On Monday, the USL Board of Governor announced beginning in 2017 USL sides would have a 32-game schedule, with the season beginning in the third week of March and lasting no more than 30 weeks. Next year’s schedule is an increase of two games and three weeks. Each team will be able to play its conference opponents home and away with regional games completing the schedule.
“After evaluating a number of proposals the League and its Competition Committee agreed on several changes that we felt would deliver value to our clubs through the extra home match,” said Jake Edwards, USL President, in the official release.
The increased number of games is not terribly surprising, as the league itself is growing. The league added six teams this year and with the addition of Reno 1868 the league will have 30 clubs. USL is currently planning to move from two to three conferences, which more easily accommodates the new schedule format.
If the league were more stable, these changes would make sense. More teams mean more games and more revenue. As clubs like FC Cincinnati and Sacramento Republic FC continue to grow and draw massive crowds, the money would continue to come into the third division league and allow it to expand its footprint.
However, the greatest beneficiary of the expansion could be MLS. Almost all MLS teams have a B team or affiliate in USL, and the regionally based structure allows the parent team to keep a close eye on its lower division offshoot.
All of this would be a natural and uncontroversial progression if the USL were a more stable league. Undoubtedly U.S. Soccer has gone far to try and ensure its stability, either to serve as a counterbalance to the rogue NASL or to support MLS teams. Yet there is still some churn going through the league that could upset the delicate balance the Governors are trying to create.
One aspect is expansion. While only two teams are joining in the near future – Reno in 2017 and Nashville in 2018 – the league featured six expansion teams this season. The mix of established brands like the Riverhounds and the Charleston Battery with these expansion sides do help prop up clubs that are less successful financially.
But with that success comes the fear of departure. Without promotion and relegation, USL clubs are free to advocate for their inclusion in the never-ending MLS expansion pool. Indeed, clubs like Cincinnati with their large crowds and steady finances seem like a safe gamble for an MLS league that loves to make money and bet on sure things (relatively speaking).
If USL sides are poached by MSL in the coming years, can USL continue to spawn creative, compelling, competitive clubs? Or will the steady inclusion of MLS B teams water down the competition and relegate the league to an afterthought?