How important is the United Soccer Leagues, the two-division tier below MLS? Without promotion/relegation to MLS, one is tempted to say “not very”. But tell that to the fans of those teams, and you might get a smack in the chops for your trouble. Moreover, the level of soccer in the USL, as this year’s Open Cup showed at times, is hardly something MLS fans should sneer at.
Furthermore, in the U.S. and Canada as a whole, it’s hard to see soccer becoming a truly nationwide game over such a massive continent without the broad and deep structure provided by a strong base beyond the “major league”.
In other sports, such as the NFL and NBA, there isn’t a deep professional pyramid, but there’s a massive college base across the country that develops players and a love for football and basketball, even if not all college fans follow the professional leagues closely as well. In baseball, there is the wide-ranging minor league system to supplement weaker college ball than football and basketball have.
Though there isn’t promotion/relegation between MLS and the USL, the latter can lose cities to the former as we’ll see with the Seattle Sounders in 2009. Vancouver is another club often mooted for MLS expansion, especially given the success of Toronto F.C., but they seem to be making slow progress in advancing towards a planned 15,000 capacity waterfront stadium.
Still, the USL is planning to expand itself by a couple of teams (though it also lost the California Victory this year) and owners such as Vancouver’s Bob Lenarduzzi are trying to sound upbeat about the prospects for the league.
“I’m actually quite positive about the future of our league,” said Lenarduzzi. “Existing ownership is quite stable. There does seem to be a commitment by USL ownership to stay the course. The MLS option is always going to be there, but that’s something we can’t control.”
What are your thoughts about the USL? Can it thrive without promotion/relegation to MLS? Is it patronising to fans of those teams to always even assume they want to be in MLS?