Executives from the United Soccer Leagues and its member clubs encountered a very different geographic spread when planning this year’s USL PRO schedule.
Last year’s competition included 10 entrants from the eastern United States, the Los Angeles Blues and Phoenix F.C. from out west, and Antigua Barracuda from the Caribbean.
Close-season franchise additions and withdrawals altered that balance to nine eastern teams and five in the west, prompting the USL to ditch a home-and-away format for an unconventional regionalized schedule within a single table.
The imbalance is a necessary function of the league’s current footprint, according to USL PRO operations director David Wagner, and one that will hopefully be remediated by further expansion.
“The most important thing from a sporting and development perspective is getting players that can do well and move on up to Major League Soccer,” Wagner told The Soccer Observer.
“They can’t do that if their clubs are not around as businesses, so we’ve got to balance the financial concerns.”
Every eastern team embarked on a two-game road trip to Los Angeles and Phoenix last season. The addition of franchises in Oklahoma City, Sacramento and the Los Angeles Galaxy’s reserve side would significantly bump up travel costs if the home-and-away format had been retained.
“What we tried to do was keep the schedule as balanced as possible while having some regionalization that makes sense from a travel perspective,” Wagner said.
USL’s base formula involves its five western teams meeting each other four times, twice at home and twice on the road, for 16 of the 28 league games. Interleague match-ups with MLS reserve teams add another two games with the remaining 10 against eastern USL teams (with one opponent being faced home and away).
Eastern teams are set to meet at least twice with a third game against some rivals to complete the schedule.
“We kicked around some ideas where we had three divisions, but this is what the teams decided to go with this year,” Wagner said.
A major improvement in this year’s USL PRO schedule is the lengthening of the season by three weeks to cut down on teams playing twice on a weekend. Unlike in MLS and the North American Soccer League, USL will continue uninterrupted during the summer’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
“There’s a whole buzz during the tournament when people are excited about soccer,” Wagner said.
“So there are some positives from a business aspect from playing during that timeframe as well.”
Incorporating the interleague games posed another challenge for USL. Only two of the eight MLS teams without a lower-tier affiliate (Montreal Impact and the New York Red Bulls) are based on the same side of the country as the majority of USL PRO teams. The Pittsburgh Riverhounds resultantly travel to Real Salt Lake for a “local” match-up, while Orlando City treks to F.C. Dallas.
“We had more options last year because there were more MLS teams in the reserve league,” Wagner said. “There’s going to be some imbalance, but it’s going to trend in a more positive direction.
“We’ve already announced two new teams for next year in Colorado Springs and Tulsa and obviously there’s still time for more.
“If we reach the point where we can have equal numbers in different parts of the country then we have a host of possibilities – a playoff like what we’ve done in the past, or something more in line with traditional American sports with conferences.”
Jan. 31, 2014 — Travel Savings Hurt Sporting Integrity Of USL Pro Schedule
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