United Soccer Leagues at a Crossroads – Part One: Building USL
Over the next several days and in conjunction with Kartik Krishnaiyer I will be presenting to you a multi-part series on the United Soccer Leagues. Where it’s come from, where it might be going, as well as some of the behind-the-scene events that have taken place over the last several years as the league and its USL-1 owners struggle for control and direction.
Part One: Building USL
In 1986, the professional soccer landscape in the US looked bleak. The last of the North American Soccer League (NASL) teams, that looked so promising for a few brief years in the late 70’s, were all gone. They were laid to rest by player salaries that were too high to break even and diminishing crowds that no longer felt soccer was the “in thing” to watch as it was in the days of the New York Cosmos.
Youth soccer in this country was on the rise, but no one knew if that would translate into more adult players or fans. A young Portuguese soccer executive whose stock was rising had dreams of a new soccer league spread throughout the country he now called home and where he had spent most of his adult life. That man was Francisco Marcos, former Tampa Bay Rowdies (NASL) Executive. The Rowdies were one of the more successful NASL franchises, surviving until the collapse of the league, and Marcos knew a huge void had to be filled for the game to continue its upsurge in North America.
As a Rowdies executive, Marcos also grew the Tampa Bay Area Youth Soccer Association to a statewide level as the Florida Youth Soccer Association and was responsible for the first modern cooperative agreement between an American club and a top foreign club: an affiliate arrangement between the Rowdies and Sao Paulo of Brazil.
Marcos founded the Southwest Indoor Soccer League (SISL) in 1986, which evolved into an outdoor league in 1989. Eventually, he created the first league that spanned North America since the old NASL. However, different from the NASL, this league created a pyramid system. This was something the Portuguese soccer executive understood from his connections to soccer in Europe. In time, he built the league to include three levels of senior men’s play, the first national women’s league, (W-League) and the first competitive North American system of youth leagues (Super Y-League).
In 1997, the American Professional Soccer League (A-League) was merged with the USISL to create a nationwide pyramid structure. During the course of twenty years the A-League and the USISL, and now USL have made an immeasurable contribution to the development of the game in North America. Marcos’ vision can clearly be lauded.
Today, the USL is a true pyramid system with 11 USL-1 teams, 9 USL-2 teams, 37 W-League teams, 69 PDL teams and 575 Super Y and Super-20 teams. A grand total of 701 teams, as compared with 15 teams in Major League Soccer.
In order to raise cash to build the league, Marcos sold shares of the USL to several companies including Signal Apparel and Riddell Sports as well as Umbro Holdings Ltd. Umbro, who was based in England, had good brand identity in Europe but especially in the United Kingdom. The company also held the sponsorship rights to the English National Team and manufactured the England kit, which is popular throughout the world.
In April 1999, the USL announced Umbro had purchased another 30% of the USL, bringing their portion of ownership to 60%, while Signal Apparel and Riddell Sports each held 15%. Marcos retained 10%.
With Major League Soccer garnering the majority of media attention, the USL pyramid toiled in virtual anonymity outside its core markets in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many previously successful professional teams either folded or dropped down to amateur competition.
Several USL teams even built soccer-specific stadiums (SSS), yet they have failed to receive the recognition from many in the American soccer community that MLS sides have for their SSS building program.
In 1999, Blackbaud Stadium, the first modern SSS in the United States, was built for the Charleston Battery. The facility, modeled after lower league grounds from England, has been phenomenally successful. Columbus Crew of MLS built a soccer-specific stadium that opened a few weeks after Blackbaud.
With instability within the league, and little mainstream press, MLS began courting USL sides to join the more visible, FIFA-sanctioned first division. Toronto was approved in 2006, leaving the USL-1 Toronto Lynx to drop down to amateur competition.
In March of 2006, Umbro purchased an additional 30% of the league bringing UMBRO’s total to 94% and leaving Marcos with 6%.
Tomorrow- Nike purchases Umbro but has second thoughts about USL, the Team Owners Association is started, and rushed decisions lead to trouble in Cleveland.