Even if you don’t know which league they play in, I’m sure you’ve heard of FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich, yes? Patriots, Yankees, Atlanta United FC, whether you love them or hate them you know who they are. This is important for any business model: have a recognizable brand. The USL being home to Division 2 professional soccer in the United States is no different. And for almost 3 years now FC Cincinnati has carried the mantle, becoming a beacon of growth for lower division soccer here at home.
But the times have changed and Cincinnati is now in line to become home to the next MLS franchise. Their departure leaves a gaping hole in USL headline marketing. Just look at the website after an FCC game, the front page is plastered with orange and blue. The league needs a new headliner. So, who will become the face that runs the place? Who should it be? Follow me as we go on an adventure to see which of these journeymen will grab hold of the Division 2 U.S. soccer mantle. Here are my top 5 potential heirs to the FC Cincinnati throne:
- Indy Eleven – Indianapolis, IN
Indianapolis is a clear favorite to garner some serious Division 2 soccer leadership support. They’re the new team in the league, but they come prepared with a huge following. Their look, ownership, and marketing all warrant any soccer supporter’s attention. And they just spawned into the hot-bed of soccer culture that invaded the American Midwest. But there are pitfalls.
While Lucas Oil Stadium is simply beautiful, it is the true home of the Indianapolis Colts, not the Eleven. Even when record attendance occurs, it still feels like a giant cavern overwhelming the beautiful game below. The yellow boundary lines on the field are blatantly second thought additions that underwhelm those of us hoping for a legitimate soccer environment. It’s not a mood killer, but it’s always in the back of your mind. The face for the division should set the standard, and in the field regard, Indy is far behind. To be fair, it’s still better than their previous home.
Nevertheless, Indy Eleven has already made a profound impact in their first year in the USL. The former NASL member was widely regarded as the biggest addition to the league this season. Their home opener showdown against FC Cincinnati drew more than 18,000 fans – nearly besting the debut of recently announced MLS expansion franchise Nashville, who played their home opener in fellow NFL home, Nissan Stadium.
Their logo is stunning, their supporters are loud, and if they continue to make noise I just don’t see how people can’t gravitate towards them. But until they establish themselves as a legitimate contender alongside the likes of the local top tier franchises, they’re more like Indianapolis leftovers than American soccer leaders.
- San Antonio FC
10 years ago, no one took soccer seriously in Texas. At least, no one outside of Texas thought that Texas took soccer seriously. But now, they’re fighting for teams outside of the state! (#SaveTheCrew). With Houston and Dallas fielding MLS teams, and D1 expansion being a hot but finite commodity, the incredible growth of soccer here has taken the form of many USL teams arriving in the area. As it stands, San Antonio FC is the leader of the local group, also featuring/expected to feature: Rio Grande Valley FC, Austin (2019), and El Paso (2019).
San Antonio is doing so many things right. Most importantly, their local support is drumming up a steady average of 7,000+ fans a game. Along with this, they have a beautiful home in Toyota Stadium that promises plenty of growth. With their future looking bright, and their neighborhood packed with rivals, San Antonio should be a strong contender for Division 2 soccer leader.
- Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
Last year, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds were an embarrassment to the league. Some of the worst branding I have ever seen coupled with a deteriorating stadium made for a lackluster road trip to the Steel City. But then, something changed. The team was rebranded with a modern black and yellow crest, joining the ranks of historically successful local franchises. And top soccer coach Bob Lilley was signed to lead the young Riverhounds (now SC) to create a legitimate championship contender.
While their soccer specific stadium (SSS) used to be a huge detriment, they’ve finally updated the venue, taking advantage of the incredible location and creating the crown jewel for the USL. They sit right on the Monongahela river that overlooks the glorious city skyline, and the fans are even treated to an occasional train chugging along. I often find myself wanting to travel to Pittsburgh every time I watch them host a match on ESPN+. With their beautifully re-imagined identity, respect for their local roots, and stunning home, Pittsburgh has very little they need to become the beacon of hope for Division 2 American soccer.
But, there is one thing they’re missing. It’s a big one too. Support. After their transformation and the stadium updates, Pittsburgh still only manages to draw little more than 2,000 fans a game. The 9th worst average attendance in the league is far behind the support top tier teams need just break even financially. Worst of all, these numbers are less than they averaged last year. This drop off could just be due to the rebrand, but I’ll remain skeptical. Nevertheless, if Pittsburgh can market the team well and begin to fill Highmark consistently, they’ll jump higher up my list. But as of now, they still need to prove they’re worthy of representing the same city as the Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates.
- Las Vegas Lights FC
Llamas, Freddy Adu, half-naked jersey reveals, and maybe Usain Bolt? There is no such thing as bad marketing. And with their dedication to do whatever marketing strategy pops into their heads, Lights FC has created a Division 2 soccer phenomenon, albeit a weird one, that I’m fairly sure you’ve heard about. Overtaking Cashman field to become its primary tenant, owner Brett Lashbrook created a dynamite environment drawing the endorsement (and sometimes ire, but nevertheless the attention) of soccer supporters around the globe.
The results are astounding as well. Registering an average attendance of roughly 8,000 per game, Vegas is drawing in the Top 5 of the league in their first season – even while at the bottom of the table. What this reveals to me, along with their wacky style, is that Las Vegas possesses the “it” factor all headliners need. That could be partly due to their “new” factor, but I think they’re the real deal. All you need to know is that soccer lovers live in the city of sins.
I have two major reservations about Lights FC that keep them at #2 on this list. While there is a ton of potential, the organization has yet to prove that this is a franchise seeking quality talent to win championships, and not an amalgamation of gimmicks to make a quick buck like any other sideshow. Number two, Las Vegas will need to compete for support directly against the Knights (NHL) who recently finished a very remarkable #2 in their inaugural season, and the incoming Raiders (NFL) franchise. Soccer is still a secondary sport in America, and Las Vegas Lights FC could very well struggle to stay afloat in the race for support among larger, Division 1 local teams.
Tampa Bay Rowdies, Phoenix Rising FC, Sacramento Republic FC, Fresno FC
I’ll take a moment to say that I believe Tampa Bay, Phoenix, and Sacramento are all MLS expansion favorites, so I didn’t want to bother talking more about them since this is a Division 2 focused list. Fresno just didn’t make the cut for other reasons, however I do believe they’re an underestimated team.
- Louisville City FC
Louisville, as it stands, is the perfect example on how to run a top tier Division 2 soccer franchise. They’ve consistently fielded a championship caliber team; their logo is arguably the best in the USL; their marketing has concreted them as a recognizable brand for all soccer supporters; they’re consistently among the top teams for average attendance; and they’ve confirmed plans to create a state of art, 11,300+ capacity, soccer specific stadium in the local Butchertown neighborhood.
But even the best in the league have their weaknesses. You see, although their number one rival, Louisville often finds themselves on the shoulder of Cincinnati’s soccer giant. And this isn’t to put Louisville down. Objectively speaking, Cincinnati’s rise to MLS has simply overshadowed Louisville’s undeniable success in the lower division. In the same way the rivals hated one another, they also helped each other grow. But now they’re being separated. Louisville will have to find its own path. While there is plenty of potential for further development, new relationships, and perhaps another league leading rivalry, it feels as though the immediate future will be attempting to fill the huge gap Cincinnati leaves.
Beyond this, we need consider if Louisville will remain as consistent when their team finally valleys and they’re at the bottom of the table for once. Can Louisville continue to draw crowds, selling out their jewel of a stadium? I’m hesitant because Louisville isn’t a large, well-known city. They’re successful because they put in an extraordinary amount of work. That’s tough to constantly provide. But we’re talking right now, and due to those efforts, Louisville controls their own destiny. The long time hated rival of the USL’s most renowned team will now decide for itself if it will take the throne of Division 2 soccer it rightfully inherited.
Did I get it right? Have a different opinion? Share it in the comments below!