In a major announcement, previewed by Commissioner Jake Edwards in his season opening letter last week, the United Soccer League (USL) announced today that they will be forming a Third Division league (D3) to start play in 2019.  Based on last weeks comments, this initiative seems to be directed at cities in North America that may not have the demographic profile, economic base or stadium to support a team in the ambitious USL, which recently received provisional Division 2 (D2) status from US Soccer. For example, US Soccer’s stadium standards for a D3 stadium are significantly smaller….only a minimum stadium capacity of 1,000 vs. the 5,000 required for a team in a full D2 sanctioned league like USL is seeking to become.

I am surprised at how fast USL is moving to consolidate its status as the emerging Division 2 league in North America.  The near-collapse of the North American Soccer League (NASL) in the offseason seems to have emboldened the USL to move quickly to build on the blistering expansion and investment pace they have recently demonstrated.  It is interesting to note that, in a previous incarnation, USL operated both a D2 and D3 league, so this news is not an unreasonable next step for the league.

Potential implications and questions arising out of the formation of this new league:

  1. Will this new league provide the forum for teams in the Premier Development League, an amateur league owned and organized by USL, to advance to professional status?
  2. There has been discussion recently about the growing disparity between independently operated USL franchises and Major League Soccer (MLS) owned or operated franchises. The MLS USL teams have certain roster advantages not available to independent teams. For example, the MLS teams can loan reserve players on their roster, who are not getting first-team minutes, to bolster their USL side each week.  Houston sent four of these types of players down to play against San Antonio last weekend. Additionally, many of the MLS USL teams that play in the same home city as the senior side are near the bottom of the USL table in attendance and there is little indication that this will change.  These teams frequently face stadium challenges also. The issues raised here beg the question of whether many or all of the MLS USL teams will move to the new Division 3 league when it starts up.
  3. Even if these changes to MLS clubs don’t happen, it is logical that ambitious USL clubs will establish D3 teams in this new league to serve as part of their player development system.
  4. There is a faction of the U.S. soccer fan base that is in love with the international concept of Promotion and Relegation (Pro/Rel). In this arrangement, top teams in a lower division can be promoted to the next higher division and, conversely, the bottom teams of the higher division can be relegated to the lower division. Primarily because of economic reasons, any kind of a Pro/Rel system being implemented in North America, involving MLS, is a compete pipe-dream.  Pro/Rel may not be out of the question, however, within the construct of a D2 and D3 system under the USL umbrella.
  5. There are plans underway in Canada to form a separate league that would theoretically incorporate the Canadian professional teams that play in USL and NASL.  Will the formation of the new D3 league have any impact on these plans?
  6. Could this be a way for Austin to get back into professional soccer?  The Austin Aztex ceased USL operation after the 2015 season, and did not compete in 2016, because of difficulties in securing a suitable stadium.  The team announced late last year that they would not be rejoining the league for the 2017 season also.  A new D3 league could provide an easier way for Austin to address the stadium issue.

Further information on the launch of the new Division 3 league, including branding, initial team announcements and the preliminary competition format, will be announced this summer.

Below is the link to the full press release from USL.