[USL] The number of pro teams operating below Major League Soccer will at an all-time low in 2010 with 12 teams in the USSF Division II and six teams in the third division USL-2. For the first time in more than a decade, United Soccer Leagues won't be operating a Division II pro league in 2010. It's given USL the opportunity to focus on 2011 and the task of developing a model to make professional soccer economically viable at the lower divisions. Tim Holt, president of USL, talks about the league's plans and changes made since NuRock acquired USL from Nike six months ago.
"USL and the USL First Division fully intent to apply for Division 2 sanctioning for 2011 in a manner that meets or exceeds all the federation's standards," says Holt.
U.S. Soccer's board of directors has yet to formulate its league or team standards for Division II soccer in 2011. But it has stressed that there must be greater stability at the lower levels of pro soccer.
"That's the model we are embracing," says Holt.
He said the USL First Division has no intention of and will not be competing with Major League Soccer.
"We're not positioning this league to be a competitor to Major League Soccer," he said. "To the contrary, our professional leagues, USL-1 and USL-2, should complement the work that MLS is doing as the preeminent league in the United States. The team owners that have made up the USL First Division have not always been on the same page for that.
"We want our teams to have a more collaborative effort with Major League Soccer and its teams, and that goes for our entire pyramid, not just the top of the pyramid, the professional leagues, but the PDL, Super-20 and Super Y-League, where we already have a presence with MLS teams. We want to grow that presence. We think it's good for the game and gets people moving in the same direction.
"We're not going to waste our time or resources trying to position ourselves to be a Division I pro league in the future. We're going to stick to our niche. That niche is what we've done best over the 25 years -- we've operated elite soccer leagues in the United States."
When Holt started as USL's director of operations in 1999, there were approximately 60 pro teams at the Division II and Division III level.
"We've yet to find an economically viable model for lower division soccer in the this country," said Holt.
In subsequent years, USL teams have ranged from the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps, who have or will soon join MLS, the Rochester Rhinos, who won the 1999 U.S. Open Cup, the Puerto Rico Islanders, who reached the 2009 Concacaf Champions League semifinals, to dozens of teams who were professional in name only and quickly folded or moved to the amateur PDL.
As USL-1 moves forward, Holt says the key will cost containment, making travel more regionalized and limiting player expenses. Teams must also find new revenue sources, and he said the league will work with them to share revenues in a greater way than it has in the past.
Only three Division II teams affiliated with USL-1 when U.S. Soccer took over remain: Austin, Portland and Puerto Rico. And of them, the Timbers will be moving to MLS in 2011.
USL is identifying potential ownership groups and markets for the 2011 USL-1. The league recently announced the addition of a team in Orlando. An expansion team was previously announced for New York. While both are tough soccer markets, Holt said there were positive signs in both of them.
The sale of USL by Nike (still a USL sponsor with its Umbro brand) to NuRock has brought internal changes.
"We're able to continue to have that relationship and partnership with Nike/Umbro that we have in the past -- obviously one the most respected brands in soccer," he said. "Now we have ownership that is very focused on USL from a day-to-day standpoint. Nike and Umbro brought a lot of unbelievable things to the table but they were so spread in terms of all the things they are working on globally that USL didn't alway get sort of the priority attention. With the new ownership group, NuRock, we're getting that priority attention. Our new CEO Alec Papadakis is involved in the league. That's been real positive."
The first priority has been to invest in team services. USL has hired Jay Preble, who spent 13 years as director of public relations for the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning, as director of communications, long-time U.S. Soccer staff coach Peter Mellor as technical director, and a director of new media and director of creative services in recent months.
"If this system of leagues is going to be successful going forward," said Holt. "we're going to need to serve the teams better. We've done a good job but we can do a better job going forward."