and that is the highly successful FC Cincinnati. That team took Queen City by storm down a level last year and they are juiced up for the Orange and Blue. Nippert Stadium on the campus of the University of Cincinnati will be rocking for a few years before a new soccer-specific stadium in the West End opens. Of course, there is one new stadium to open in the league as the Loons begin play at Allianz Field in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul later this year. Minnesota United plays in a crowded sports market and hopefully they don’t go the way of Orlando City after that new car smell wears off. One place that soccer passion will never fade is Portland and the Timbers will show off their expanded east side of Providence Park. It’s fully done through private funding and it is an awesome addition to one of the best stadiums in the league. They won’t get to show it off until they return home in June.
This is also a big year in the Great White North as the Canadian Premier League kicks off in a few weeks. Bucking the status quo in combining minor league teams with those from the U.S., this league begins with seven teams as Ottawa Fury are the only ones left in USL. The 7 CPL teams all have funky names with only one featuring the name of the city that they play in. The stadiums are too small to be added to The List, though there are a couple teams playing in CFL venues. Curious to see how this venture goes and I hope they succeed and I wish our friends up north best of luck.