The United Soccer League, most typically referred to as the USL, the league the Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC compete in, is currently the third-tier league of the men’s professional soccer game. Sort of. If you were to look at its stats side by side with the supposed second tier league, the North American Soccer League, or NASL, you’d probably be left a little confused.
The NASL has a single conference encompassing the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico (1 team), for a total of 12 teams. The USL, by comparison, has two conferences, east and west, with teams drawn from the U.S. and Canada. The eastern conference sports 14 teams and the west 15, giving the USL a total of 29 teams. Although the USL has almost three times as many teams as the NASL, this comparison may not seem that important, until you consider the respective leagues growth patterns.
The modern NASL, named for but with no connection to the more illustrious league with the same namesake in the 1970s and '80s, began its inaugural season in 2011 with eight teams, growing to its current 12-team count. Some teams have folded or left the league, new teams have joined, but the overall growth comes down to just three teams in past five years. The USL was also founded in 2011 with just a handful of teams but during the same five-year period has grown to nearly 30 teams. The USL expanded by five teams since the 2015 season, and has plans to increase that number again next year.
So why is the USL growing at such a meteoric rate whilst the NASL appears to flounder? Although this new NASL shares nothing but a name with its predecessor, it has attracted some of the same marque soccer brands to its competition. What dyed-in-the-wool American soccer fan doesn’t get a little misty eyed at the mention of the New York Cosmos, once home to the legendary Pele, or the Fort Lauderdale Strikers or Tampa Bay Rowdies? But nostalgia is one thing, enticing fans to come through the turnstiles is another.
The aforementioned teams, three of the most traditionally popular in the NASL, averaged attendances of less than 5,000 per home game in 2015. The Switchbacks saw attendances of around 3,000 in 2015, their inaugural season, which was actually only about 700 less than the USL average attendance for the year.
Newer USL teams like the Switchbacks, Arizona United, Charlotte and St Louis are taking steps to swell their gates this season, whilst some freshmen teams are already putting up astonishing attendance numbers.
San Antonio FC, formerly the Scorpions of the NASL, and the Switchbacks next opponents this Saturday, April 23rd, sold-out their 8,300 capacity stadium for their home opener. And FC Cincinnati in Ohio, fellow USL newbies, clocked a league record for a regular season game attendance by welcoming nearly 25,000 fans to their home kick-off!
In addition to having more rapid team growth and greater fan numbers, the USL quite simply seem to have out-maneuvered the NASL. In 2013, the MLS, Major League Soccer, the top-tier of men’s professional soccer in the U.S., and the USL formed an agreement whereby the MLS Reserve League would integrate with the USL. The purpose of the integration is to provide more development opportunities for fledgling MLS players, but one could argue that the greater benefit has been to the USL.
The soccer icons of old — the Cosmos, the Strikers and the Rowdies — have since been replaced by new powerhouses; the Red Bulls, the Sounders, and the Galaxy. And it's the USL with those names in their corner, albeit with the number "2" after them.
Some USL fans bemoan the inclusion of these "2" teams, complaining that they aren’t "real" teams with "real" fanbases like the Switchbacks. Perhaps they’re not "real teams" by the purest definition, but they are a draw for those curious about the developing professional soccer game, and, potentially, the key to the USL rightfully replacing the NASL as the actual second-tier league in the U.S.
Mark Turner is formerly of Oxford, England, but has lived in America for over 15 years, the majority of that time in Colorado. Mark enjoys playing soccer (football!), hiking and biking when the weathers good, and when the weathers rotten writing blog entries that he hopes will amuse and entertain. Mark can be followed on Twitter @melchett, or the Back Chat show on KCMJ 93.9.