All images unless noted: Steve Aibel, LittleOrcaSports.com / Pitch Black News
Just two days after New York Red Bulls II dismantled Swope Park Rangers in the 2016 USL Cup Final, United Soccer League announced its own victory over lower-division rival North American Soccer League. Announced Tuesday afternoon, former NASL clubs Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury FC will join the USL for the 2017 season.
Image: Kyle Mahnke
While slightly different circumstances, the announcements mark the second and third NASL markets to fall into complete control of USL since San Antonio Scorpions FC folded in late 2015. The two defecting clubs bring along very attractive stadium situations, passionate fanbases, committed owners, and establishes a team in the same city as USL league headquarters in Tampa. Multiple reports have indicated that most other NASL clubs have held discussions with USL about switching leagues, though not all have been in-depth discussions.
There is plenty of discussion to be had about the future of NASL, who are focused on finishing their 2016 season and on-going expansion, but we’ll save that for another time. Let’s instead focus on USL’s bullet train expansion and what it could mean going forward.
Image: Reddit.com/r/MLS , modified version of USL-created original
The 2016 season saw USL gain 6 teams and lose Austin Aztex to an ongoing hiatus, putting the league at 29 active teams. The Western Conference housed 15 clubs to the Eastern’s 14. Scheduling was geographically based, pitting some clubs against each other up to four times and others only once. For example, San Antonio FC played RGV Toros four times but only played Sacramento Republic once. Most Western teams didn’t play Eastern teams in the regular season.
The 2017 season will have format changes, as announced soon after the USL mid-season meetings. Among the announced changes, St. Louis FC would move back to the Eastern conference to help balance out the addition of 2017 expansion team Reno 1868 and all teams would play a more conference-balanced schedule, hosting and visiting each team in their conference at least once. After this announcement, Wilmington Hammerheads FC announced they would not participate in the 2017 USL season.
As of now, 2018 will see the addition of Nashville SC. At the rate the league is expanding it is hard to imagine there won’t be others, but nothing has been announced. Baltimore is currently rumored to be the landing spot of Wilmington’s USL franchise rights.
Obviously Tuesday’s announcements will have an impact on the announced plans for the 2017 season. Instead of 29 active teams in 2017, adding Reno and losing Wilmington, there will be 31. With Ottawa and Tampa both expected to join the Eastern Conference, it is questionable that St. Louis will move back to the East after all. Knowing that Nashville is slated to begin play in 2018, St. Louis moving to the East would put the 2018 Eastern Conference at 17 teams to the Western 15. With rumors of a Baltimore team entering and the stagnation of any Austin revitalization, St. Louis seems destined to stay in the West for now.
For now, USL’s USSF Division 2 application seems to be a done deal as the league continues to add clubs with stable ownership groups and strengthening partnership with MLS. San Antonio FC is unlikely to see either of the NASL defectors in the regular season, but it’s hard to imagine The Alamo City’s successful transition into the USL wasn’t something Tampa and Ottawa’s owners didn’t examine closely and find appealing.