The United Soccer League, a second-division circuit with 33 teams and growing, is moving closer to expanding into both the Washington and Baltimore markets.
In an interview Thursday, USL President Jake Edwards said the league is working closely with groups in both areas. D.C. United would own and operate a team in Loudoun County, Va., with a likely debut in spring 2019, while unspecified investors are aiming to build a stadium in greater Baltimore for a 2020 launch.
United made its ambitions clear a few years ago but didn’t begin seriously pursuing a USL team until the Audi Field project in Southwest D.C. came to fruition. Last month, United and Loudoun County announced they had reached agreement to build a 5,000-seat stadium for a second-tier team, plus training fields and offices on 54 acres at Leesburg’s Philip A. Bolen Memorial Park.
On Wednesday, the county’s board of supervisors voted in favor of advancing the proposal to a possible final vote next week.
“A few moving parts on this project for those guys, and so it’s taken some time,” Edwards said from his Tampa office. “I’m sure we’ll get something done. Bit of work to do yet, but it’s getting close.”
The sides will meet again soon, Edwards said, “and try to get everything wrapped up.”
MLS has approved United’s efforts to run a USL team, said Mark Abbott, MLS’s president and deputy commissioner. The USL has yet to approve the D.C. and Baltimore bids.
“For what they are trying to achieve, I think it will be a good facility for D.C. United and a good facility for Loudoun,” Edwards said. “We have to look at what’s right for division-two soccer and what makes sense for the USL. I applaud what they are doing and what they are trying to do. I think it’s going to be a very nice complex.”
Several years ago, Loudoun County was slated to land a second-flight team in the North American Soccer League, a USL competitor. But plans to launch Virginia Cavalry FC as part of a baseball-soccer initiative in Ashburn fell through.
Nine MLS clubs own USL teams. The main purpose is player development and integration of playing and coaching philosophies. It’s also an opportunity to expand an organization’s brand with the same colors or names, such as New York Red Bulls II and Real Monarchs (Real Salt Lake). In the Memorandum of Agreement with the county, United said it aims to incorporate “Loudoun” into the team name.
D.C. would also conduct daily training sessions at the complex for the first team, B team and youth academy, and move all player-related activities to Leesburg from the RFK Stadium campus. Front-office personnel, such as marketing and ticketing, will move into Audi Field in May or June, the team says.
If the Loudoun project is approved and the USL grants the team in time for 2019, United would cut ties after this season with its longtime second-division affiliates, the independently owned Richmond Kickers.
Richmond, founded in 1993, would then become a regional rival with United’s B team and, if Baltimore is approved, be part of a growing USL presence in the Mid-Atlantic region.
“We’re looking to see where the gaps are, what markets make sense and where they can have success from a business point of view,” Edwards said of the USL’s national footprint. “D.C. United has a big pull, but to have teams in Richmond, Baltimore and Northern Virginia, I think people will want to attend those games” between the teams.
Edwards is bullish on Baltimore, a market in the mold of Cincinnati and Sacramento, the USL’s most popular markets. He said the league continues to work with the ownership group, and the stadium remains the primary hurdle.
“They’re getting quite close to finalizing the stadium location and stadium plan to present us,” Edwards said. “That’s the last point, really. Once we’re comfortable with that and we’ve crossed that hurdle, then we’ll be able to make an announcement.”
Edwards described Baltimore’s stadium plan as “fairly substantial — not a small, pop-up stadium.” He declined to go into detail. Of the Charm City market, he added: “Baltimore has a huge passion for the game. They’re going to do really well. We just have to get the right stadium and the right location.”
The USL will expand to Fresno, Las Vegas, Nashville and Atlanta this year. In addition, North Carolina FC and Indy Eleven have migrated from the struggling NASL. Future expansion includes Memphis, Birmingham and Austin in 2019, plus Chicago and Oakland in future years.
Meantime, Abbott and Edwards said the USL and MLS have discussed extending the relationship. The current pact expires in December 2019.
“We have a very positive relationship with them and look forward to extending the agreement,” Abbott said. “It’s a productive and strategic element to our player development initiative” with MLS-run USL teams playing weekly in a competitive league.
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