United Soccer League, an ambitious third-tier circuit that is thriving in several medium and large markets, is eager to place a team in Baltimore for the 2018 season, multiple sources told the Insider.
The most promising scenario has the Wilmington Hammerheads moving from the North Carolina coastal town to Charm City, taking a year off for marketing and logistical purposes and beginning play under a new name in 2018 at Towson University, which is located 10 miles north of downtown Baltimore.
Johnny Unitas Stadium, home to Towson football and lacrosse, seats 11,198 spectators. The field would remain artificial turf but need a new surface so lines and logos could be removed and reapplied as necessary, depending on the sport. Towson’s lacrosse teams play from February to May, the football team from September through November. The USL regular season runs from late March to late September.
The league has also fielded inquiries from separate potential investors with Baltimore ties, making the city a candidate for expansion as well as relocation, one source said.
The city has a long history with indoor pro soccer (Baltimore Blast) and briefly flirted with D.C. United, when the MLS club was seeking a new stadium before deciding to remain in Washington. Crystal Palace Baltimore was a third- and second-flight team between 2007 and 2010 before discontinuing operations. Poorly managed, it played at numerous venues and averaged 900 spectators.
Wilmington, USL and Towson officials said they did not want to comment for this story.
The Hammerheads have enjoyed a 20-year run, but based in the smallest of the league’s 29 markets, they have struggled to keep up with the USL’s rapid growth. If they were to leave, the Hammerheads name would live on in the Premier Development League, a fourth-level summer circuit for college-aged players.
Wilmington is among the four oldest organizations in the USL, joining the Richmond Kickers, Charleston Battery and Rochester Rhinos.
Among the possible names being floated for a new team is FC Baltimore and Baltimore FC. Aside from Towson, the University of Maryland Baltimore County emerged as a possible home venue, but the sides couldn’t work out a plan for major renovation of the small grass facility in Catonsville.
Wilmington’s owner, George Altirs, lives in New Jersey and holds a stake in two German clubs, second-division Wuerzburger Kickers and third-flight Duisburg. He founded the Cedar Stars, an elite youth club competing in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, as well as New York-based Capelli Sport, which outfits Wuerzburger, among other teams.
Altirs fits the profile of a well-off owner who could finance a team in a bigger market, such as Baltimore, and in a league where team budgets have tripled since 2013.
In recent years, the USL has expanded to Cincinnati, Louisville, Phoenix, Sacramento, St. Louis, San Antonio and Tulsa. Nashville will join soon and Austin could return from hiatus.
In its inaugural season this year, FC Cincinnati is averaging about 17,000 fans, which is more than five teams in first-tier MLS. The public’s response has caught the attention of MLS for a future expansion candidate and strengthened the USL’s belief that it can succeed in larger markets. Sacramento led the league in attendance the previous two years, averaging about 11,300. Orlando was atop in 2011-13, which helped springboard the club into MLS last year.
For player development purposes, all 20 MLS teams have a USL affiliate. D.C. United, for instance, is aligned with the Richmond Kickers and the Hammerheads serve New York City FC. It’s unclear what NYCFC would do while a Baltimore team is dormant in 2017.
Eleven MLS teams own their USL affiliate, such as New York Red Bulls II, the USL regular season champions this year.
While the MLS-owned USL teams are focused on providing a competitive environment to groom young players — some games attract fewer than 1,000 fans — the other clubs see business opportunities while developing talent.
The independent teams are averaging 4,601 fans this year. The overall league average is 3,402. With one home regular season game left (Sept. 24 vs. Richmond), Wilmington is drawing 2,971 at 6,000-capacity Legion Stadium.
As it grows, the USL is eager to raise its status. Last year, the league applied to the U.S. Soccer Federation for sanctioning in the second division, joining the North American Soccer League. The USSF allows two leagues to function separately in the same classification. Without a promotion-and-relegation system between divisions, such an arrangement would cause few disruptions.
In order to meet second-division qualifications, 75 percent of the teams must be located in a metro area with 750,000 residents or more; all stadiums must accommodate at least 5,000 fans; and the principal owner must have a net worth of $20 million.
The federation is planning to vote on the USL’s proposal this fall.