USL: Explosive expansion can take advantage of opportunity

PHOENIX, AZ - JUNE 10: Didier Drogba
PHOENIX, AZ - JUNE 10: Didier Drogba /

The two top leagues in USL will explode by about 40 expansion teams. Such expansion can take advantage of the opportunity — economic and otherwise — at stake in a growing sport.

As April 2020 crawled to a close, United Soccer League President Jake Edwards said his organization was awaiting restart of play with all other sports leagues. But they are not waiting for expansion.

Edwards said the USL League One was looking to grow by up to 10 teams. Yet their focus for rapid, explosive expansion is the USL Championship. The organization is in talks with more than 30 communities to start teams there as soon as possible.

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The president emphasized that all the communities actively seek USL membership. Edwards only named Baltimore, Des Moines, and Providence as Championship candidates but did say that all the suitors in both leagues had ambitious stadium projects. That stadium requirement has become the prime prerequisite for USL expansion awards so it is significant that he confirms such a hurdle has been cleared.

Nevertheless, major sports leagues caution against overheating with expansion. MLS commissioner Don Garber described this caution as avoiding the self-destruct button by getting new teams in to cover the debt and losses of existing teams — avoiding that Ponzi scheme is why MLS expanded to 12 teams in 1998 but contracted back to 10 squads in 2002.

Even with the costly interruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, MLS has now safely expanded to 26 teams. and it will reach 30 teams in the coming years. That they have maintained steady and successful expansion is the reward for their cautious and considered approach.

The USL, however, has not walked around eggshells as other leagues have done. Instead, the expansion focus is communities with stadium plans, especially with related entertainment complexes.

The perfect example comes from a minority stakeholder of USL Championship club Phoenix Rising FC. Real estate principal Brett Johnson studied the club’s development and success in the USL. Johnson noted that the Rising FC’s impact stretched beyond competitive soccer through the club’s relationship with Casino Arizona about two miles away. This complex has five restaurants and a 300-seat showroom. The business owns naming rights for the pitch and both are on the Salt-River Maricopa Indian Community.

Using that model, Johnson found a ripe area for expansion using sports-anchored real estate development in Rhode Island. The $400 million development, Tidewater Landing, launched in Pawtucket on Dec. 2, 2019. It will have an indoor sports center, over 100,000 square feet of retail, dining and community space, 200 housing units, a 200-room hotel, 200,000 square feet devoted to commercial, and a 7,500-seat stadium to host a USL Championship franchise opening in 2022.

This is a USL expansion club becoming the center of the greatest economic development project in the history of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, per the Business Wire. This project will revitalize the Pawtucket riverfront and downtown while creating more than 3,500 jobs.

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It proves that there is a high opportunity for economic development in the lower levels of American soccer. And the USL is wasting no time in making the most of these opportunities. Expansion is coming to the USL, and it might be exactly what the league needs.