The Seattle Sounders and Tacoma Rainiers announced on Tuesday their new rebranding campaign for the Sounders 2, which will culminate with a new name (and eventually redesigned colors and badge) for the USL side. Originally, the Sounders and Rainiers partnered up for a move to Tacoma in 2020, but circumstances (cough) led to that relationship being consummated earlier than expected. The good news was that they were able to successfully convert Cheney Stadium into a usable soccer venue while the stadium deal progresses. The bad news is that accelerated timeline meant they couldn’t rebrand the team to coincide with the move to Tacoma.
With that issue on its way to being resolved, the other question centers around what league the team will be playing in next year. Currently, the Sounders 2 plays in USL, which is of course the only Division 2 league operating (for now) in the United States. USL has exploded in recent years, with 33 teams playing in 2018. In 2019, seven (!) more teams are set to begin play, though they are set to lose (at least) three teams, with Cincinnati heading to MLS, and Toronto II as well as the Richmond Kickers moving to the newly-formed USL 3.
Those reasons range from cost to competition level, as teams like Toronto II are focused more on development, not necessarily marketing or putting butts in the seats. If you’ve got a team full of 17-20 year-olds fresh out of the academy, chances are they’re going to struggle against full-grown men. The struggle (as the kids say) has been real for the Sounders 2 side over the last 18 months; Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey noted they had just recently gone from “actively bad” to “somewhat fiesty.” While that may seem damning with faint praise, it does raise the question of whether USL is the proper level in the context of what the Sounders are willing (and able) to do. So, I asked them. But first, a look at USL 3.
USL 3 is set to be the third-division offshoot of USL, to begin play in 2019. There are currently eight teams announced to play in 2019, mostly in the South and East (the Rochester Rhinos are set to come online in 2020).
FC Dallas is also widely expected to announce a USL 3 team soon. There have also been rumblings that other MLS teams with USL affiliates (or “B”/”2” teams) may drop down to USL 3 before all is said and done.
As noted above, the reasons for MLS teams having their USL affiliates move down to USL 3 are varied. Some will have to do with cost.Running a Division 2 side isn’t particularly cheap, and you have to comply with the professional league standards, which require a proper stadium with sufficient seating (5000), along with other financial considerations. At the Division 3 level, those issues are somewhat mitigated. Take a look at this chart which outlines the cost of running a USL 3 side (which I’ve confirmed is legit as an official document).
Setting aside how you may feel about those specific line items, the operating expenses are going to be less than at the Division 2 level (to say nothing of the fact it now costs $7 million to purchase a USL Division 2 franchise). As it pertains to the front office staff, you’ll probably see a much smaller group, with a few intern/volunteers sprinkled in. The amount of money spent on players will depend partly on the philosophy of the MLS teams in developing players. To get good academy prospects in your USL side, you’re still going to have to pay to get them under contract, no matter what division you’re going to play at. A really good prospect who may have overseas interest, or a player with a scholarship offer to a prestigious school, will still cost you money.
There is also the issue of the level of competition. While Division 2 teams do beat MLS teams fairly frequently, and lower level teams beat USL teams (or even MLS teams) in knockout tournaments, over the course of a season, these things average out. The prospect of having one’s MLS B/2 team losing to Division 2 teams on a week-in week-out basis takes a toll on the psyche of young players which populate MLS affiliate teams, as well those people who come out to watch the team get pounded every week. So there is something to be said for finding one’s level in the lower-division ecosystem.
There is also something to be said for trying to set up a team that can operate on its on and be self-sustaining. The Sounders 2 in Tukwila were lucky to average four-digits per game in attendance towards the end; since moving to Tacoma, attendance is up around 200% from last year. With a new stadium, perhaps they can get their average up near 4,000 per game, which means you’ve got a team that can basically fund itself and perhaps even make a profit, in addition to developing the Sounders stars of tomorrow.
So all of that needs to be taken into account when determining what is the appropriate level for a MLS B/2 side. Having spoken with the Sounders, a spokesman confirmed to me that the Sounders 2 (well, whatever they eventually end up being called) will compete in the second-division USL league in 2019.
Reading between the lines a little, the feeling I got behind this decision from the Sounders end is that (in no particular order): 1) There is no significant cost savings for the Sounders/Rainiers between USL/USL 3, 2) Given the location of the USL 3 teams, the increase in the travel budget would eat up much of those savings anyway. One look at the map for USL teams in Division 2 in contrast to the above USL 3 map explains that.
3) The Sounders believe (based on the interview Garth gave to The Athletic) in the next 18 months or so as the academy talent begins to fully mature, they’ll be able to compete on the field at the Division 2 level, 4) With a new stadium and branding, the team will be self-sustaining, or reasonably close to it, 5) The USL Division 2 setup more closely aligns with their vision for the future with said new stadium/branding. That is, if the team is reasonably competitive and you’ve got 4000+ fans in a new stadium with new gear and a team with a local South Sound flair, then there is no reason to drop down to USL 3.
Certainly they could change their minds down the line, but dropping down a level means it’s unlikely they could return, given the increased cost of playing at USL Division 2 (would they have to pay the franchise fee again, for example) If the Sounders and Rainiers think they will be able to build their brand and be competitive on the field in short order, then it makes sense to stay where they are.