When the USL Comes Knocking
I moved to El Paso 8 years ago. I moved here from the Southern tip of Texas, McAllen. While there may have been some lower tier clubs in the area, the Rio Grande Valley (where McAllen is located) wasn’t a hotbed of soccer action. The soccer fans that I knew in the area were diehard Mexican national team fans and that was about it. Just before my move from McAllen, rumors had popped up about a new USL side that was just about to add a club in Edinburg (the city next to McAllen). But I was gone before the USL side, RGV Toros, came into existence.
Coming to El Paso, there was zero soccer culture here. Again, all the interest was invested in clubs and national teams below the border. But there were always rumors. I can specifically remember 3 years ago when there was a report that the group that owned the local minor league baseball affiliate were working with the USL to bring a team to El Paso. When I say report, I literally mean ONE article that popped up and was never mentioned again. Like most fans of soccer in El Paso, I waited and waited but nothing seemed to come from it.
When Local Means You
Then a year ago, the UPSL came to the area. First, there was FC Grande in neighboring Las Cruces. Soon after it, Southwest FC announced operations. I can honestly say that without these two clubs I would not be the supporter of lower league soccer that I am today. Before the UPSL expansion, I was heavily invested into MLS and USL, blissfully uninformed of the PDL, NPSL, or UPSL. I was the host of a MLS-focused podcast, Bury My Heart USA, and was a firm supporter of MLS, though unhappy about the flaws in the system (Pro/Rel, salary cap, etc). With the expansion of the UPSL, I found clubs I could embrace at a local level.
FC Grande, though farther from my house (about an hour drive), really connected to me as a soccer fan. I got to know the owner of the club, I showed up at their tryouts, I made friends who were also following the development of the club. I loved their logo, the pluckiness of the team, the feeling of community at the matches. It didn’t matter that I had to drive an hour each way to support the club, I was hooked. So hooked that I helped found a supporter’s group for the club, Notorious FCG. We are a small but enthusiastic bunch of supporters who chant, bang drums, and insist on popping smoke whenever our home side scores. We are a tiny group, but our club is also tiny. Halfway through the season we printed a bunch of stickers and began passing them out during the matches, “Support Local Soccer.”
USL Comes to Town
During this same time period, the USL project in El Paso really began to grow. Announcements were made, colors were promoted, the name of the club was teased for months in social media, billboards, and the local news. That wait finally ended yesterday when the USL side announced their name was El Paso Locomotive FC. Already local media are mislabeling the team “the locomotives.” I assume this is a lack of awareness of the history of soccer, but it’s cool. As these announcements emerged, I wondered about how Locomotive would affect the local soccer environment.
Unlike many other USL branded clubs, El Paso did not have a soccer heritage, at least not a club soccer heritage. With two fledging clubs in the local market, still trying to establish themselves with soccer fans, would the USL just smother those clubs out of existence? And there were signs of it right away. The local AO group immediately began backing the USL group, long before the name was announced. How much stock you put in AO is up to you, but they were the only well-established group of soccer supporters in El Paso, so their support meant something, at least locally. I watched on social media as guy after guy that I’ve met in the local soccer community began buying season tickets for Locomotive. The USL seemed to be gaining a foothold in a way that the UPSL just hadn’t been able to in their first season in the area.
While I am not the social media warrior others are, I certainly have an opinion about the USL and their ever-expanding reach into lower tier soccer. While the UPSL and NPSL are not perfect organizations, I believe their true desire is to increase the number of soccer clubs and expand the sport’s fandom throughout the country. The focus is more towards independent clubs and the desire to someday get to Pro/Rel. I hear that from club owners, league officials, and fans. In contrast, MLS and USL appear to be tightening the upper divisions of American soccer in a way that benefits those already in power. MLS continues to charge ridiculous expansion fees from prospective owners, even from clubs which clearly should be in the top tier (FC Cincinnati comes to mind). USL is slightly more complicated, but, for most lower league fans, no better than the top tier.
This year saw a massive expansion by the USL. Having solidified their hold on the second division of soccer (aided by the USSF’s snuffing out of the NASL), USL rolled out a massive expansion of their influence and control of lower tiers. A rebranding brought the three tier system: USL Championship, USL League 1, and USL League 2. The rebranding was an obvious appeal to English soccer fans, as the divisions follow their naming conventions, including the confusing use of the word “Championship” to describe a second-tier league. What isn’t brought over from the English system is Pro/Rel. There were mentions that it might be rolled out in the future, but MLS was preaching the same line 20 years ago. Don’t hold your breath.
As this rebranding was ongoing, USL continues to expand in soccer markets around the US, selling rights to communities all over the country. Markets who had been ignored for years by the 1st and 2nd tier were suddenly being targeted. Included in that plan was Chattanooga, who’s NPSL side is well-established and considered a model lower-tier club. Is it good business to expand into a market already sewn up by a lower-division? Look at other industries, of course it is. Walmart has destroyed hundreds of small business operations by expanding into markets. With a massive infrastructure and control of prices, any large organization can take a loss in a small market for a period of time to eventually run the competition out of business. And I’m not entirely anti-Walmart, I’m just saying that businesses, no matter what they sell, are always the same: expand, conquer, maintain control. USL is no different.
There is a gap currently between UPSL and, to a lesser extent, NPSL and their target markets. Clubs are still struggling to draw fans in most markets. That could mean two things. It could mean that there are not enough soccer fans to support a soccer club. Most of us would hiss and boo this idea. On the other hand, it could mean that local soccer clubs have yet to connect to their local markets. There are exceptions, of course (I see you, Detroit). But if the USL believes the second opinion, that could explain their big push into these markets. Get in, get the billboards up, and gobble up the local soccer fans as quickly as possible.
Where does that leave you and I?
In history, there’s periods of upheaval that shape the future. In those periods, things are shifting rapidly and it’s hard to see what the future holds. Go back to the 20s and 30s, when the Fall River Marksmen and Bethlehem Steele were dominating the American Soccer League. They were outdrawing the Yankees and Red Sox, crowds were massive. If we could go back in time and talk to the fans of those clubs, how would they have predicted the future? Maybe they would have pointed to all the growth and market saturation and predicted a bright future for the league. But we can look back 90 years and know what actually happened. The Great Depression and anti-immigrant hysteria smothered the great soccer leagues of that era and the sports that now dominate soccer rose to power. Soccer, as a national sport, went underground until the late 60s.
So I say all that to say I don’t know what the future will bring. Is the USL going to dominate all these tiny markets across the country, forcing local clubs to get in (to the league) or give up? Will the tiered approach by USL result in a Pro/Rel system that eventually forces MLS to open up? Is USL bad or good?
I have friends in the soccer community that think I am overthinking this subject. My concerns to them are easily dismissed. Some seem to have bought into the USL, arguing that it will result in better player development (as a USMNT fan, I hope so). Others argue that stability will be the result of this expansion and isn’t that a good thing? Still others push the idea that USL will bring more payed positions for soccer players in this country. There’s even a more cynical point of view that higher tier equals better soccer. I think there’s even another opinion that argues that you can support more than one club. I’m not sure I agree with that, but maybe? All of these arguments have points I can agree with at some level and the people making these arguments aren’t evil or bad. Hell, in some cases, these people are my friends. This article isn’t an attack on them, they seem to have figured out how they believe. This is much more the thought process of a conflicted soccer fan, watching his city of choice going over to the USL.
But when I stand on the bleachers in Las Cruces, NM, as the sun begins to dip below the mountains, and I see my guys run out on the field in their blue and gray uniforms, I feel like I know the way I believe. Local soccer means more than the city in the name of the club. If this massive USL expansion eliminates all these lower clubs, there’s little I can do as a fan to change that. If eventually DCFC and Chattanooga finally succumb and join a bigger league, the world will continue to spin. But until that bleak future (from a lower-tier perspective), I will continue to support my local club. A club full of guys who grew up here, who play for pride and passion.
Just because USL comes knocking doesn’t mean you have to open the door.
edits: Originally this article had included the sentences “Obviously, this plan must have been a recent idea, after their promoted branding of USL D3 was just getting underway. But every recipe requires breaking some eggs, so let’s ignore that.” Those were removed after a reader pointed out the trademarks had been filed over a year ago.