Travel Savings Hurt Sporting Integrity Of USL PRO Schedule

Written by Ian Thomson

Fans of United Soccer Leagues club Dayton Dutch Lions no doubt received a shock Thursday morning when the 2014 USL PRO division schedule leaked out ahead of the league’s official release.

Dayton was slated to host reigning USL champion Orlando City at 7 p.m. on June 22 – the same time that the United States men’s national team starts the second half of its World Cup group game against Portugal. The Dutch Lions’ game has subsequently been moved to a 3 p.m. kick-off.

Various anomalies remain in the schedule that leave this year’s USL PRO looking more like an assortment of exhibition games than a bona fide sporting competition.

Each of the league’s 14 teams will play a 28-game schedule – 26 games against USL PRO rivals and two against Major League Soccer reserve teams that also count toward their respective points totals.

Last year’s home-and-away system has been abandoned in favor of regionalized match-ups, although the single table is being retained. The top eight will qualify for the play-offs despite teams facing wildly differing schedules.

Table showing how often each USL club faces its rivals during the 2014 season. Read across rows for home games and down columns for away games.
Table showing how often each USL club faces its rivals during the 2014 season. Read across rows for home games and down columns for away games.

A conference structure was used by USL during its debut season in 2011 before switching to the single-table format. A return to two or even three conferences is surely now possible given the spread of the league’s 14 teams from California to the Carolinas.

The running costs involved in operating a third-tier franchise in a continent-wide league have already led to the disappearance of six teams during the USL PRO’s three-year existence. Puerto Rico United were removed one month into the 2011 season along with island rivals Sevilla F.C. and River Plate.

F.C. New York dropped to the National Premier Soccer League after the first year. Antigua Barracuda fell by the wayside after playing, and losing, every one of its 26 league games last season on the U.S. mainland. VSI Tampa Bay has also ceased to exist after its inaugural 2013 season.

Phoenix F.C.’s status was shrouded in uncertainty after USL issued a termination letter to the club last November after a debut season that saw the Wolves failing to meet the league’s minimum standards. A new ownership group has taken control of the franchise for 2014.

The Charlotte Eagles’ owners are reportedly in talks to sell their USL franchise rights to the city’s lacrosse team president, according to the Charlotte Observer, after struggling to cope with the demands of professional soccer.

USL’s response has been to reduce the travel burden on its clubs, even if the resulting schedule loses sporting integrity.

Expansion franchise Oklahoma City Energy F.C., for example, plays two home games against each of the league’s four western-based teams (Los Angeles Blues, Los Angeles Galaxy II, Phoenix and Sacramento Republic). The Galaxy, Phoenix and Sacramento also host their western rivals twice, but the Blues only host Oklahoma City once.

Richmond Kickers host Charlotte, Harrisburg City Islanders and Pittsburgh Riverhounds twice, while seven teams face a couple of opponents twice at home. Richmond’s schedule is also notable for its two opening home games – both against Pittsburgh within a two-week spell in April.

Neither Pittsburgh nor Charleston Battery travel to Los Angeles. Their westward swings take them instead to Oklahoma City and Sacramento for their only encounters with the two new sides. Conversely, Charlotte and Dayton face “double-headers” against the Blues and Galaxy during their trips to Southern California while Oklahoma and Sacramento travel to the Eagles and Dutch Lions for their sole meetings.

Location of the 14 USL PRO franchises competing during the 2014 season. (Source: Wikipedia)
Location of the 14 USL PRO franchises competing during the 2014 season. (Source: Wikipedia)

Part of the deepening ties between MLS and the USL involves top-tier teams being excused from the MLS reserve league if they loan players out to a third-tier affiliate. Ten MLS clubs have entered into a partnership with a USL team so far while the Los Angeles Galaxy announced Wednesday that it would enter its developmental team into the USL PRO.

That leaves eight MLS teams without an affiliation – Chicago Fire, Chivas USA, Colorado Rapids, F.C. Dallas, Montreal Impact, New York Red Bulls, Real Salt Lake and the Seattle Sounders.

Every USL club faces one MLS reserve team at home and one away during the year. New York Red Bulls are involved in five inter-league encounters (two at Red Bull Arena, three on the road) while the Seattle Sounders will only play two games (both at home).

There can be no assurance that the best eight teams in this year’s USL PRO will be fighting for the championship when its post-season starts in September.

Adopting conferences would at least have complimented the regionalized schedule. A five-team Western Conference with Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Sacramento and the two Los Angeles sides could include four meetings between each team (16 games), one game against every other USL PRO side (nine games), two inter-league games against the MLS reserves, and one additional return game against one of its non-conference rivals.

A five-team Northeast Conference with the Rochester Rhinos, Richmond, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Dayton could mirror this format with three of the five teams reaching the play-offs from each conference.

The remaining two play-off qualifiers would come from a four-team Southeast Conference featuring Charlotte, Charleston, Orlando and the Wilmington Hammerheads.

Perfect symmetry would still be lacking, but the top teams in each conference would have a stronger claim to progressing from their section with schedules more closely aligned.

Two more franchises in Colorado Springs and Tulsa are lined up to join USL in 2015, while other MLS teams can be expected to follow the Galaxy’s lead by entering their reserve team rather than affiliating.

Fans of the league hopefully will not have long to suffer its current imbalances.

USL did not immediately respond to an email from The Soccer Observer Friday morning requesting comment on the schedule after an initial telephone call.

 

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