United Soccer League, the organization that brought professional soccer to Louisville, is actively gauging whether there is enough interest in Lexington to establish a lower-division franchise that would begin play here in 2019.
Steven Short, vice president of USL Division 3, visited Lexington on Tuesday and Wednesday talking up his organization’s plans to establish a third-tier league with Lexington as one of its founding franchises.
“It was very positive,” Short said of his tour of Lexington. “I heard in several meetings that Lexington is right for professional soccer. Youth soccer is continuing to grow in the region. Obviously, there are some strong clubs in the area, some strong supporter groups. I even learned that several individuals have season tickets to USL teams in Louisville and Cincinnati.”
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Short said it was too early to announce a potential ownership group or where a Lexington team might play, but his visit included attending the Tuesday and Wednesday Lexington Legends baseball games at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.
“We’ve got the facilities,” said Lexington Legends president Andy Shea, indicating the team would embrace a soccer tenant. “That is our business model, whether it’s concerts or the wrestling that we’ve had. We can do it. We’re excited. ... We’ll be soccer guys for sure.”
Louisville City plays its games at Louisville Slugger Field, the primary home of the Louisville Bats baseball team.
Since 2011, the USL has more than doubled its number of teams to 30, including the addition of Louisville City FC in 2015 and FC Cincinnati in 2016. Louisville averages about 7,000 fans per game and recently announced plans for its own stadium. Cincinnati has more than 11,000 season ticket holders and has topped 20,000 fans for a number of its games. It’s spending $2 million to modify the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium to better accommodate soccer. A Nashville franchise will begin play in 2018.
The University of Kentucky men’s and women’s soccer programs have earned national rankings and NCAA Tournament appearances in recent years in a renovated stadium. Last season’s matchup between the UK men and Louisville Cardinals drew a crowd of 2,863. The women’s matchup in that rivalry drew 3,371 fans in 2015, a UK soccer record. Those kind of numbers and that type of excitement are what interest USL in Lexington, Short said.
Its rapid expansion and recent success elevated USL to “second-tier” status this year behind Major League Soccer in the U.S. Soccer Federation’s developmental structure. By becoming a second-tier league, it has left a vacant third tier in its wake. On March 30, the USL announced plans to fill it.
Lexington would be part of USL’s new Division 3 league. Much like baseball’s minor league development system, U.S. soccer has its own minor leagues but, until recent years, it has not been as well organized as what the USL has put together since 2010 when the league was briefly decertified.
This would not be Lexington’s first professional soccer team. In the 1990s, the Bluegrass Bandits briefly held third-tier status in one of the organizations that preceded USL. Lexington has had a number of other minor league franchises in hockey, arena football and even basketball over the years, but none have remained viable.
If the players weren’t out there, I don’t believe the league would be pursuing this initiative. We’re still developing players that, hopefully, one day, will lead the U.S. to more World Cup victories and more MLS victories and more USL victories. So, absolutely, we believe the players are out there.
Steven Short, vice president of USL Division 3
Short said since 2010, USL has a proven track record of success and a business model it believes it can replicate in smaller markets.
“It all starts with financial responsibility and the proven model that USL’s built,” Short said. “Unlike baseball, a USL team is responsible for paying their players, so that’s not passed along. When you look at someone operating in a market, whether it’s Lexington or another location, financial viability becomes key. … Building it year over year on this responsible financial model, built on regional rivalries, I believe it’s very sustainable.”
And the growth of soccer in the U.S. has created an opportunity to pay and develop more players, he added.
“If the players weren’t out there, I don’t believe the league would be pursuing this initiative,” Short said. “We’re still developing players that, hopefully, one day, will lead the U.S. to more World Cup victories and more MLS victories and more USL victories. So, absolutely, we believe the players are out there.”
But creating a third division goes beyond player development, it would also help develop the game, Short said.
“We see USL Division 3 as the foundation for professional soccer where professional players will begin, but also where we can create an access point to professional soccer for the more than 75 million people in the United States without direct access to professional soccer,” Short said. “It’s an opportunity for players to gain more access, for future executives, referees and for markets as well.”
Cary Tsamas served as general manager for the old Bluegrass Bandits in the mid-1990s. He has been a part of the Lexington soccer community as a youth coach for decades. The prospect of a new pro team in Lexington is encouraging, he said.
“It’s a definite sign of soccer growing,” Tsamas said. “More people are accepting it. More people are looking forward to it. ... I think it would be great. I think the biggest challenge would be what the challenge was for us. And that was: How do you make it an event?”
USL Division 3: USLd3.com