USL growth continues unabated as the
organization enters its ninth season with a new name for its top division -- USL Championship -- and teams in seven new markets, pushing its membership to 36 teams -- triple the number of teams it
finished its first season with.
When you consider that it has spun off a second pro league -- the third division USL League One -- with 10 teams, that's 46 pro teams under the USL umbrella in 2019.
Here's a look at some of the trends in the USL Championship as Year 9 begins ...
1. Seven expansion teams begin play. The seven new teams include El Paso Locomotive FC, which should sell out 8,000-seat Southwest University Park for Saturday's opener against OKC Energy FC. Birmingham Legion FC should fill UAB's expanded BBVA Compass Field (5,000 seats) for its opener against Bethlehem Steel that has been moved to Sunday because of bad weather. New Mexico United has sold about 2,400 season tickets for its first season at Isotopes Park in Albuquerque. Other new teams are Austin Bold, Hartford Athletic, Memphis 901 and Loudoun United in Virginia.
2. MLS and MiLB arrangements grow. USL Championship teams come in all shapes and sizes. Eight are fully owned and operated by MLS teams, like new Loudoun United, a D.C. United second team, and three other USL teams have some form of operating agreement between an MLS team and minor league baseball or basketball group. Ten teams, including El Paso and New Mexico, will play in minor-league baseball stadiums.
3. Last season in USL for Nashville. Nashville SC will move to MLS in 2020, and at least half a dozen USL teams have MLS ambitions. Among them: Indy Eleven, Sac Republic FC, North Carolina FC, Phoenix Rising and Saint Louis FC are all tied to active MLS expansion efforts.
4. Louisville City stadium work underway. Louisville City, the two-time defending champion, hasn't been on many expansion lists, but it went out and secured government support for a 11,500-seat soccer stadium estimated to cost $75 million and set to open in 2020 in the Butchertown neighborhood.
5. Former MLS coaches take jobs. As opportunities open up in the USL, more and more former MLS players and coaches are moving into the USL Championship. Former New England Revolution head coach Jay Heaps is the president and general manager of the expansion Birmingham Legion. The Legion head coach is Tom Soehn, who won an MLS Supporters' Shield title at D.C. United in 2007 and was later an assistant under Heaps on the Revs.
After finishing up his job as U.S. national team interim head coach, Dave Sarachan was quickly snapped up by North Carolina FC. He also won a Supporters' Shield in MLS with the Chicago Fire, in 2003. Gary Smith, the second-year Nashville SC coach, won an MLS Cup title in 2010 with Colorado. Longtime U.S. U-17 national team coach John Hackworth, who also coached in MLS at Philadelphia, is in his first full season at Lou City.
6. Wynalda hits Las Vegas. All eyes are on U.S. national team star Eric Wynalda, who has taken over the Las Vegas Lights. They made national headlines last season for their wacky promotions but were a disaster on the field. In 2019, the llamas will be back in pregame festivities, but Wynalda has brought in an exciting young team of players, many of whom he knew from working the Southern California semipro circuit. The Lights beat MLS's Toronto FC, 5-1, and tied Colorado, 2-2, in preseason, suggesting that Year 2 will be much better on the field.
7. MLS castoffs move into league. A half a dozen USL teams beat MLS in preseason friendlies or scrimmages, reflecting the higher level of play across the Division 2 league. Players cut loose by MLS teams have moved into the USL Championship. They include veterans like Marc Burch, now at Memphis 901, and Amobi Okugo, who moved to Austin, and younger players like Jack Barmby and Joshua Yaro, who have joined San Antonio FC.
8. New priority on player development. The spotlight will be on MLS teams continuing to fast-track academy players up the pro ladder. The priority MLS teams are making on their USL operations was evident in the moves by Seattle and Real Salt Lake to promote successful academy coaches Chris Little (Tacoma Defiance) and Martin Vasquez (Real Monarchs) to coach their second teams.
Efrain Alvarez, who scored 12 goals last season for LA Galaxy II, has moved on to the Galaxy first team at the age of 15, but players to watch this season include 15-year-old midfielder Danny Leyva, one of nine teenagers from the Seattle Sounders' academy signed to pro contracts by the Tacoma Defiance. The next players to make the jump from Bethlehem Steel to the Philadelphia Union could be Michee Ngalina and Ben Ofeimu.
The youth movement isn't limited to MLS second teams, though. Indy Eleven (Joshua Penn and Mario Perez), OKC Energy FC (Harrison Bouma), Phoenix Rising (Brandon Keniston) and San Antonio FC (Ethan Bryant and Leo Torres), all independent USL teams, have signed players from their academy teams.
9. Celtic parks college stars. Scottish champion Celtic signed college stars Andrew Gutman and Manny Perez and parked them at Charlotte and NCFC, respectively.
10. Pipelines expanded and opened. Dozens of young foreign players have been loaned from clubs abroad as player agents work to place them on USL teams. The Cameroonian connection, which produced Nouhou, now an established first-team player on the Sounders, has been expanded to include players from other African nations. A new pipeline has been opened from Panama with five MLS second teams signing young players on loan from clubs in the Central American nation.
Photos: Las Vegas Lights FC, Seattle Sounders FC.