It may come as a surprise to some, and not to others, but the Pittsburgh Riverhounds league, United Soccer League (USL), which has expanded to 30 teams with more on the way and was granted Second Division status by United States Soccer Federation in January, is now looking at a Third Division level league as soon as 2019.
Sports Illustrated’s Brain Straus reported on this earlier today.
This report is not a big surprise as the growth of pro soccer leagues in the US continue to be in constant motion with the size and scope of our Country, there’s still plenty of room for the sport to expand. And maybe even more so, for things to start taking shape in a way that makes more sense. The USL saw numerous franchises drop out or fall down to the fourth division in recent years that simply didn’t have the means to support a team in a league where there was significant inequity in facilities, budgets and fan support. Having a strong third division would provide an opportunity to level the playing field somewhat.
It may also provide a more even split in the current awkward structure that has many MLS second or “B” teams that have little or no fan support playing against independent franchises that either have been around for a while (like Pittsburgh, Richmond, Charleston, etc. ) and the newer independents with growing fan bases (Sacramento, Cincinnati, Louisville).
As Straus’ article points out, the split between DII and DIII most likely will evolve to one league being for franchises looking to draw crowds and win championships for their respective cities and fan bases, while the other are primarily trying to have a developmental league.
This is also nothing new to USL, which for many years ran DII and DIII level leagues. Now though, with the game’s growth really taking root, and more separation between franchises with bigger budgets and those focused on development, the coming split may make a lot of sense.
Depending on how things go for the Riverhounds and pro soccer in Pittsburgh in the next few years, it’s certainly possible that if they’re not meeting attendance and stadium requirements for the Second Division, the Third Division could be become an option, and they become an even stronger affiliate with Columbus Crew, serving as a developmental side. I know some local fans don’t want to hear that, but how the Hounds perform both on and off the field in the coming year or two may either dispel that notion — or see the reality that they may end up back in the Third Division.
Still, current Riverhounds ownership appear to be wholly committed to seeing that pro soccer in Pittsburgh be positioned to be a steady Second Division-level franchise.
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.
Sure enough, by January, the Hounds and the USL landed into Second Division.
Another intriguing prospect in all of this would be once all the pieces are in place, and U.S. Soccer has three solid divisions, that the reality of promotion and relegation may come into play. For economic reasons, it may never happen between the 1st and 2nd levels, but maybe it becomes a part of the USL’s two-tier make-up.
All of this is fun to speculate, but what today’s news signals, is to be prepared for more expansion and growth in the coming years for pro soccer in our country.
It should be fascinating to see how it all unfolds.
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