If approved, United would join a growing number of MLS organizations with direct involvement in developing young players in a competitive league and running a second pro team. This year, 11 of 20 MLS clubs fielded teams in the USL, a 30-member circuit two rungs below MLS.
A United spokeswoman said the club did not have any comment at this time.
The USL issued a statement, saying: “We have seen increased interest in the USL given the league’s steady growth, stable business model and level of high-quality play. While we do not comment on specific applications, continued expansion is part of our long-term [vision].”
United has begun a preliminary search for a playing venue, with Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds and the University of Maryland’s Ludwig Field under consideration.
The team has also spoken with officials at George Mason University about building a 5,000-seat stadium as the centerpiece of a permanent training facility for United’s senior team, USL squad and youth academy. Mason’s soccer teams would use the stadium and practice fields, as well.
Since 2013, United has partnered with the USL’s Richmond Kickers, an independent club founded 23 years ago. (MLS teams that don’t own USL squads are required to enter into such agreements.) The deal runs through next season.
Both D.C. and Richmond have benefited to some degree — United prospects get to play in formal matches and the Kickers gain roster help — but United is intent on running its own USL team in the immediate area, providing more opportunity to up-and-coming players and hiring a staff that aligns with the organization’s coaching philosophy. United and the Kickers would then become USL regional rivals.
United would model its USL operation after that of the New York Red Bulls, whose development of draft picks and homegrown signings with Red Bulls II led to a USL title this fall. Other MLS-owned USL teams have names such as Orlando City B, Bethlehem Steel FC (Philadelphia Union) and Swope Park Rangers (Sporting Kansas City).
In 2014, the Los Angeles Galaxy was first to dive into the USL, with Galaxy II, also known as Los Dos.
Drafted and homegrown prospects comprise only a small part of an MLS-run USL squad; most players are not contractually bound to the big club and can move to other MLS teams. An MLS club can also use the USL squad for senior players returning from injury or in need of playing time.
With membership growing and standards rising, the USL has applied for second-division status with the U.S. Soccer Federation, which sanctions pro leagues. The North American Soccer League has served as the second flight since 2011, but amid defections to the USL and financial issues, it’s in grave condition.
While some independent USL teams play in medium or large stadiums — FC Cincinnati drew 30,187 for a playoff game this year — most MLS-run squads use small facilities. Seattle Sounders 2, for instance, is based at Starfire Sports Complex, which also serves as the MLS squad’s training facility, located in suburban Tukwila.
If United does not identify a suitable venue for the USL team, it could opt to use the proposed stadium at Buzzard Point in Southwest Washington, a 19,000-seat venue tentatively scheduled to open in the summer of 2018.
Regardless of where it plays USL matches, United will need a modern training base for all of its teams. The team currently leases two fields next to Lot 7 at RFK Stadium. Players must walk or take vans from the locker rooms.
The city has suggested the St. Elizabeths campus in Anacostia, where, in the coming years, the Washington Mystics will play WNBA games and the Washington Wizards will practice.
United ownership is planning to spend between $150 million and $200 million on the Buzzard Point stadium, with the city committing $150 million in land acquisition and infrastructure costs. The amount the club will spend on the USL initiative is unclear, but by launching the second team, management is making good on promises to invest in development initiatives and broaden the organization beyond the MLS squad.