The United Soccer League sent out a tweet Saturday morning announcing that the “first founding member” of the new USL Division III league, slated to begin in 2019, will be from Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, or North Carolina. The tweet leads us to believe that we will soon start seeing the names of teams and cities that will compete in the league next year. But who will those teams be? Let’s take a look at which clubs would be most likely to join.
The first founding member of USL Division III will be from either Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina or North Carolina!— USLD3 (@USL_D3) January 20, 2018
Where do you think the first team is from? #USLD3 | #ProSocc3r pic.twitter.com/yruWCk4DTV
While there will likely be some brand new teams entering the league, the most likely scenario is that the league will be made up of former USL teams and those owned by MLS clubs. The league will create a soft landing spot for those teams that are currently stuck wanting to be a professional team but either can’t or don’t wish to meet the criteria of the Division II standards set by the United States Soccer Federation.
When the USL moved from a Division III league to a Division II league in 2015, it created a difficult situation for some its long-standing clubs. To be a D2 league, certain standards are required by the USSF, such as having at least 5,000-seat stadiums. These requirements caused the Charlotte Eagles, Dayton Dutch Lions, and Wilmington Hammerheads, all of whom had been in the old USL Pro, to drop down to the amateur PDL.
It’s very likely that we see a couple, if not all, of these teams return to professional soccer as a part of the new third division league. The lack of investment needed to take part in the second division league will also see the Rochester Rhinos, the only non-MLS team to win the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup since the league’s inception, return after announcing a hiatus during the 2018 season. Attendances have exploded over the past few seasons in the USL, so it’s unlikely that we’ll see many, if any, more independent teams drop into the third division.
The other group of teams we’ll see in the third division will be lower division teams owned by MLS clubs. The big question is how many of these teams will actually move into the league? At this point, we know that the independent USL teams don’t want these reserve squads in their league, as each of them struggle to draw large crowds. Dropping into the third division will allow them to play in smaller venues with lower operating costs. On the other hand, the teams would drop into an inferior division, which could lead to some fighting to stay in the current USL.
Another major impact has to do with the NASL. The league lost its division two sanctioning earlier this year and has filed lawsuits against the USSF in an attempt to maintain its provisional Division II status. The result of these courtroom dramas has led to two teams (Indy Eleven and North Carolina FC) leaving for the USL, in addition to the folding of the league champion San Francisco Deltas. Planned expansion teams have publicly shown caution at joining the league, which could cause some to join either the USL or the new third division league.
In addition to the four former USL teams, I would also expect that at least five of the current nine MLS-owned USL teams will join the new league for its inaugural season, potentially including Orlando City B. Additionally, I would expect a couple of current NASL teams, as well as some planned expansion teams, to join the league as well. This will benefit the teams as they will be able to field professional teams with lesser requirements to worry about and will benefit the league by having teams with existing fan bases and history to support the new launch. It still remains to be seen what the new league will look like but it seems like we’re getting a much better idea. Soon we could have its foundation.