[USL] United Soccer Leagues, which has operated second- and third-division leagues since its move into pro soccer in the mid-1990s, has merged its First and
Second Divisions into USL PRO, a single league property for 2011, signaling a ceasefire in the battle for control of Division 2 soccer.
Team owners and league officials met in Tampa on Wednesday to lay the groundwork for the 2011 debut of USL PRO.
USL operated a six-team USL-2 (third division) in 2010. USL-1 lost many of its members in a dispute between USL's ownership group and club owners, who formed the North American Soccer League. Ultimately, U.S. Soccer did not sanction the NASL. Instead, it is operating the D-2 Pro League with 12 teams while new guidelines for Division 2 soccer were formulated.
Those guidelines include minimum standards for the wealth of owners and the size of the markets and stadiums.
It remains to be seen if a league will be formed to meet these Division standards.
The Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps will move to MLS in 2011 and the Montreal Impact will join MLS in 2012.
On the other end of the scale, several D-2 Pro League clubs are believed to be struggling to stay afloat. AC St. Louis's sister team, WPS's St. Louis Athletica, folded in mid-season.
Besides the three MLS-bound teams, only one minor-league team -- the Rochester Rhinos -- average more than 4,000 fans a game.
USL CEO Alec Papadakis says the new USL PRO will solve many of the problems that have plagued minor-league soccer, whose ranks have shrunk in recent years.
“After much analysis of the current landscape we’ve chosen to combine our synergies into a single professional league that will operate within financial and competitive models that make sense,” Papadakis said. “The USL PRO business plan is the first below the MLS level to give team owners a realistic roadmap to profitability. We need to focus on the future health of soccer in North America, and the USL PRO model addresses many of the issues that have led to the instability of men’s professional soccer below the MLS level.”
USL PRO hopes to emphasize regional competition, though the challenge will be able to build regional divisions outside the USL-2's base on the Atlantic coast.