For MLS teams, the off-season is a time to reassess the roster and determine what changes need to be made to contend for an MLS Cup. In the lower leagues, the off-season sometimes includes more important decisions.
The American soccer pyramid was missing a third division the last few years. To fill that gap, a new league started in 2019, the USL League One. The 2019 season was made up of three existing independent clubs, three MLS developmental teams, and four new clubs. Only one fully professional team from 2018 joined the league, the Richmond Kickers, while South Georgia Tormenta FC and FC Tucson moved up from the fourth division.
There are plenty of players to fill the rosters of the teams in the third division but frequently not enough investment or fan support. Too many fans would rather sit at home and watch European teams on television than go to the stadium and support their local club. That has the potential to result in what we’re seeing from one of Orlando City B’s opponents.
This season was the first ever for Lansing Ignite FC. The Michigan-based side had an excellent season, finishing second in the 10-team league. Lansing also didn’t do too badly at the gate for a new third division club and averaged 2,788 fans in 14 home games. Only Forward Madison FC and the Kickers drew larger crowds. But last week it was announced that the club is folding after just one season.
The problem for Lansing was something that has plagued many lower division clubs. The team’s owner, Tom Dickson, had unrealistic expectations. The drop off in attendance numbers from MLS to the lower divisions is staggering. Only a few clubs are able to maintain five figures in the lower leagues. Most of those clubs have already entered MLS or will head there soon.
When Lansing kicked off the 2019 season, Dickson determined that the club needed to draw 4,000 fans to stay afloat. That number would put them second in USL League One and 21st in the 36-team USL Championship. That’s simply an unrealistic number for a club’s first-ever season.
Soccer has grown significantly in the past 10 years. When Orlando City entered the USL in 2011, drawing 5,000 fans to any non-MLS game was nearly unthinkable. Today, it’s almost expected of a second division club. But drawing those types of numbers takes time. It’s difficult to get media attention as a first-year team and the club must build up over a number of years.
Unfortunately for Lansing, it doesn’t appear that it will get that chance after Lansing Ignite FC’s creation ended fourth-division side Lansing United. The fans in the city have a petition to save professional soccer there and keep the club going, but those efforts rarely bear fruit at the lower level.
There have been several successes for USL League One in its first season. Forward Madison created a cult-like following and clubs like Greenville Triumph SC are already becoming key parts of their community. The league currently has five teams signed up to join in 2020 and more will follow. But Lansing Ignite FC serves as a reminder of how difficult it will be to ensure the league remains stable.