While the 2017 USL regular season is coming to a head on the field, with every team in the league in action this weekend as the race for the USL Cup Playoffs continues to build, the news off the field from this week’s USL Mid-Season Meetings in Chicago have started to plot the course for the league for the 2018 season, and beyond.
After the USL Board of Governors convened this week, here’s a look at four major topics that came out of the week’s events.
Photo courtesy David Calvert / Reno 1868 FC
The USL Board of Governors voted in favor of another expansion of the USL regular season, which will now see each of the league’s teams play 34 games starting in the 2018 season. That brings the league parallel with Major League Soccer’s regular season, and will ensure more than 500 games are played in the league’s regular season for the first time in its history.
The growth of the USL regular season has mirrored the growth of the league. Only five years ago in 2012, the USL was playing a 24-game regular season schedule that concluded in the middle of August, and saw the USL Cup Final played in early September. Now, the season will grow to 31 weeks, beginning a week earlier that this season in the middle of March, with four weeks of playoffs that will see the USL Cup Final Player more than two months later than in those early years. That growth in not only the league’s size, but also the length of its season, has been achieved through he raised standards that have brought the USL to a higher level of prominence domestically and internationally in the past three seasons.
Photo courtesy Keith Kountz / Fresno Football Club
The topic of expansion is always a closely-followed one within North American soccer circles, and the USL will continue its growth in the 2018 season, with three new USL clubs joining the league giving the league 23 in the 2018 season. The additions of Nashville, Fresno and the anticipated arrival of Las Vegas, where strong progress has paved the way for the city to be part of the league next season, will add to the league’s regional footprint across the United States, and add more strong ownership groups to the league as it continues to forge forward in its goal of becoming one of the top Division II leagues in the world.
Additionally, the 10 teams owned and operated by MLS organization are also set to return in 2018, with the potential of one more addition to the group pending final stadium approval, which would move the USL to 34 teams total for the 2018 season. The league’s growth beyond next season was also a topic of discussion during the week, as the league welcomed two further USL Clubs who are slated to kick off in 2019 were also in attendance at the Board of Governors meetings as the strength of the USL continues to attract experienced sports business entrepreneurs.
Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
While the USL Board of Governors elected to extend and expand the USL regular season in 2018, the league’s two-conference structure will remain in place next season despite speculation a third conference could arrive next year. With that said, the league’s commitment to moving to a three-conference structure when the time is right, allowing the USL to expand its regional structure and allow for rivalries to boom while also maintaining a major national footprint across the United States and Canada, remains strong. It’s likely the matter will be addressed again when the USL Winter Summit convenes in December after additional expansion announcements this year have taken place.
Photo courtesy Erik Schelkun / FC Cincinnati
As much as has been seen publicly in the growth in size and scope of the USL, most notably the full implementation of USL Productions this year, there is even greater work going on within the league’s Board of Governors and Business Strategy subcommittee to allow the league to capitalize on the higher visibility the league has achieved. As a result, commercial growth and media content were again major topics of discussion, with the recently launched USL Preferred Supplier Program in addition to new potential League Apparel and Ball partnerships and content distribution strategy all discussed over the week. With the USL continuing to see year-on-year growth in attendance, social reach and viewership, the league’s next steps could provide even bigger dividends down the road.