The soccer stories we will be following in 2020 (Part 2)

U.S. pro leagues continue to grow unabated.

Barring any last-minute changes, the five men's and women's pro leagues will kick off 2020 with 90 teams in the United States and Canada.

90 teams!

A decade earlier, there were only 41.

The future of the pro men's game in the lower divisions was uncertain -- U.S. Soccer operated USSF D2 Pro as a temporary measure -- while the women's league -- WPS -- was also showing signs of trouble in the second of what would be a three-year run.

Division I teams:
2010 (23): MLS (16), WPS (7).
2020 (35): MLS (26), NWSL (9).
Division II teams:
2010 (12): USSF D2 Pro (12).
2020 (35): USL Championship (35).
Division III teams:
2010 (6): USL Second Division (6).
2020 (20): USL League One (12), NISA spring (8).

Here are some of the stories we will be following in 2020 ...

MLS. MLS begins its most ambitious expansion push yet with the addition of two teams -- Inter Miami and Nashville SC -- in 2020, followed by two more teams coming on board in 2021 (Austin and Charlotte) and 2022 (St. Louis and Sacramento).

In MLS's early days, expansion was hit or miss. Two of the four teams MLS has folded or moved in its 25 years were expansion teams -- the Miami Fusion after four seasons in 2001 and Chivas USA after a decade in 2014.

The last six expansion teams have been hits out of the gate, averaging 29,997 fans a game in their first seasons. (LAFC opened in its soccer-specific stadium; Orlando City and Minnesota United later moved into their own stadiums.)

But Inter Miami and Nashville SC aren't the slam dunks that recent expansion teams like Atlanta United or LAFC were.

Most of the attention has been on David Beckham's effort to get a team off the ground in Miami. Six years after he announced he was exercising his expansion option and starting a team in Miami, Inter Miami will open at home on March 14 against the LA Galaxy, but home will be Inter Miami CF Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, not Miami, and plans for a stadium in Miami itself remained tied up in the politically charged approval process.

Nashville SC is a different story. It won the 2017 expansion sweepstakes, the only city picked by the end of the year out of 12 that were bidding. It had an owner with deep pockets (John Ingram) and approval from Metro Nashville -- the local city council -- on a stadium plan.

Two years later, things don't look as rosy in the Music City. Work on the stadium at the Nashville Fairgrounds has not yet begun, and two mayors later, the current mayor, John Cooper, was the leading opponent of the original stadium deal. Nashville SC was unable to build momentum from two years in the USL Championship. Average attendance went down from 9,561 in 2018 to 6,999 in 2019, and its home game in the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals drew only 4,174 fans.

In an interview with the Tennessean in December, CEO Ian Ayre said Nashville SC was behind where other expansion teams had been at in terms of season-ticket sales but on track to meet its target with events planned in January and February around which the club expects its biggest growth.

Caution about the Miami and Nashville situations -- as well as ongoing concerns about a few legacy markets -- should give MLS pause about making any additional expansion before the 2026 World Cup.

NWSL. Building a pro soccer league is an endless task.

In 2019, the NWSL enjoyed its best season yet, breaking single-game attendance records in six of the nine markets in the aftermath of the Women's World Cup, but it enters 2020 with more questions than it has answers in the big picture.

What will its relationship be with U.S. Soccer, its benefactor since its launch in 2013? (This Yahoo Sports story explains the issues.) Who'll run the league? (It hasn't had a commissioner for going on three years.) Who will be its media partner? (Octagon is working on it.) And who'll be its sponsors? (Budweiser is a start.)

Can the NWSL build on last year's success?

The Washington Spirit (splitting time at three venues) and Sky Blue FC (going all in at Red Bull Arena) are settling into bigger digs, where they drew record crowds in 2019. The risk is they are taking on much higher game-day expenses. The rewards will come if they continue to draw.

Portland and Utah are the two best supported teams in the NWSL but the buzz created by the Women's World Cup passed Houston and Orlando by. Attendance in the league's two other MLS-backed clubs was down 44 percent and 38 percent, respectively, from their highs since their launches.

Reign FC is the most interesting situation. It regularly packed Cheney Stadium in Tacoma at the end of the season, but its capacity is still only about 7,500 when the baseball stadium seating is reconfigured for soccer. There's talk of a new soccer complex next to Cheney Stadium, but the main stadium will hold only 5,500.

In the "new NWSL," either sized stadium won't cut it in the long term. L'Equipe reported that new owner OL Groupe was attracted to the Seattle area because of the presence of such companies as Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks, but OL president Jean-Michael Aulas wouldn't rule out moving the team if the bottom line doesn't work out.

USL. When the USL Championship launched as USL PRO in 2011, it finished the season with 12 teams. The USL Championship will begin its 10th season with 35 teams -- and they don't include 12 more in the second-year USL League One.

The San Diego Local has generated a lot of attention with Landon Donovan at the helm, while Miami FC, the 2018 and 2019 NPSL champion, signed on at the 11th hour after spending the fall in the NISA Showcase. (At 35 teams, the USL Championship will be down one from 2019 -- Nashville SC moved to MLS, Fresno FC went on hiatus and Ottawa sold its USL rights to Miami FC.)

When will the USL stop taking on new teams? Not soon, given the league's attendance growth and the commitment of localities to back stadium projects.

In 2019, 10 USL teams averaged more than 6,500 fans a game, up from only one five years earlier.

Louisville City, the 2017 and 2018 champion and 2019 runner-up, will open the Lynn Family Stadium (maximum seating: 14,000) in Butchertown to start the 2020 season. (An NWSL team will begin play in 2021.) Groundbreaking was held in December on a $35 million multi-use stadium (seating: 8,000) that will be the home of the Colorado Springs Switchbacks. Rebuffed for now on his efforts to obtain an MLS team, North Carolina FC and NC Courage owner Steve Malik is buying up land as part of a partnership in southeast Raleigh with a 20,000-seat stadium envisioned.

Not a week seems to go by without some kind of development project being tied to the launch of a USL pro team: Buffalo. Pawtucket. Des Moines.

What's gone unnoticed is the move by the amateur USL League Two, the former PDL, to take on some of the top teams from the NPSL, including AFC Ann Arbor, Asheville City, Grand Rapids FC and Philadelphia Lone Star.

The USL has not yet formalized any plans for a promotion-relegation system, but little by little the pieces are being put in place that would make such movement between the three leagues possible.

NISA.  The new kid on the block emerged as the winner in a battle with the NPSL for teams that did not want play in the franchise-driven USL, hence the name, the National *Independent* Soccer Association.

Insurance issues blocked the NPSL's path to the pros, forcing teams like Detroit City FC and Chattanooga FC to leave the NPSL for NISA. DCFC, CFC and the newcomer Oakland Roots have strong community support, more at the level of Division II than Division III. They will be joined in the fall by the New York Cosmos.

But four teams don't make a league. Miami FC jumped to the USL almost as fast as it bolted the NPSL in August. Philadelphia Fury folded after one game in the fall Showcase. Nothing has been heard from Atlanta SC, which averaged 187 fans for two Showcase games, since the end of November.

How well the other four teams do -- 1904 FC (San Diego), California United Strikers FC (Orange County), LA Force and Stumptown Athletic (Charlotte) -- will go a long way toward determining whether NISA has the foundation to get off the ground.

All pro leagues -- from MLS to NISA -- are only as strong as their weakest link.

4 comments about "The soccer stories we will be following in 2020 (Part 2)".
  1. R2 Dad, January 5, 2020 at 1:34 a.m.

    I'm waiting for USSF to do to these leagues what their DA did to ECNL.

  2. nick p, January 5, 2020 at 8:53 a.m.

    The NWSL has a HUGE opportunity here..
    - Sign with a national TV Broadcast Network
    - A couple more Budweiser-like sponsors in terms of commitment

  3. Thom Meredith, January 5, 2020 at 9:20 a.m.

    Good piece Paul.

    Here are my two quick takeaways: 
    1) Wow...90 'pro' teams. First time I've seen that number aggregated. I've always believed the 'market' will decide how many of the 90 'succeed..what ever that means and that will be the case here on every level from MLS/NWSL to the 4th Division.

    #2 is the dire warning that is the first thing I think of whenever more new teams and leagues are added...and it scares me and should scare American soccer leadership...if those folks don't fix all of the issues connected to the dwindling referee numbers from the Parent Problem to youth player retention issues etc etc. there will not be enough referees regardless of quality to referee the games all these new and bigger league will generate...Forget arguing about who the left back should be for the MNT--he'll never get to that level in 2026 and ebeyond if those other issues are confronted and fixed TODAY..Rant over...

  4. Thom Meredith, January 5, 2020 at 9:22 a.m.

    NOT confronted is what I meant...damn spell chek

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