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Where do the lower leagues belong in US Soccer?

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Discussing the role of lower division leagues in growing the game in America

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight, at around 7pm, MLS and the NASL's Minnesota United are having a press conference. It is expected to be announced that United, which has already been announced as the next MLS expansion team, will begin MLS play in 2017 alongside Atlanta United. With Minnesota United stepping up to MLS, the NASL will be left with 12 teams, including the incoming expansion side San Francisco Deltas.

There are clear benefits for U.S. soccer to have expansion sides like Minnesota United. On a basic level, it's more job opportunities for American based talent. Each MLS team, including Minnesota, is required to have an academy, so there will be more organized, high-level youth soccer, along with more scouting. It brings more fans and visibility, both to the sport, but also to MLS. Finally, the increased geographical coverage adds more market value in the eyes of media broadcasters (and more money is definitely a good thing in a league growing as fast as MLS).

What is less clear is what role the remaining teams in the lower divisions have in regards to the national team and U.S. soccer as a whole.

The story of the lower divisions, just like in all areas of professional soccer in this country, has been one of instability. While MLS managed to find stability around ten years ago, the lower divisions have experienced massive changes from year to year. In 2009, a set of eight teams split off the USL, forming their own league called the NASL, after the failed league of the 60's and 70's. The NASL began play in 2011, and they have since grown to 12 teams. However, that came with three teams failing and two teams (Minnesota and the Montreal Impact) moving up to MLS. The NASL has become a bit of an unwieldy league, with some teams like Indy XI and the Carolina Railhawks content to build their projects in the hopes of one day moving to MLS, while others like Miami FC and the NY Cosmos dream of directly competing with MLS for first division status. This is a league where one team can fall apart before your eyes, Rayo OKC, while others can drop hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages and transfer fees for old stars and MLS-washouts to perform in front of (on average) five thousand fans.

In contrast, there is USL, of the third division. After the NASL clubs left USL, the league struggled to regain what little footing it had. That changed in 2013 when MLS came in and formed a partnership. Now, eleven of the USL teams are owned and operated by MLS sides. The stability of these second teams (which do not rely on attracting high attendances to succeed) has allowed USL to explode in size, growing to 29 teams. Four of the stand-alone teams are drawing over 5,000. Sacramento Republic draws over 11,000, while new expansion side, FC Cincinnati has managed to average just shy of 17,000.

It is unfortunate that only the USL appears to have found solid footing so far. However, both second and third division leagues have a place to contribute to American soccer, especially youth soccer. Young prospects on MLS clubs with reserve teams in the USL are getting game minutes in the third division. Teams have already reaped significant rewards from this arrangement, with Dom Dwyer of Sporting Kansas City the clear starter after making the most of his time with SKC's affiliate at the time, Orlando City (before they moved up). The reserve teams allow clubs to sign players at younger ages, give them time to grow and learn the club culture and play style, gain meaningful playing minutes, and receive higher level instruction than at the college level. The guarantee of minutes and the eyes of scouts also attracts players who would otherwise have tried to toil as foreigners in Europe's less distinguished leagues. I think it would be safe to assume that, in a few years, we will start seeing players who were groomed in USL before breaking into MLS sides get called up for national team service.

Both NASL and USL also help draw attention to soccer in places that MLS considers too risky to invest in. Famously, Seattle and Portland caught MLS attention after years of attracting fans to lower division play. That extended, most recently to Orlando City, whose fans effectively forced Orlando into the expansion discussion when MLS was otherwise apathetic. We can see this now with Sacramento, Louisville, and Cincinnati. Louisville is a little too small for a first division's soccer team. But having a team there allows for the sport to be grown, cultivated, and enjoyed at a professional setting. It allows fans in Kentucky to connect to the world of professional soccer with a nearby club. Similarly, Sacramento Republic and FC Cincinnati highlight fan enthusiasm and interest in mid-sized cities that otherwise would be overlooked in MLS. For a myriad of (good) reasons, promotion and relegation will never be implemented at the first division level. Expansion helps address the issue of spreading first division soccer to all the localities that can support it, however, the league would not look to places like Montreal, Orlando, Sacramento, or Cincinnati if it weren't for the lower division sides that took a chance in the first place.

Finally, there is the growth of the game at a grass roots level. I would love to use my hometown team, FC Cincinnati, as an example, what with it's ability to attract the interest of a city that had never before fielded a successful professional soccer team. However, there are better examples in the NPSL, the fourth division of American soccer. The NPSL, or National Premier Soccer League, is an amateur league with 85 teams spread across 13 conferences in four regions. One team in particular has stood out for fostering a soccer culture from scratch: Chattanooga FC. Founded in 2009, Chattanooga FC quickly was able to put together an amateur roster of high quality. The fans responded by coming in the thousands. Over 1600 came in for the first home match. Those numbers only rose, with the club regularly drawing two or three thousand fans. Then, in the 2015 final against the New York Cosmos Academy, Chattanooga (who was hosting) drew in over eighteen thousand. Eighteen thousand. For an amateur game. On top of that, they were doing this in southern Tennessee. The Southern United States is NOT soccer country. There's a reason why it took over a decade for MLS to return to the South after folding its two Florida clubs in 2001. Many, if not most, of the universities in the region still lack a men's soccer program, including the large schools with prestigious sports histories. The South, especially the rural south, is a sort of no-man's-land for soccer, with little interest in the sport. And yet, here you have an amateur team in a small city building genuine love for the sport. Because of the success of Chattanooga, investors have been willing to give the sport a try in other places in the south, including a USL expansion to Nashville starting play in 2018. Because of organized lower division teams, soccer is finally making inroads into the region that has resisted the most.

It is true, lower division soccer runs a wide gamut. But these clubs still have an important role to play on the American scene, from grooming youth, to bringing the professional sport to new places, to cultivating fan culture and interest where there previously was none. Yes, the NASL needs to get its act together. Yes, we all still want to see our city and our team play in the top flight. But the lower divisions are important to the furthering of the sport. Minnesota's ascension to MLS is something to celebrate (especially for soccer fans in Minnesota). But we should not only celebrate where the team is going, but where they come from. To celebrate the growth and improvement in the beautiful game, from the top of the pyramid to the bottom.