Make no mistake. USL-1 is going to compromise or it is going to die.
The healthy franchises in USL-1 last season were, in roughly this order, Montreal, Portland, Vancouver, Rochester, and Puerto Rico. Montreal and Vancouver are being kicked out, Portland (who is part of the rebel alliance themselves) may soon follow and are already in MLS for 2011. Rochester has gone downhill both on and off the pitch over the last two years and have just lost their greatest rival in the Impact. Puerto Rico is constantly teetering on the edge of madness, trying to make a go of things on their little island in the middle of nowhere, and if you're relying on the Puerto Rico Islanders to keep your league up that league is already dead and you're just waiting for it to stop moving.
The new owners of USL-1 have fired a shot across the bow of any potential investor: you exist to serve us. You get no say in league operations or we will try to crush you. Have you heard Jeff Hunt's old excited noises about a USL-1 expansion team ever since Nu-Rock took over? Of course not, because Jeff Hunt is a businessman and he's not in the habit of lightning a couple million dollars on fire to keep some penny-ante company happy.
So USL-1 as we know it is going to die - maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but within the next couple years. Which may be what Nu-Rock was hoping for all along: the profitable parts of the United Soccer Leagues empire are the U-18 and Premier Development Leagues where the players are amateurs and the travel costs reasonable. As Canadian fans, though, this wanton self-destruction should worry us at least a little, for the USL-1 was also our best hope for B-grade markets getting high level professional football.
Yet there is an opportunity here. Sam of the Stretford End was, to my knowledge, the first to leap onto the bandwagon of a new Canadian soccer league (not to be confused - never to be confused - with the Canadian Soccer League). But there's a risk in being too ambitious here. Richard Whittall, a guru on the history of the Canadian game, observes that a Canadian soccer league doesn't necessarily need to be large so long as it's sustainable.
My goal is six teams. One division. Ideally all in the east, except for Vancouver in the short term. If a West division ends up being sustainable, fantastic. But the main objective here is to bring in successful organizations, people with money, and stadia with seats and get a league that can compete at a near USL-1 level by the summer of 2010.
My six teams would be:
- Vancouver Whitecaps, obviously. They would also be my sole western team, for a couple reasons: first off, the Whitecaps brand and reputation would be important to lend credibility to any new league, and second because the cost and difficulty of getting a league started increases massively as travel distance does. Vancouver has the motivation, the history, and the financial wherewithal to endure flying to and from Ontario for one summer.
- Montreal Impact, even more obviously. They can be an anchor of the league for at least two years and quite likely longer. They have an established fanbase and garbage bags full of money. They're a lead pipe cinch to be attendance leaders and, like the Whitecaps, their reputation means that the league would instantly be credible to the soccer media. Both the Whitecaps and the Impact would be encouraged to bring in their current rosters for the same credibility reasons, even though, as will be seen, that would basically guarantee one of them the championship for at least three years.
- Jeff Hunt's Ottawa team. Another guy with money and a building. No history or reputation here, but Hunt was planning to spend at a USL-1 level before so he'd likely be willing to spend at an approximately-USL-1 level now. I've got a lot of respect for Jeff Hunt as a businessman, and certainly he has the wherewithal to see an Ottawa franchise through the growing pains. This is by far preferable to elevating the PDL Fury, who can't draw flies and whose ownership is questionable at best.
- Toronto FC B. This might be a tricky one. Unless they can get BMO Field, stadia might be a problem. I'm not sure Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment would finance a high-level team unlikely to break even, and MLS would certainly put the kibosh on any formal reserve team deal. A proper reserve team, moreover, would not be competitive with Vancouver or Montreal. But if Toronto's looking for a way to spend money to improve their team without nudging the salary cap, sending a team of top prospects and not-quite-MLS-calibre veterans to BMO Field for high-level competition on a B team is a good way to do it. The team could be legally distinct from the MLS entity and contracts could be signed with TFC B or MLSE itself instead of TFC proper, avoiding hassles from Don Garber and company.
- Forest City London, our first USL PDL elevation. London played their first PDL campaign in 2009 and were a resounding success off the field. They're a well-run organization with good ownership and a lovely 8,000-seat stadium at the University of Western Ontario, which means they're arguably better off for facilities than Toronto FC B or the Whitecaps. The two problems are that they'd have to build their roster from scratch, maybe maintaining a couple exceptional talents such as Anthony Di Biase, and their pockets aren't too deep, meaning that the larger teams might need to pay a fairly heavy subsidy. It would be nothing, however, compared to the hit the Whitecaps and the Impact take to maintain the likes of Miami FC in USL-1.
- Pick 'em: somebody who's probably going to fold, anyway. From here we're out of the strong immediate candidates and into the realm of risky picks. The PDL Thunder Bay Chill would be attractive because of their history and organizational depth if not for their three-digit attendance. An attractively bold option would be elevating a better CSL team like the Serbian White Eagles, but this would obviously run into perils with ownership, stadia, team quality, and alienating the CSA. Finally, there'd be good ol' expansion; Quebec City has a larger soccer community than you probably think and would probably have USL-1 already if not for the Impact's territorial rights. Going further afield to Halifax or Winnipeg would also be possibilities that might not break the bank.
In the short term, this league would work. Except for Ottawa and our hypothetical sixth team, the infrastructure is in place for this league to start playing right now. Ottawa could get going immediately with a temporary home at Frank Clair Stadium playing around the renovations. Our sixth team would be flung into the fire a bit but if the rest of the league is in it to win it this would work. Even if Toronto and the sixth team don't pan out, that's four very reasonable organizations and leagues have been built with less.
Not enough for you? Well, there are a couple other bold possibilities.
- Rochester Rhinos. Think about it. They've always had plenty of success but they went bankrupt in 2008 and their new owner isn't exactly a multi-millionaire. Attendance has fluctuated wildly in recent seasons, and now they're being asked to play in a league where their biggest rivals and best meal ticket, the Montreal Impact, have left? Not to mention another strong franchise in Vancouver and likely a few lesser lights as well? They're near enough to the Canadian border for our purposes, and their ownership has no sentimental attachments to the United Soccer Leagues.
- Portland Timbers. Another short-term solution but another tempting one. Portland isn't as gung-ho towards rebellion as the Whitecaps or Impact but they're part of the rebel ownership group making Nu-Rock's life such a misery. With the Whitecaps gone the Timbers are left with no rivals west of the Great Lakes and they're heading up to MLS in 2011 anyway. They may as well get the best value for their one remaining season, and another year of Cascadia Cup derbies in a competitive league might well appeal to the Timbers instead of trying to thump whatever shambles of a USL-2 organization gets dragged upward.
In the medium to long term, we'd face the problem of elevating the Whitecaps and probably the Impact to MLS. They could pull a Toronto FC and send "B" teams down, but that's not a long-term solution to anyone and would erode the quality of play. Ideally, when Vancouver goes up they'd be replaced by another eastern team, and if the Impact moved up we'd start to creep west. The league could make do with four teams but to me six is the critical mass: few enough to breed rivalries but not so few that familiarity breeds contempt.
Over a decade or so, the league could creep west to other promising markets - Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, to name a few. The best part of this scheme is that it doesn't require anything we already have, and once a stable core has been built it'll be no problem adding onto that foundation.
Yes, I'm crazily optimistic. That's because I'm a Canadian soccer fan.