The league the Pittsburgh Riverhounds are a part of — United Soccer League (USL) — have expanded from 14 teams in 2014 to 24 in 2015 and 29 in 2016.
And more teams are coming.
NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury have jumped ship — and will be last-minute additions for 2017, along with Reno 1868 FC, whose team will be stocked with players from the San Jose Earthquakes in a manner similar to the Rio Grande Valley FC Toros’ relationship with the Houston Dynamo. Nashville will have a USL franchise that will join the league in 2018.
As things continue to be in constant-flux when it comes to expansion of professional soccer in the United States, it means increased expectations — particularly for all the teams in the aggressively expanding USL.
Not to mention, on Monday, a long-awaited Deloitte report (funded by current NASL Miami FC ownership) released its findings — making a case for promotion-relegation system in U.S. Soccer, although it could still be years in the making as even while the report acknowledges that while the system would benefit U.S. Soccer in the long-run, we’re not quite ready to adapt to that system.
In addition, the enormous success of expansion FC Cincinnati, which shattered all USL attendance records, has raised the bar within the league for many teams, including the Riverhounds, as the USL have put in an application for Division II status, the same that the NASL currently holds.
This all has triggered a mini-stadium construction boom with clubs working to meet new minimum stadium requirements for 2017.
The USL is asking that all clubs increase stadium capacities to a minimum of 5,000.
So, with that in mind, I made sure to reach out to the Riverhounds, to see what they’re doing about this.
“At this time we have currently met the expected league minimums for next season in regards to seat capacity and plan this upcoming fall to begin construction on meeting and exceeding the league minimums for seat capacity for the 2018 season,” said Anthony Meier, Riverhounds Director of Communications.
For soccer fans in Pittsburgh, that would seem to be welcoming news.
Some regular competitors of the Riverhounds over the years have decided to opt out, without the economic resources or capacity to expand, moving down to the lower 4th division Premier Development League (Charlotte Eagles, Dayton Dutch Lions, and now the Wilmington Hammerheads). The PDL is made up of elite college players looking for higher-level competition during the summer. The Riverhounds, by the way, already have a PDL (U-23) team.
The Riverhounds, who have a capacity at Highmark Stadium somewhere in the range of 3,500 to 4,100 (depending on how many standing room tickets they can sell), are now on the clock — and have to up the ante in order to keep up with expansion and high expectations.
The only problem with all of this lies in the harsh reality that the Riverhounds, after four full seasons Highmark Stadium, with its spectacular sight lines of the Golden Triangle along the Mon, have watched attendance incrementally decline, from a little more than 3,000 per fans game in 2013 to a little more than 2,000 in 2016.
As my colleague Mike Sparks, of Beautiful Game Network and fellow co-host of Pittsburgh College Soccer Show, points out in his recent column, the Riverhounds organization has conflicting priorities between the operations of the pro team and its Riverhounds Development Academy.
After clearing the hurdle of bankruptcy over a year ago, the Riverhounds under the ownership of Tuffy Shallenberger saw the pro team endure a difficult 2016 campaign on the field. Now the pressure will mount to see if they can make some progress on the field after a coaching change made in mid-season, as Dave Brandt will have a full off-season to prepare for 2017.
For now, things have been fairly quiet from the South Side in the two months since the end of the 2016 season.
Shallenberger indicated that he would hire someone to help coaching staff, now led by a long-time college coach Brandt, who took over the team in May, with personnel decisions.
We haven’t heard anything yet from the team on any additional staff being hired to help with personnel decisions, but they’ve already begun to pick up some available players — mostly younger players short on pro experience.
Off-season pick-ups include signing former Harrisburg goalkeeper Keasel Broome and two recent collegiate players John Manga and Ritchie Duffie. In addition, the Hounds also announced two more signings on Wednesday, adding forward Kay Banjo (a recent college player at UMBC) and defender Shane Campbell (who made eight appearances for Harrisburg in 2016) to one-year deals pending USL and USSF approval. Both contracts include a club option for 2018.
The Riverhounds Development Academy (RDA) has also been active in sending out information to promote its programs, and then on Tuesday, in conjunction with a conveniently newly formed non-profit called “Friends of Professional Soccer in Pittsburgh” they formally announced something that’s been in the works for some time, a partnership with Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County to build a soccer complex alongside the Montour Trail on 78 acres of land in Western Allegheny County.
While this is positive news for continued growth of soccer in our region — particularly on the youth level — it probably has little or no impact on the pro soccer team. Even if the non-profit’s name takes on the puzzling “Friends of Professional Soccer” moniker — when ultimately its purpose has little to do with pro soccer. To Sparks’ point about the organization and ownership having conflicting priorities, this is another example where the Riverhounds organization continues to streamline a lot of energy and resources toward building youth programs and facilities.
While I am not aware of all of the intricacies of the deal, I am sure that the Riverhounds Development Academy may be able to shift its operations primarily to this facility. As I indicated this summer, this may be an indication that the RDA will begin to further split from the operations of the pro team.
The concern here is that what type of investment is there going to be for the pro team in the immediate future? The team has no general manager or personnel director. There are only a few players signed to contracts. There’s been talk about potential make-over of the team’s identity, crest and a potential re-brand. Fans should have something to get excited about as the off-season builds — and right now the pro team seems inconsequential, while some other franchises are promoting season tickets and announcing signings of many returning players.
I’m sure there will be more news to come as the off season progresses. There will most certainly be a lot of signing news of more veterans and more recent college player become available, primarily during what is usually a busy period in late January and February after the MLS Super Draft.
U.S. Soccer Division II USL Application Under Review Dec. 6
USL President Jake Edwards recently told Soccer America that he expects U.S. Soccer’s pro committee to make its recommendations to the board of directors, which should take up the USL application at its Dec. 6 meeting.
“The vast majority meets or exceeds the requirements,” said Edwards.
The big area clubs must work on is getting their stadium capacities up to 5,000. “As a league,” Edwards said, “we’re giving them a deadline of next season.” That means clubs must present business plans detailing contractors and vendors, seat plans, timelines and costs.
While stadium requirement mostly affects all those MLS clubs operating second teams like the league champs, NY Red Bulls II, which were playing all home games at Red Bull Arena, home of its senior club. Still, even the Baby Bulls, which hosted the USL Cup final to a mostly empty Red Bull Arena, will move to Montclair State University, where the stadium will be expanded to 5,000 seats.
“Everyone has to meet the standards,” Edwards said, “whether they are an independent team or MLS second team, whether they have been in the league one year or 20 years.”
Edwards said it was “late in the game” for additional NASL teams to join. “We are set for 2017 with three great clubs coming in,” he said. “I don’t foresee any more clubs coming in.”
The three new teams will give the USL 31 for 2017 — Wilmington has dropped down to the PDL — and Nashville will make 32 for 2018. Edwards expects additional expansion in future years though the bar will be higher: all teams must have soccer-specific stadiums with a capacity of 8,000-10,000, which may move the timeline when clubs join the league back a few years.
The MLS Factor
MLS teams will have 12 directly operated USL franchises in 2017 — 10 second teams and two joint ventures (Rio Grande Valley and Reno).
“We don’t anticipate a big wave going forward,” Edwards said. “There will be no additional teams in 2017. In 2018, you may see one or two.”
The kind of relationship that Rio Grande Valley and Reno have — independently owned and operated on the business side but stocked on the technical side (players, coaches, staff) by the MLS club — is something there could be more of in the future — and something quite frankly, I have already suggested here on Pittsburgh Soccer Report as a viable option for the Riverhounds.
“That’s a model that appeals to some of the independent investors approaching us to join,” Edwards said, “and certainly appeals to some of the MLS clubs when you can get the best of both worlds.” He confirmed interest in Boise coming in the league and taking over Portland’s T2, pointing to the soccer ties the Timbers already have to Boise.
MLS clubs still have the option of affiliating with a USL team, sending a few players on loan — as the Columbus Crew did with the Riverhounds in 2016.
After posing the question to the Hounds as I was preparing this column, it appears that all signals show that the two sides will look to continue its partnership in 2017.
“We have an ongoing relationship with Crew SC and it is one that we expect to continue moving forward into the 2017 season,” Meier said.
According to Soccer America report, the investment in a USL second team is considerable — a minimum of $1 million — though there’s pressure for MLS clubs to use their USL team to fast-track the progress of academy players — and get them locked into pro contracts before a foreign club steps in and signs them.
The Riverhounds signed Chevaughn Walsh last year in mid-August. He’s a player who came from a relatively small college (Jefferson College, MO), was not on the radar during the MLS SuperDraft, and his stock rose after his outstanding goal-scoring run in PDL.
Clubs are moving academy players — high school players — to their USL teams — where they maintain their NCAA eligibility, at least until they enter college — and turning around and then signing them to pro contracts.
Auston Trusty went from a Philadelphia academy player to a Bethlehem Steel starter and then on to the Union’s game-day roster within the space of six months. The champion New York Red Bulls II started 17-year-old Kevin O’Toole, a rising high school senior and Princeton commit, on its 2016 USL championship team. Even the Riverhounds had 18-year old Ben Swanson, a Columbus Crew Homegrown Player, on their roster for the 2016 season, in which he made five appearances.
“There’s the risk of losing the players and having them poached by clubs overseas,” Edwards said. “You want to get them involved at the professional level as soon as possible.”
All of this is well and good, but what exactly is the USL’s identity? It seems as if it’s caught between a rock (being a developmental league for MLS teams) and a hard place (independent operating clubs determined to sell tickets and win Championships for local fan bases).
Most here in Pittsburgh would agree that a pro soccer team as part of what’s deemed as a developmental league will only curtail the franchise’s efforts to grow an already reluctant fan base.
NEW OWNERS POPPING UP
As the USL pushes forward and raises the bar in terms of stadium requirements, the pressure to attract new owners grows as current owners max out their commitment (financial or otherwise) to their clubs.
Four clubs changed majority owners in 2016: Rochester and Charleston, like the Riverhounds, both longstanding members of the USL, and Orange County and Arizona United, which were the first wave of expansion into the West.
Edwards hinted in the Soccer America article, that there might be one or two more ownership changes in the near future.
“What it says is that there is a constant drive to attract quality owners into the league,” Edwards said. “We need these groups to grow their clubs and the league.” At the same time, he said, departing owners must feel good about their investment. “We want to help owners walk away feeling like they have enjoyed the ride, built something, done something important for their community.”
Not too long after the disappointing 2016 season ended, Riverhounds owner Tuffy Shallenberger expressed to Pittsburgh Tribune-Review‘s Matt Grubba, that he’s invested in the team, and they’re not going anywhere.
“USL is going to end up being a second-division league, and we’re going to be there,” Shallenberger said.
And we’ll be watching closely, as hopefully the Hounds can begin the process of keeping up with the USL’s increasing standards.