USL Championship & League One – How Relegation Of MLS-Owned Teams Will Affect USL

On July 18, 2019, The Athletic’s Sam Stejskal reported that USL is considering dropping all MLS-owned USL Championship teams down to USL League One by 2021. Before we dig deeper, go ahead and follow Sam on Twitter, he’s a great and reliable source for MLS transfer news and subscribe to The Athletic. Also, here’s a link to his article.

Anyways, upon hearing this news, I was both delighted and intrigued. Back in February, I gave my thoughts on USL and everything that I think could be improved. One improvement I called for was the relegation of MLS-owned USL affiliates to USL League Two, the 4th division. I’m glad to see that MLS reserve teams will not be in the Championship anymore, even if they are only dropping down to League One and not League Two.

There are, however, a couple of things that need to be addressed before this ‘forced relegation’ can take place. The majority of MLS-owned affiliates tend to struggle in USL Championship, but there are notable exceptions. Portland Timbers 2, or simply T2, are doing quite well in the Championship’s Western Conference and then there’s, of course, the New York Red Bulls II, the most successful MLS-owned affiliate. NYRBII won the Regular Season Title and USL Cup in 2016. It is definitely a bit unfair that these two will have to drop down to League One, but I don’t think it will have that big of an impact on the development and level of play of their youngsters.

Forcing teams to drop down to a lower division is also not a good look, but I doubt that will bother the higher-ups at USL, especially when you consider that only having independent teams in the league will greatly improve the average attendances in the Championship.

Richmond Kickers (right) were one of the 1st teams to drop down to L1 (Source, Jessica Stone Hendricks Photo)

A great question that a Twitter user posed was: “What will happen to hybrid teams like RGV and Reno?”. Well, there you have to look at it on a case-by-case basis. There are currently 6 independent MLS affiliates in the Championship – Colorado Springs Switchbacks, Rio Grande Valley Toros, Reno 1868, San Antonio FC, Tulsa Roughnecks and Ottawa Fury. (there have also been rumours about an Indy Eleven – Chicago Fire affiliation, but there was no official press release)

I, personally, think that Colorado and the Toros should also drop down to League One and the other teams should stay in the Championship, but that is just my own personal, subjective opinion. Then there is the outlier – Ottawa Fury. Ottawa seems to be stuck in limbo, currently. Will Ottawa join the Canadian Premier League or will they stay in USL? That has been a hotly debated topic of discussion in the soccer community and, as of right now, it seems as though Ottawa will not be joining the CPL. If they are, in fact, going to stay in USL, then they should also stay in the Championship, in my humble opinion.

Now then, enough chit-chat about boring stuff, let’s get to the thing that everybody is here for – PICTURES, well they’re not really pictures, they’re just screengrabs of a spreadsheet…but you get what I’m saying.

USL Championship & League One in its current form

This is what the Championship and League One look like right now. Left: Championship (36 teams). Right: League One (10 teams). Red: MLS-owned affiliates. Green: Independent affiliates. FC Tucson: Owned by Championship side Phoenix Rising.

Next up is a screengrab of what USLC and USLL1 could like in 2021. MLS-owned affiliates and some independent affiliates have been relegated to League One. Confirmed and strongly rumoured expansion sides have been added.

Things that are missing:

  • Charlotte/Phoenix’s rumoured MLS Expansion
  • Teams from smaller markets also dropping down to League One
  • The rumoured return of MLS-owned affiliate Vancouver Whitecaps 2
Championship and League One in 2021

Left: Championship (26 teams). Right: League One (26 teams). Red: MLS-owned affiliates. Green: Independent affiliates. Orange: Confirmed expansion teams. Yellow: Rumoured expansion teams. FC Tucson: Owned by Championship side Phoenix Rising.

Queensboro FC replaces San Antonio FC as New York City FC’s affiliate. Nashville, Sacramento and St. Louis have joined Major League Soccer. It has been reported that USL League Two side Des Moines Menace is looking to join the Championship, thus I have included them despite concerns over the size of the Des Moines soccer market. League One will be split into two conferences.

As I mentioned earlier, I have not taken into account the possible MLS expansion of either Charlotte or Phoenix. On paper, it would make more sense for MLS to select Phoenix, but from what I have heard it seems as though Charlotte is the slight favourite right now. Another thing I haven’t taken into account is the potential relegation of teams from smaller markets. Some potential candidates include:

  • Tulsa Roughnecks – small market, low attendances
  • Austin Bold – Austin FC will join MLS. Austin Bold could struggle to get people to come to their games and their average attendance is already pretty low
  • Des Moines Menace – small market
  • Charlotte Independence (if MLS expansion falls through) – worst average attendance of any independently owned team in the Championship
  • Charleston Battery – I struggled with this one. They are an iconic team, but that didn’t stop the Richmond Kickers from dropping down to League One, so why should it stop Charleston? The Battery has one of the worst average attendances in the league, but they are building a new stadium which could see bigger crowds come to games. I’m not sure about this one.
Charleston Battery players celebrate their victory vs Hartford Athletic (Source)

There are still unanswered questions. There have been rumours of a New Orleans team joining USL, when will that happen? Will we ever see iconic teams like the New York Cosmos or Detroit City in USL? Will other teams follow the Des Moines Menace in going from League Two to League One or the Championship? How many teams will be in USL in, say, 2022 or 2023? And, of course, the big question – will there ever be promotion/relegation in USL?

These are all questions I cannot answer, but who knows, maybe in a few months or years, we will know more. This is definitely a very interesting topic and I will be keeping a very keen eye on further developments regarding Championship and League One expansion. USL is a very confusing league, but I hope I gave a good rundown of how the league could look come 2021.

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