Rapidly rising: An oral history of the United Soccer League

All interviews were conducted with StarNews reporter Vince Nairn within the past month. Each source is identified by his or her role at each given time. USL president Jake Edwards spoke to Vince Nairn on Sept.4. The USL did not make any other current member of the front office available for interview.

A New Era

The USL operated with two divisions when, in 2009, NuRock Soccer Holdings, led by Rob Hoskins and Alec Papadakis, purchased it from Nike. Papadakis, an attorney and former professional soccer player, became CEO and laid out a vision for the direction of the league. At the same time, however, a group of owners fed up with the league decided to break off and form their own organization. Neither group received sanctioning from U.S. Soccer, which resulted in the one-year creation of the USSF Division 2 Pro League for the 2010 season. The USL Second Division also operated with six teams – The Charlotte Eagles, Crystal Palace Maryland, Charleston Battery, Harrisburg City Islanders, Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Richmond Kickers -- in 2010. The other owners formed what is now the North American Soccer League, which began play in 2011 as a Division 2 league. The USL would rebrand as USL PRO and become the Division 3 league in 2011. For a while, however, the split created uncertainty about how – or if – the USL would survive.

 

 width=Tim Holt (USL president): It felt a little bit chaotic. It didn’t just happen overnight, nor did it happen as a result of Alec and Rob (Hoskins) buying the league. I think it was essentially a couple of years of situations bubbling under the surface.
Amanda Duffy (operations administrator, USL): I think turbulent is probably the best word to describe lower-division soccer at that time. It was certainly building to (a break). I think there were times it may have happened a little sooner, but as a league we were able to prevent that sooner.
 width=Mike Jacobs (head coach, University of Evansville): There was a lot of uncertainty. The line was drawn in the sand from the owners of those groups. (Jacobs joined the USL in 2014 and now works in the front office of Sporting Kansas City of MLS)
Matt Weibe (USL senior director, franchise development): The sport was developing. You had some people who had deep pockets and wanted to do other things. You had other people that I would say wanted to go a more local direction versus a national direction. You had some people just being content being in their market and doing what they’re doing.
Holt: We had probably three sub-groups with the group going to 2009. One was real aggressive, (wanting to) take on MLS. That was led by the Traffic Sports USA folks (who have held a significant stake in the NASL and are now under a massive FIFA investigation. A good breakdown is here) and a few other teams that broke away. There was sort of an opposite group that felt, while imperfect, the USL model was the way to go. Then there was the group that just wanted the best possible league to play in.
 width=Andrew Bell (president, Charleston Battery): I can remember the discussions. There were actually meetings held where there were representatives from each of the teams. They would have owners meetings without the league. The discussion turned to, “OK, we need to be Division 1. We need to compete directly with Major League Soccer.” Charleston put our hands up and said, “Hey that’s great, we kind of support that, but we’re just not gonna be able to do that. We’re gonna try to find our way.”
Leigh Cowlishaw (coach, Richmond Kickers): There were a lot of clubs and ownerships that back in the day were looking to compete with MLS. Now a lot of those clubs’ ownerships are in MLS. That was never gonna be us.

Bill Becher (coach, Harrisburg City Islanders): I remember when the teams in old USL-1 kind of broke off I didn’t really think it was gonna affect our division at first, but then we got to talking about how many teams we had, and the numbers were small. I remember being on a conference call. We were at six, and it seemed like a couple people were unsure out of that six. I do remember thinking, “What was gonna happen here?” We just had that sense if one or two more broke, then it was gonna be trouble.
Bell: We definitely felt pressure at that point that the whole thing may collapse. For us, that would have been a disaster, obviously. We’ve got a stadium, we’ve got infrastructure. We need to play in a league.
Mark Steffens (coach, Charlotte Eagles): I remember thinking hopefully the league, another team or two comes in the league and we’re able to sustain the momentum and just exist. We were really wondering if we were gonna make it as a league. We knew Charlotte would be around in some league doing something, but we weren’t really sure the USL was gonna pull through.
Merritt Paulson (owner, Portland Timbers): I was scared to death because that was a crucial year for us being able to springboard into MLS (2010 was Portland’s final season in before joining MLS. It played in the USSF D2 Pro League). Season ticket holders get priority tickets for MLS. We wanted to get some momentum and sign some players that could go with us to MLS. We all thought there was a very legitimate chance there wouldn’t be a season and the league would go under. For weeks, we thought that would be the case. You had this group that was splintering off and was very anti-USL and wanted to split off, a group of owners that was very antagonistic to the league. Everything sort of came to a head, and it very much looked like there was going to be two fractions and taking a season off, which would have been very detrimental to us.

 

Wayne Estopinal (minority owner, Austin Aztex): I really don’t know if I’d ever see any part of that investment again. (The Austin Aztex played the 2010 season in the USSF D2 Pro League and moved to Orlando in 2011 to join USL PRO)
Mark Briggs (player, Wilmington Hammerheads): Is there gonna be enough teams in both divisions? It was just a skeptical time. You weren’t really sure what was happening, and you just had to roll with it. If a club was going to offer you a contract, from a player’s perspective, you took it.
Cowlishaw: We just needed teams to play. It wasn’t a major issue for us. Even with those numbers, we felt comfortable. We always had the opportunity just to step away, move to the (amateur) rank and see what sets up. The business, for us, can operate because we’re owned by a youth club. We’re not for profit in many ways.
Duffy: It was an evolving process. Even with the group of owners that did ultimately leave USL, it was a moving process just from a day-to-day, sometimes hour-to-hour there were new things happening. Staying consistent on what we wanted to do as a league was important.
 width=
Holt: It was playing itself out in public, and on the internet, in the big way, which I think added to the pressure to get it resolved, and then the federation intervened.
Chris Economides (senior director, USL first division):: We were down to six teams, so we wanted to ensure that those six teams were solid, and they were. These were longtime, staunch USL supporters who believed in the model.

New Foundation

In January 2010, the USSF created the temporary league between the USL First Division and NASL teams. The USL Second Division would proceed with six teams.

Jeff DiVeronica (reporter, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle): The Rhinos were somewhat annoyed with that the USL had become really transient with franchises coming in and out. It made the league look bad. When you have teams folding and teams starting up, it devalues your league. But I think they had worries about the NASL having long-term viability. The USL, for all its faults, could say they never had to fold up its league and try something new.
Paulson: At the point when USSF just made (the temporary league), it basically enabled us to operate as a second division league, and my worries went away. We were able to have a season and build a fan base and do all the things that helped us move to MLS.
Bell: From an operational standpoint from the group, we met in Tampa with the AGMs (an annual meeting with team and league executives). It was very much a case of, “hey we’re all in this together. Let’s make this work.”
Holt: Alec and Rob, both, were very, very experienced business people. They were very calm and level about how to manage (the clubs). They had a vision that involved a lot of changes. There were gonna be changes, no matter what. The set of changes that sub-group of owners were pushing was more radical than what Alec and Rob wanted to do.
Becher: I think by the time we started really putting our team together, things were pretty well squared away. A lot of this was going on prior to the league meetings. It seemed like a lot was happening. I don’t ever remember affecting us looking for players. We were confident we were gonna have a team.
Holt: We’re at a low version of critical mass at that point. The first thing we explained (to the six) was, “This is gonna be a bridge year.” We were gonna compete with eight, six, five – whatever we had at that point. While that competition was going on, all the work was being done to set up for the 2011 season, which would be the beginning of the USL PRO era.
Bell: There was a tremendous bit of cooperation. I think that from those original teams, the ones that are still playing, that sense of history remains. We all remember where we came from. It was an interesting year, but the end it was very good. We were pleasantly surprised by the response from our fans.

Duffy: There were people that believed in USL and committed to USL, loyal to USL. To be able to have those core teams and anchor the league down while we went through that period of time was critical. There were six teams in USL second division. Without that, had those teams decided to take the year off, I think it changes the landscape. If the league doesn’t exist, it’s a lot harder to bring it back into activity. It was important.
Holt: We laid out for them at the end of the season what that vision was gonna be like. More importantly, what the league would represent, how it would be run. What the three-year vision as, the five-year vision. And we asked them to buy into that. And they did.

After realizing the USL would indeed survive, the attention turned to growth. The Rochester Rhinos, who flirted with joining the NASL, opted to stay in the USL. The Austin Aztex moved to Orlando and joined USL PRO in 2011. The Wilmington Hammerheads, who were forced to sit out 2010 because of financial struggles, returned. The league begun to pick up the pieces from a messy split.

Chris Economides: To Alec and Rob’s credit, they believed in the model, they believed in what they were doing, and we slowly started to rebuild. You have to give those guys a lot of credit because when they bought this thing, they were thrown a major curveball with what they thought purchased and what they actually inherited.
Mike Jacobs: Alec is one of the best leaders I’d had the opportunity to work with and work for. He reminds me a lot of a very strong coach that took over the team that needed to be rebuilt. If you have players who aren’t on board or who are unhappy, I think he was quite content to move on with those who were on board.

Jason Arnold (operations manager, USL): When Alec and the new ownership came in, it was about creating that new perception, new level of professionalism for the league. When we first started, I was in some less than average offices in north Tampa. We moved to new offices downtown in Tampa, right near the airport in a very nice area. And they were just high-end, high-level offices. And right out the gate, you knew the perception and the direction of the league was moving.
Leigh Cowlishaw: There was immediate transition. Far more professional. Far more visionary.
David Irving (coach, Wilmington Hammerheads): I think the league did change things quite a bit. Obviously they wanted to promote a different image than they had in the past. The pro end was kind of floundering at that point, and they put in a plan that was gonna help get it back on track.

Jake Edwards (retired player): Everything changed. It was run a different way. Everything changed at that point. A lot of the initiatives started with them.
Holt: The teams needed to push themselves, whether it’s better travel, venue standards, front office. The biggest thing was making a proper investment in the front office staff, especially in the revenue-generating area.
Mike Anhaeuser (coach, Charleston Battery): The focus all along, even in the old days, was to take it to a regional league. Tim Holt was still in place, and he was absolutely fantastic and a key cog in making it all work. He made us feel comfortable that Alec and Rob were gonna make it work. Everything worked out because they kept their focus on keeping where we are today, even five, six years ago.
Merritt Paulson: Tim was always the guy who was herding the cats, and it was definitely grass roots in every sense of that word.
Arnold: There were lots of meetings and planning associated to what’s the long-term goals, and Tim Holt was an instrumental piece to all that. But I think Alec, really, was the visionary to push people in the right direction. He was the one working behind the scenes to really get the league off and moving that way.
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Mark Steffens: If someone told you they weren’t skeptical, I think they’d be lying to you. Everybody who’d been in soccer at this time, at this country, had seen it come and go, trying to do it with great, big names. Is this another temporary thing? We didn’t know. I’m putting my faith in someone I’d never met before. So there’s some skepticism. But everything I heard from other people was all good.

Jacobs: Expectations were being placed on the franchises to kind of maintain a certain level of professionalism. I think having high standards held everyone more accountable.
Amanda Duffy: The quality of hires in the league office (also made a difference). We were getting some people with good experience. Key differences there, which again, the teams noticed that part of it pretty quickly.
Arnold: New crest, new logo, new perception. A lot of new enhancements to the league. Those were the first steps that really kind of pushed the league off in that direction.
Holt: The number of people in the USL front office increased, and also the talent level increased in terms of experience. It almost all focused around team services. How can we serve our teams better so they perform at a high level? In the previous year, if you will, a lot of time was consumed with crisis management. When you’re able to better serve the teams, you find you’re actually (solving that).
Cowlishaw: The single most important factor was as a group we decided we were gonna focus on building the USL and not concern ourselves on what was going on in the other leagues. There was also a strong desire among the clubs to formulate a partnership with MLS, and that’s proven to be the right move for the league.
Bill Becher: You obviously were going to have to look at it over time. It was a rough time because the teams that had left from USL-1. You started to see the (difference) next season.
Orlando City SC joins the league

Orlando City SC joined USL PRO in 2011, when owner Phil Rawlins moved the team from Austin. Orlando entered the league with immediate MLS aspirations and created a culture that would help change the league .Orlando won the USL championship in its inaugural season, again two years later and was awarded with an MLS bid in November 2013. Its four-year run in the league served as ground work for USL PRO’s future expansion push.

 

Holt: My first interactions with Phil Rawlins were in 2007. He approached us about coming in and starting a franchise in Austin. You get a sense from day one that this person is a very good businessman and that he knew the sport. He was involved with (English Premier League team) Stoke City at that point. <span="em">(Holt now works in the Orlando City front office)
Duffy: With them in Austin and the other teams in USL-2 more on the eastern seaboard, the opportunity for them to relocate that team to Orlando was a good fit, especially with the geographic makeup of the league at the time.
Wayne Estopinal: They discussed what might make sense or where we had the better opportunity (to move). Phil said he thought we’ve got a great site in Orlando. As an architect, I had done quite a bit of work in Florida earlier in my career. I knew the Orlando metro area really well.
Paul Tenorio (reporter, Washington Post): They definitely did their due diligence. I think Atlanta was another city I think they looked at. (Tenorio moved to the Orlando Sentinel in 2012, where he’s been the Orlando City beat writer for three years)
Bill Rudisill (owner, Wilmington Hammerheads): Matter of fact, he came here. He was gonna buy the Hammerheads. But when they decided to go with artificial turf at Legion Stadium (the team’s home field), it blew that deal.
Tenorio: What they really kind of studied was Portland, Kansas City. They were looking at those MLS markets and saying what is the most similar market we can find. They wanted to go somewhere that would entice MLS. There was no (MLS) team south of DC United. They believed that getting back into Florida would entice MLS, and ultimately, that’s what put Orlando over the top. Let’s get into Florida and not only sell the demographics of a city that is growing and changing but let’s also expand a part of the footprint.
Estopinal: Phil did an incredible amount of work. He was running the hour-by-hour operations of the team, and he was just totally focused on it.
Jason Arnold: When they came in, they brought everybody up a level as well. Everybody was able to kind of follow in their footsteps a little bit, and everybody across the board, their professionalism rose just by (Orlando) coming in.
Becher: Obviously, at first, you didn’t know what to expect. But once that season started, you got a sense pretty quickly that they meant business. They were the standard. As a first year franchise that sounds kind of strange, but they came in with a plan. They did a lot to stabilize and help this league grow.
Matt Weston (coach, FC New York): We ended up going down to Orlando City for our first game. That was my first introduction to (USL PRO): 9,000 people at the Citrus Bowl and losing 3-0.
Steffens: Right away, (The Charlotte Eagles’ front office) knew the kind of money that’s out there with this organization and their desire to go to MLS in a few years. It was gonna be a game-changer.

Tenorio: The most important thing for Phil was that it wasn’t about starting a soccer team. It was about creating something that would be lasting. I think his vision for starting a team that would form a connection to the city of Orlando was what allowed soccer to take off the way it did.
Holt: Orlando City was an overwhelming success and probably the defining narrative of that season. You have a team launched in a market that had soccer in fits and starts over the past 10, 15 years but nothing sustainable to the point that people were almost pessimistic about whether or not pro soccer could be established at a high level.
Duffy: It could have been a very opposite reaction to the team there. Everything hit the mark in the right way, and the community responded immediately to Orlando City being there.

Wilmington Hammerheads Troy Cole (5) heads the ball over Orlando's Giuseppe Gentile (9) in the first half of the Hammerheads last home game in 2014. Mike Spencer | StarNews

 

Tenorio: The population was changing. Orlando was growing younger and younger as a city. Orlando City arrived as the city was trying to reinvent itself as a young, hip city populated by millennials. The timing could not have been more perfect. The fact that Phil Rawlins so embraced that crowd within that demographic was critical.
Leigh Cowlishaw: That was certainly a huge momentum builder for the league to see such a strong community get behind the team. I think it opened the eyes for a lot of investors outside to say the time is definitely now, and this can be replicated.

 

Tenorio: You needed to be able to sell a city on a sport. To do that, you needed to win, obviously. Winning the way that they did was just as important. Adrian Heath likes playing attacking soccer. He plays 4-2-3-1 and likes to get after it. Playing that way resonated with the fan base that wanted to buy in.
Mark Briggs: They obviously had a head coach in Adrian Heath who is well-respected from his playing career and coaching career. They set the bar, they set the level, and they showed what could be done and where to go.
Andrew Bell (president, Charleston Battery): The success they had, it was inspirational, I think. We kind of monitored it and it was like, you know what? They’re really getting some big numbers in their stadium. They’ve got something happening here.

Orlando City Soccer Club owners Phil Rawlins (left) and Flavio Augusto Da Silva (right) celebrate after MLS Commissioner Don Garber (center) announced Orlando will become the next MLS franchise in 2013. Jacob Langston|Orlando Sentinel
Tenorio: I remember my first meeting with Phil and Adrian. When I arrived in Orlando, I wanted to introduce myself to the soccer people there. I remember in 2012, Phil saying to me, “We’re gonna get an MLS team within the next two years.” I just remember thinking to myself that nothing in sports moves that fast. I kind of laughed, and I looked across the table and Phil was not laughing. Even back then, the confidence that Phil Rawlins was emitting was not up for debate whether an MLS team was coming. That sticks with me still to this day.
Caribbean collapse

Despite Orlando City’s instant success, 2011 was very much a learning year for USL PRO. Ten teams joined five holdovers from the 2010 USL Second Division. The league introduced three clubs in Puerto Rico and another in Antigua, which combined with the expansion Los Angeles Blues to make the league’s Caribbean Division. It would crumble before it could even get started, with the Puerto Rican teams folding less than two months into the season. Antigua lasted three years but never reached its intended hopes before folding in 2013.

Jason Arnold: Francisco Marcos, who was the founder of USL, was still involved in the front office at that point and was really that driving force behind that Caribbean Division. From a concept standpoint, it was really exciting.
Amanda Duffy (operations administrator, USL): It was already a relationship because the Puerto Rico Islanders had been a part of the First Division. There was also a team in Bermuda. There was already a relationship with that federation. The success of the Islanders at that time, it was something they were looking at from a development standpoint at that time. Keep players on their respective islands and create a development opportunity.
Ryan Roushandel (player, Sevilla FC Puerto Rico): I was done playing in Costa Rica and got a hold of Alec and asked if there were any teams in the USL (Roushandel is longtime friends with Papadakis’ son, Justin). He told me about these three Puerto Rican teams. They were looking for players. I went down there, and it seemed like it was gonna be good. They wanted to broaden the horizon in the USL.
Duffy: It seemed like a win-win. It put us in a better position from the number of teams’ standpoint.
Bill Becher (coach, Harrisburg City Islanders): I remember being at the meetings, and a lot of us were skeptical or concerned. We were trying to establish a higher-level league, and I understood why they did it. But there were concerns.
Cowlishaw: I was honestly never a huge fan of that vision. It was always going to be complicated.
Bell: I felt it was a mistake at the time. You have to kind of put it into the context that was happening to understand the motivation to do that. In hindsight, it’s easy to say that was a mistake. But if you look at the senior management in the league, Alec has grown. He’s shaped the way the league is, and kind of the forces that might have made us look at adding teams in the Caribbean are no longer there.

Roushandel: The Puerto Rican teams, we were playing in both the USL and the Puerto Rican league as well. Anytime we played a Puerto Rican team, it counted as a USL and PRSL game at the same time. Six to eight games into the USL season, we find out the Puerto Rican teams didn’t pay enough of the registration fees or something to the USL and it kicked them out.
Chris Economides: I think we were sold a bill of goods by the people in Puerto Rico, and I think that we quickly found out that it was a disaster what was transpiring down there.
Bill Rudisill: None of those teams was solid financially.
Duffy: You have a few factors in it. I think the biggest thing, all-around from their end, was the travel aspect of it: The cost of travel to the islands. The logistics once you’re there.
Holt: Look, it was a mistake. As you’re going through and trying to re-establish the league, the decision to bring four teams in that weren’t part of the continental United States proved to be too much.
Roushandel: As far as getting paid on time, living situation, everything was fine. We just didn’t know the backstory of the teams not being able to afford to play in the actual league. I guess it wasn’t really a question we thought we should ask.
Troy Cole (player, FC New York): They had to do a lot of pivoting right away because we were scheduled to go play in Puerto Rico, and they didn’t make it. The stories we heard from Puerto Rico was abysmal. As soon as they folded, (those players) started showing up on some of the other teams.
Arnold: It was a challenging time, but I also think it was an educational piece and a necessary piece for everybody in the league office to learn from it to make ourselves better and find ways to improve.
Holt: The second mistake would have been inaction. It’s certainly not giving anyone credit. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place. But the hard decision of having to own the mistake and drop those teams in the middle of the season was the right thing to do. Economides: Rather than trying to elongate something that wasn’t gonna work, Alec and we all made the right decision to cut our losses and rearrange the schedule. I would categorize that as putting a major negative into a positive by just breaking ties.
Economides: Rather than trying to elongate something that wasn’t gonna work, Alec and we all made the right decision to cut our losses and rearrange the schedule. I would categorize that as putting a major negative into a positive by just breaking ties.
Arnold: If that had taken off, imagine a Caribbean division now. Maybe there are a couple other island teams there and you have a full, standalone division down there. There are definitely viable markets down there that have proven it with international games and national team games.

Neto Baptiste (reporter, Antigua Observer): In September 2010, which was the year before (Antigua Barracuda FC) actually entered the USL, they came on the scene.
Troy Gibson (communications manager, Antigua Barracuda FC): Basically, we were trying to establish a Caribbean team. We were trying to have an avenue for our local talent to play at the highest level. That’s what we were trying to achieve. They helped the national team immensely.
Baptiste: A lot of the players, though, came from the (local teams). That caused a little bit of controversy here. A lot of the clubs lost their better players to Barracuda. A lot of information wasn’t forthcoming from the ownership of the Barracuda. A little bit of controversy was to how players moved from their local club to Barracuda. It died down, and a lot of the clubs saw the big picture.
Gibson: It was overall a rough year. Financially, funding wasn’t always available. It kind of trickled down to the field.
Mike Anhaeuser: From a recruiting standpoint, it was big. Because you’re able to see players you didn’t see. They had players from the Caribbean that you weren’t able to see. So it did open the doors from that standpoint.

 

 

Andrew Bell: We did go down to Antigua, and we had a fantastic trip. We actually signed Quinton Griffith following that trip. (Griffith has played for the Battery since 2012).

 

 

 

Baptiste: Looking back, a lot of people are probably now wishing that the Barracuda was still in existence. You look like a player like Q, who got most of his international experience going to the USL through Antigua Barracuda. People are realizing now what they were trying to do. Get (players) out there, and hopefully they move on to better teams.
Gibson: (The problem) was just dollars and cents. Had we got continuous funding in our first season, it would have been better. Some of our donors and sponsors had to pull out. We had to live with it, work with what we got. In the end, it was a bottom line issue.
Baptiste: They weren’t getting the support they thought they would be getting. Sometimes (attendance) didn’t even get to the hundreds. The other teams started to complain that they were coming to Antigua to play in front of an empty stadium. Barracuda was basically playing all its matches on the road, which presented another struggle for the owners. (Antigua Barracuda FC played every game on the road in 2012 and 2013.)
Bell: It’s a fantastic place to go on your holidays, but to play a soccer team there is difficult. Flying to Antigua, it’s more difficult than flying to Vancouver. I remember thinking, “This is great, we can make this work during the regular season.” But if someone has to go to Antigua on three or four days’ notice, they might not be able to get there.
Gibson: We were very green in terms of operating in the USL. If we get another crack at it, we’d operate on a tighter budget. It will come again, and when it comes again, we’ll be able to make the most of it.
Baptiste: I think it was more viewed now as a positive attempt that just didn’t work out. If they came back with the concept and they sold it again, more people than who bought into it the first time would say they want to help. They’re now seeing the bigger picture. I think a lot of people got caught up on the politics of it and didn’t see the whole picture.
MLS enters the game

 As the league progressed, Major League Soccer started taking notice. Ongoing conversations led to a formal agreement between the leagues announced in January 2013. The idea was simple: MLS would use USL PRO to develop its players. The lower league would benefit with an influx of young talent from those teams. All MLS clubs were, by 2015, instructed to enter USL PRO either via an affiliation (similar to minor league baseball), or by operating their own team in the league. Partnering with MLS gave a jolt of credibility to the league. It also would also set forth an unprecedented expansion push, powered by the introduction of LA Galaxy II in 2014.

 

Matt Weibe (former USL executive): We always kept the communication lines open with MLS. (Weibe left soccer in 2009 to work in the business world)
Holt: The biggest thing that had to change was MLS had to look at USL differently. They needed to see that USL was a professionally-run outfit from top to bottom and there was more stability within the league and there would be some value to partnering in different ways.
Becher: I think one thing that happened that most people are aware of but maybe not everybody is, that whole thing started with Harrisburg and Philadelphia in 2010. Our owner, Eric Pettis, was at the forefront of that with the Union guys. We were able to put together a relationship. In 2010, it didn’t look like it did in 2013, but it was definitely a starting point.
Rudisill: Tim told us in 2011 (about the discussions). All the owners got together. We were all flattered, and they did a nice job. There were just a lot of questions. How is it gonna affect the bottom line? Is it gonna cause our organizations to be more valuable? Could we sell them? Could we sell players?
Leigh Cowlishaw (coach, Richmond Kickers): We weren’t privy to the details, but there was a consensus several years prior, that it would make sense and make our league much stronger to partner with Major League Soccer. A lot of MLS personnel didn’t realize the quality of the groups. When you pair those two together, you’ve got a very stable league that continues to grow and evolve.
Holt: The conversations began in earnest in 2012, summer 2012, and they ramped up pretty quickly.
Bell: We knew that the potential was there because we were in the loop. We’d actually been having separate discussions with a team in MLS to see if we could figure out some sort of partnership. And this was before the deal between the leagues. You think back to that year Harrisburg had already had a relationship with Philadelphia. The technical side of it in Major League Soccer, they saw what the potential was with USL.
Evan Ream (reporter, Davis (Calif.) Enterprise and author of upcoming book about Sacramento Republic FC): I guess it was sort of, I’ll believe it when I see it. Basically, how I feel about most things regarding American soccer. It was interesting because at that time, I believe, the reserve league was kind of faltering in MLS, and MLS needed a place for the 19th to 30th guy on the roster to get a chance to play.
Paulson: MLS, we’re very focused on player development, and we’ve got a massive investment in the academies. Becoming more of a traditional soccer model, you’ve got to have the ability to play players in lower division teams as part of a club.
Jacobs: For MLS, it goes from having a reserve league, which was really glorified scrimmages, to offering legitimate matches in an aspiring league with independent teams. It offers an opportunity to get games for reserves that were not game enough and aspiring young players who need a little more seasoning.
DiVeronica: A documented affiliation with Major League Soccer has really saved soccer in the USL.
Briggs: The MLS teams kind of use it as development, but for the game in America to develop, it had to happen. The good younger players in Europe start playing professional soccer at 16, 17, 18. In America, the good players don’t start playing until they’re 22, 23, until they come out of college. That’s five years the European and South American countries have a head start on. For them to now be able to play professional soccer from an earlier age, it’s huge for the development of the game in the country.
Paulson: Adding that final piece of that pyramid under the first division was I think clearly the right strategic move. We all agreed that was something needing to happen. From the standpoint from there being a marriage with USL, they needed to accept that was the right move as well. They weren’t trying to be first division soccer, and there was a real benefit for there to be an MLS affiliation.

Tenorio: MLS needed to by in. MLS needed to look at it less like a league it was competing with and more like an essential part of growth in the sport. I think for too long, the three tiers of American soccer were so bent on competing with each other. The USL has kind of embraced being this second tier and understanding that being that second tier is still incredibly valuable. It can still be successful and sell just as well. That’s changed the way people view USL.
Bell: It was exciting to know the players were being looked at again. The fans were looking at the USL games, the MLS fans. There was a reason for them to be interested.
Paulson: Being able to see future stars play there, and all the cost advantages, that was sort of viewed in many ways as a silver bullet that could make the league much more financially viable.
Tenorio: The Bradford Jamiesons of the world are gonna go there and get games and develop. Without it, MLS and US Soccer would be in a worse place. And there’s no way anyone would have said that a few years ago.
Growing pains

The 2013 season began with four affiliation partnerships between MLS and USL PRO: DC United and Richmond, New England and Rochester, Sporting Kansas City and Orlando, and Philadelphia and Harrisburg. The partnership included four players being sent on long-term loan to the USL PRO teams. The most famous example was Dom Dwyer, who set a league scoring record at Orlando, including a four-goal performance in the 2013 championship game. But the Los Angeles Galaxy would soon change the game.

Tenorio:They were scoring goals, and now they had this perfect player to match the swagger of the franchise. He was the perfect personification of what the franchise had been.
Becher: We were the first ones, and it came a couple years later there were four of us that did it with success. It’s difficult because we both had different agendas, there’s no doubt about that. 2010, basically, they loaned some guys here when they needed games. In 2011-12, we said hey we need a few guys, can you send somebody?
DiVeronica: The affiliation here with New England hasn’t worked out as well as hoped. But I think that can change.
Cowlishaw: The deal for us is that we’re geographically located real close to DC. Had a strong relationship prior with regards to player movement. So it was an easy partnership to continue. We did that in 2013. I think 16 DC United players have represented the Kickers. Several are in DC United’s first team right now. Some have moved on to other MLS first teams. It’s been a good partnership.
Jake Edwards (USL vice president): These things take time to evolve and develop. People are always unsure about things. This isn’t a major league-minor league relationship as it’s done in baseball, or hockey where every major league team gets a minor league affiliate, outfits the players and gets to call them back and forth when they want. It’s elements of that but it’s not exclusively like that model.

Curt Onalfo (assistant coach, LA Galaxy): Basically, we got into real discussions right after the (2013) season. We had some talks before with what was going to happen, but for me to be the person to kind of coach the team and build it from scratch.
Holt: It was really evident from the beginning how seriously they took this. From (team president) Chris Klein to (first team coach) Bruce (Arena), Curt, this wasn’t something that they were just looking to run a reserve team and play a couple games. This was an integral part of their club going forward.
Onalfo: We wanted to control our own destiny. We felt like having everybody in the same venue so they could kind of see and emulate and be in the first building as the first team. We just felt like it was the right way to bridge our academy and the first team. What I thought was really cool about us was I didn’t want to pick anybody’s brain. We were obviously the first ones. I wanted to do it our own way.
Anhaeuser: The MLS coming in with a couple of their reserve teams kind of pushed it up a notch. That allowed some teams in areas, either through affiliations or teams on their own pushing it up a notch.
Holt: The initiative each year has sort of grown to the point now where a majority of teams have their own second team in USL. I don’t say it’s redefined USL, but it’s helped differentiate USL.

Onalfo: The whole organization was behind it. The hardest thing was: 1. You gotta make sure you have your facility set up. Your staff. You need to hire a support staff. You’re hiring people. Then the most important thing is you gotta have players, right? We organized an open tryout, an invitation tryout. Turns out where our goal was just go get a couple players, but we ended up getting a lot more. That ended up being a real home run. Because we’re the Galaxy, we just had a lot of people who wanted to play for us.
Holt: There couldn’t have been a better club to dive into it. It wasn’t perfect. On the field, their performance, they’ve been a deep playoff team for two years. That’s been exceptional. Like a lot of the second teams from MLS, most of them would like to do better at the gate and even have better fan support. None of these situations is perfect, but everyone is learning from what everybody else is doing.
Edwards: It’s evolving a little bit. Anything worth doing takes a little bit of time. Our clubs are very pleased with how it’s gone and the benefits it’s had for them. And you can very clearly see how different the league is now than it was four or five years ago. It’s in a very different place.
Onalfo: Chris Klein made a statement to me that kind of resonated, that I really took to heart. You can make an argument that this project was just as important as the signing of David Beckham. When somebody makes that statement and you’re the one in charge, you’re gonna give it everything possible to make it succeed. <span="text-color:red;">We knew it was the right thing, so we never really had those doubts. Having said that, going into the first game, was I nervous? Oh yeah. Definitely. I wanted it to be a home run.

Holt: We wouldn’t be at 11 teams doing it two years later without the Galaxy. We’ve had a number of conversations in here, and the Galaxy have been referenced with how they’ve done it and what they’ve done.
George Altirs (Wilmington Hammerheads owner): This is a very rapid expansion that just came up. Once they kind of affiliated with MLS and took on the reserve teams of MLS and have MLS 2 teams in the league, that’s really what the game changer was in the league. (Altirs bought the team from Rudisill in September 2013)
Matt Weston (coach, VSI Tampa Bay FC): I think the elevation of the league with MLS coming in with their teams. That’s brought in another group of owners. They want to get in the soccer market. The second teams going in are going to boost numbers and franchises. (Weston coached three teams – FC New York in 2011, VSI Tampa Bay FC in 2013 and Dayton Dutch Lions FC in 2014 – that folded at the end of the season. He’s now out of pro soccer and is a youth coach in Ocala, Fla.)
Economides: MLS has done an unbelievable job of taking soccer in this country to the highest level. When perspective ownership groups see that, they want to get involved with somebody who’s involved with MLS. Smart business people, smart sports executives see something.

USL PRO’s growth came with some stumbles. FC New York joined the league in 2011 and lasted one season. Two more clubs, VSI Tampa Bay and Phoenix FC Wolves, entered in 2013 and folded after it. The Dayton Dutch Lions exited in 2014 after a four-year run. The Austin Aztex, who rejoined the league in 2015 under new ownership, will sit out 2016 with the intention of returning in 2017.

Weston: FC New York had “X” amount of money and went through it quickly. Tampa Bay went into it with “X” amount of money and had more coming if they hit marks. And they never did it. There was no long-term business acumen of what they were doing. Phil Rawlins is the master of working with people. Partnering up. Affiliating. Spending time and energy to sell your brand. Neither of those two programs did any of it.

Troy Cole (player, VSI Tampa Bay FC): We started missing paychecks. We knew stuff was going on behind the scenes. We ended up not having a coach for a while. It’s tough to manage a pro locker room that’s not getting paid, a pro locker room that knows this team is most likely folding at the end of the year.
Sean Reynolds (player, VSI Tampa Bay FC): I was living in an apartment with six guys. There’s three of us in one room. I’m not getting paid one dollar.
Ryan Roushandel (player, Austin Aztex): It is kind of crazy that a professional soccer team is playing on a not-so-great turf field with football lines on it. It’s just unfortunate for Austin because unless they find a field or find a patch of grass to make a pop-up stadium, they don’t have anywhere to play.

Economides: Pre-Alec, we may have allowed groups into the fold that weren’t where they needed to be. But I think that now we’ve buttoned down that process. Have we stubbed our toe since? Maybe in a couple cases.
Holt (In November 2014): If there was a mistake or errors that have been learned from in the past, it’s relying on a handsome business plan without making sure the capability exists with financial resources and expertise (to execute it).

Rudisill: I think (the league) just wanted to grow quicker. They weren’t willing to grow methodically. They needed to pursue and stick their tentacles out there a little more. Like anything, you want to grow fast, but maybe it’s better in the long run to grow slower.
Bell: You can look at Major League Soccer and you’d see similar churn. They lost a team with Chivas USA (in 2014). You still would have to argue that soccer in the United States and Canada is still very much in its figuring-itself-out phase. We’re growing, and we’re really kind of growing up now.
Steffens: People come in the league thinking, well, you know, it’s kind of a minor league, it’s not the MLS. They think can put a little bit of money into it, turn it around in a few years and make some money. There are very few teams, if any, that are making money at this level. They come in with a misconception a lot, and it’s just way bigger than people think. The enormity of the project just kind of catches them off guard.
Holt: The common denominator is lack of executing. We don’t absolve ourselves from all responsibility for not assessing the full ability of people to execute. You learn from those experiences, and 2014 was great.
Heading in the right direction

Sacramento Republic FC, which would break league attendance records and win the championship in its inaugural season, and Oklahoma City Energy FC joined the Galaxy II as expansion teams. The folding Phoenix FC turned into Arizona United SC. The influence of MLS began to show, as more people – with more money – suddenly wanted to be a part of USL PRO. The league grew from 14 to 24 teams in 2015 and will have at least 28 in 2016.

Becher: It seemed like for a while it was always touch and go when a new team would come in. You never knew what you were gonna get. But I’ll say this, the last few years, teams have come in and been competitive right away. Louisville, St. Louis, Sacramento, Oklahoma City. I know I’m missing some, but the difference has been noticeable.
Warren Smith (co-founder, Sacramento Republic FC): We started talking to the league in early 2012. We completed the acquisition in December, the franchise was announced. Keep in mind that Sacramento had professional soccer before. It was in the USL many years ago but wasn’t successful. We kind of wanted to show what we were striving for from a quality standpoint. It was important for us to develop a brand the people would like.
Ream: I know, for a fact, that the two guys who started Sacramento Republic FC, Warren Smith and Joe Wagoner, they knew nothing not only about the USL, but they knew nothing about soccer. They were both involved with the Sacramento Rivercats which were the AAA baseball team in Sacramento at the time. They were both looking for something new to do, they looked at two different leagues. I think (joining USL PRO) was based on circumstance more than anything, with the ultimate goal of joining MLS.

Smith: We talked to a lot of people in the league. Not just Phil (Rawlins), but other owners. Everyone was very helpful. That’s the cool thing I like about this league. We’re all building a league together. To build each other’s franchises, all of our values grow. It’s a real camaraderie.
Ream: Orlando was always their model. The USL to MLS strategy was always their model. (Orlando) was probably, at the time, the most successful team in the USL ever. That was always, and still is, their model and their goal.
Jason Arnold (general manager, Wilmington Hammerheads): I think you saw a similar impact (to Orlando’s) when Sacramento joined the league: A quality ownership group in a quality market that came in firing on all cylinders. When you see that, you see a club with that kind of ownership and that kind of leadership, other clubs look at that and say, “We can do this too.”
Mike Jacobs (director of development, USL): It was an exciting time to be involved with the league because of the growth. When you look at the work of Alec, Tim and Jake, they really elevated the league to a height you couldn’t fathom when Alec took over. It was fun to see the growth of the United Soccer League.
Irving: I always thought there was room for growth. Obviously, the MLS relationship changed the complexion of the whole thing.
Weston: The league itself has shown tremendous growth from those early beginnings. It went up about 50 percent in one year, and then it was more. And there was an explosion of MLS teams. (You can read more about the influx of MLS-owned teams here and here.)

Edwards: We’re aggressive but cautious. Strategic in terms of how we aggressively expand. We don’t do it willy-nilly. We make sure it’s the right market. Right owners. The right venue now. So each year we’re in a stronger position so we can be more and more choosy and selective in terms of what we do and who comes into that league. We’re not where we want to be. We still have a lot of work to do, but it’s good work.
Mark Steffens (coach Pittsburgh Riverhounds): I think in five years the price tag will be a whole lot higher. That’s kind of the word I’ve used to people in the last four or five years. It’s exploding at a miraculous rate.
Wayne Estopinal (majority owner, Louisville City FC, which entered the USL in 2015): I think the expansion we have this year, the quality of the ownership coming in, they’re all very committed to being a professional league, rather than something that grew out of a community base or something like a youth soccer structure. The quality of that ownership is pushing us to that professionalism. We’ve got the Cincinnati team coming in, and they’re owned by people from professional football.

Jeff Berding (president, FC Cincinnati, which will enter the USL in 2016): It’s fair to say that our ownership group (which includes the Lindner family, who are on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest families) has aspirations to be MLS. We want to bring professional soccer at the highest level to Cincinnati. It was certainly important; the 11 (MLS-operated teams) in the league make the strength of the league better. It’s the best level below MLS.
Ream: The original group who started the idea didn’t have the money (to get to MLS). They knew they’d need help. Kevin Nagle had the money. He’s MLS-rich, as I like to say.
Smith: Kevin happens to be in professional sports with an owner of the Kings. He got to see firsthand – to save the Kings. He was maybe the second most important person in that effort behind the mayor. He funds a lot of the costs associated on the front end. I didn’t call him. He called me and asked for a meeting. He had a lot of success in the businesses in Sacramento and wanted to make a difference.
Estopinal: When you can start showing the growth in the league with very strong investors in other teams, all it does is turn your game up. Here in Louisville, we’ve had a dozen serious entities express interest in investing.
Economides: We continue to provide more and more team services so that all the teams can attain the success of an Orlando, Oklahoma City, Sacramento. And I think there’s more growth in the future, and a lot of it is well-deserved.
Arnold: I think the difference from, if you look back to 2010 or ‘11, the league needed owners. So they were actively seeking, and going into the market and soliciting ownership groups to come to the league. I think it’s different now because I think the demand is much greater. The league is in a different position, and people are knocking on the league’s door, and the league is turning people away. The direction the league has gone has really afforded the league office the chance to really find the right people. Whereas before it was a search. Now it’s sifting through.
Flourishing Future

In six years the league has gone from floundering to flourishing. Papadakis’ long-term vision is coming to life. The league rebranded in February, dropping the “PRO” from its moniker while simultaneously announcing its intention to apply for Division 2 status in U.S. Soccer. More is expected of teams, which has increased the cost to participate in the league. (You can read about the smaller markets’ outlook with that here).The work isn’t finished, and the league still faces challenges, but the recent changes have also helped the league figure out how to keep moving.

 

Estopinal: The league is stable, and the competition is just very consistent. Pretty much on any given night, somebody can beat somebody else. I think we still have a ways to go to get everybody up to that professionalism level. But I think just over the last year we’ve seen incredible commitment by all the teams to get there.
Paulson: To have road trips in Puerto Rico and the craziness of a single table in minor league soccer with unbelievable long travel and teams playing on a couple days or one day rest, it’s stuff I look at now in the context now of MLS and I get really worried when we’re playing a game on three days’ rest. I look back at what we were doing in USL and what those guys were going through, it’s unbelievable.
David Irving (coach, Tulsa Roughnecks FC): Travel became a little more expensive, and it’s moved in leaps and bounds in 2011 to where we are today. The costs of the travel and salaries and stuff have definitely increased.
Sean Reynolds (player, Louisville City FC): In 2012, 2013, 2014, you were playing Friday/Saturday or Friday/Sunday. You were playing Friday in Richmond then driving overnight to play Wilmington then driving straight home after that. You play more Thursday/Sunday now. There’s more of a break in between. Clubs have more money. The structure of the USL has gotten better.

Onalfo: They just had to continue to be more professional. Have better facilities, better travel arrangements, hotels. All the infrastructure. Even myself, I’ve been a head coach in MLS. You’re used to a certain standard of everything. The players are in the same boat. When you have first team players traveling on the road, it needs to be a really professional reflection. That infrastructure all had to move forward, which requires resources. The important thing is to make sure owners were behind it.
Mark Briggs (coach, Wilmington Hammerheads): It’s starting to get to the point now where you’re staying in the nice hotels so you feel good as a professional. Traveling on a nice sleeper bus with Wifi and phones, TVs and computers, stuff like that makes it just a little more professional and more lucrative for a player to wants to come and play.
Paulson: It’s been massive changes. It’s much more structured now, much more organized. Not the Wild West.
Briggs: The games used to be streamed on this platform called USL Live. My family used to try to log on back home and watch the games, and it was crap, to be honest with you. Sometimes you got a picture, the next week you couldn’t see a thing. You didn’t recognize the players. You couldn’t see the ball. Whereas now with YouTube (which began live streaming all USL games in 2014), by all accounts, it’s a great feed. You can actually watch the game. You can hear the commentating.
Bell: The upper level management became a lot more sophisticated. The game day operations improved, and the league began really to hold teams to higher standards. Honestly, I could give you plenty of examples going all the way back into the early 2000s who were doing it at an MLS level. Then, on the other side, there were certain teams through the years that weren’t doing certain things properly. The league really started to get involved and hold teams to those standards.
Jake Edwards (USL president): All of the teams coming in now have to have a venue plan. And that gets stricter and stricter every season. We are at the point now that teams will not come into the league until they have that venue plan ready. (Edwards became USL president on March 2.)
Paulson: You’ve got a much more regional approach, which is always the right way to do it. The quality of play is good and better than when we were there. You look at the gate for the average team, a lot of teams are actually putting, their turnstile is more than 4,000 people per game. I know there were a lot of 500 to 1,500 when we were there the first time.
Edwards: We work with our clubs in terms of professionalism on the field, whether that’s the look and feel of the games, uniforms, code of conduct for players and staff, the game day experience for fans. We’ve worked with all the clubs on their staffing. We help them build their sales forces up. Help them on their digital and social media marketing campaigns so that all the clubs are at least a certain level.

Tenorio: It’s a totally different animal than what it was before. From when it started out and was going through those struggles, it is a totally different beast. The important thing is now you look at the USL and it’s not like this separate, unknown entity where players’ careers go to die or to hang on to those last couple games. It is a league that is a functioning part of US Soccer, and I would argue one of the more critical parts of U.S. Soccer now.
Paulson: There was a real plan and a road map that Rob’s group and Alec had. On some level I’m not surprised. At the same time, soccer has grown so much in a relatively short amount of time in the four years since I’ve left the league. It’s crazy to think.
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