Baltimore is in prime position to land an expansion team in the United Soccer League, a fast-growing, second-division circuit one level below MLS.
USL President Jake Edwards told the Insider on Monday that league executives will meet with the Baltimore group, as well as local officials, in the next two weeks to continue discussions about the expansion bid and tour potential sites to build a stadium.
“It’s moving along nicely,” Edwards said. “I think it’s going to be a tremendous success in Baltimore.”
Asked if he thought expanding to Baltimore seemed almost certain, Edwards said: “Yes.”
Baltimore is among eight markets to submit applications to begin play in 2019 or ’20. The league is deep in talks with the eight and, if they meet standards and conditions, all would enter the league.
Separately, the USL expects this summer to finalize deals with Las Vegas and Fresno, Calif., to join in 2018 and Birmingham in 2019. Previously announced, Nashville will start next year.
The USL has thrived in markets such as Cincinnati, Sacramento, Louisville and San Antonio.
This season, the USL features 30 teams, with about one-third owned by MLS clubs. In January, the U.S. Soccer Federation granted provisional Division II status to the USL after six years in the third tier. The struggling North American Soccer League, which is down to eight teams, is provisionally Division II, as well. The USSF will revisit the leagues’ status in August.
Edwards declined to identity the backers of the Baltimore campaign but said a “very successful local businessman is at the forefront of the group” and that it plans to build a stadium and launch a youth academy. The minimum seating capacity for second-division teams is 5,000. Last year, in its expansion season, FC Cincinnati averaged 17,296.
Last fall, the owners of the Wilmington (N.C.) Hammerheads explored relocating to Baltimore but eventually folded the USL side and invested in an existing team, the Harrisburg (Pa.) City Islanders.
D.C. United has also submitted an application to the USL to operate a team in the lower flight. The organization is exploring stadium opportunities in Northern Virginia as part of a large project that would also include fields and facilities for the first team and youth academy. George Mason University in Fairfax and Loudoun County are the early candidates.
United broke ground this winter on a 20,000-capacity MLS stadium at Buzzard Point in Southwest D.C.
A lower-tier team would end United’s affiliation with the USL’s Richmond Kickers and allow it to have direct oversight of staffing and player development in a single location. Such a team could begin play at a temporary location next year, but 2019 seems more realistic.
“We continue to work through that project with D.C. United,” Edwards said. “I know they’ve got a lot going on right now with the new [MLS] stadium, but they did submit a nice application to us. It might take a little bit longer than all parties expected, but they remain committed to it.
“They’re going about it in the right way. They want to do things at a very high level, so if that’s means we go from 2018 to ’19, that’s fine. No one’s in a rush.”
A second United team might end up with other MLS-operated squads in a third-division league that was recently proposed by the USL to launch in 2019. The first priority, though, is to identify smaller markets to make up the foundation of the new league, Edwards said. About a dozen have shown initial interest, he added.
“We’re going to attack this the same way we’ve built the USL into an extremely competitive D2 league,” Edwards said.