From popular USL franchises to a club that has never taken the pitch, some USL clubs are in trouble. Due to single ownership, low fan attendance prior to the pandemic and the pandemic itself; some USL Championship clubs face a dark future where they may not exist anymore in the next couple of seasons. Let’s take a look of who is safe to who is in danger of folding. The USL Championship is a league that is still evolving and stabilizing. The lone exemption is Sacramento Republic, who’s fate is known and will be joining the MLS in 2023 along with St. Louis City SC.
Clubs that are MLS club operated teams and are considered safe:
These clubs receive funding from their Major League Soccer parent club and are now considered as a part of the Path to Pro pipeline for youth players in their academies and fringe players on their perspective MLS rosters to get valuable minutes.
Atlanta United 2, Loudoun United (DC United), LA Galaxy II, New York Red Bulls II, Philadelphia Union II, Portland Timbers 2, Real Monarchs SLC (Real Salt Lake), Reno 1868 FC (hybrid affiliate of San Jose Earthquakes), Sporting KC II, Tacoma Defiance
Independent clubs that are in a healthy status:
Birmingham Legion –
Large and diverse ownership group along with a growing fan base
Charleston Battery –
The oldest continuously running professional soccer club in the US. Under new ownership and playing in a new site. Have made the USL playoffs 12 years in a row and last won the USL Championship in 2012.
El Paso Locomotive –
Passionate fan base with appeal across the border and good ownership
Indy Eleven –
Still have MLS aspirations, play at Lucas Oil Field with plans to build a soccer specific stadium in downtown Indianapolis. One of the tops in attendance in the USL
Las Vegas Lights –
Just a few years ago, Vegas had zero professional sports teams. Now they boast an NHL team, a WNBA team, the Raiders and a professional soccer team known more for it’s promotions than product on the field. A excellent fan base that sells out most matches.
Louisville City –
Quickly have become the most successful club in the USL and a model for all clubs. Came in 2015 and immediately made noise making the conference finals in there first two seasons, won the USL Cup in 2017 and 2018 and were runner ups last season.
Memphis 901 –
A large ownership group that includes Tim Howard which want to bring a Championship to the city and have it grow similar to what has happened in Atlanta.
The Miami FC –
Started life in the now defunct NASL for the 2016 season, they also played in the NISA before joining the USL Championship for the 2020 season after franchise rights were transferred from the Ottawa Fury who left the USL. Have strong ownership with Riccardo Silva, who is a major advocate for Pro/Rel
New Mexico United –
a popular club that made a crazy US Open Cup run in 2019 and the most popular club in the USL since Cincinnati averaging over 12,00 per match. This club isn’t going anywhere.
North Carolina FC –
Been around since 2011, were the Railhawks in the NASL days before rebranding and joining the USL. Owner Steve Malik also owes the NWSL team the Courage.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds –
Similar to San Antonio FC, had aspirations to join MLS by 2023. They play at Highmark Stadium on a scenic riverfront, currently a 5,000 seat stadium which is expandable to 18,500 if they go MLS.
Phoenix Rising –
One of the most popular clubs in the USL with a passionate fan base and with a large ownership group with includes Drogba and DJ/music producer Diplo; this team is still looking at MLS as the ultimate goal.
Tampa Bay Rowdies –
A long storied history, playin in a historic USL stadium. From being a flagship NASL team they are also a flagship USL club.
Queensboro (expansion franchise) –
The expansion side will start play in 2022 and will be the first USL team to pay inside NYC city limits and is backed by soccer world star David Villa.
Clubs with a small chance of folding:
Charlotte Independence –
Could Independence be a casualty of MLS coming to Charlotte in 2022? The club has been around since 2015 with attendance under 1,800 every year and two playoff appearances.
FC Tulsa –
Re-branded this season after years futility and waning fan interest as the Roughnecks. The team is much improved in 2020 and under new ownership. Biggest question will be if FC Tulsa continues it’s success will fans return to pack ONEOK Field in 2021?
Hartford Athletic –
With the Hartford Sport Group comprised of local Hartford businessmen and one of the few USL clubs allowing fans, the team appears to be financially stable but they did spend some money to improve a team that only had 8 wins in their first season. If this had been a normal season, the club would be in excellent position with improved talent on the field but with the pandemic and reduced fans in attendance due to social distancing protocols, can Hartford get a return on investment for 2022 and beyond?
OKC Energy FC –
OKC Energy has a consistent fan base but only one owner in Robert Funk Jr who is owner and president of Prodigal, a local sports, entertainment and special events production and marketing company. During these times one ownership could be weak sign for a club finances which could lead to folding.
Orange County SC –
Have made the playoffs 6 out of 9 seasons, have seen their fan base grow every year from the four hundreds in year one to a little over 3,100 per match as the club is always a dark horse contender to win the USL Western Conference. So why is there a chance of the folding? Comes down to ownership, which is under single ownership James Keston and the affiliation with LAFC ended in 2018 after two seasons. If James Keston personal business venture starts to suffer under the current pandemic he could decide to fold or sell the team.
San Antonio FC –
Currently San Antonio FC is enjoying a successful 2020 season on the field has strong support from the fans with about 4,000 season ticket holders, consistently top 10 in attendance and considered a top market in the USL Championship. But with SS&E (Spurs Sports and Entertainment) as the ownership, it makes some people nervous that San Antonio FC may not have much of future. SS&E just saw it NBA Spurs end their 22 year playoff streak, sell it’s minor league hockey team to a group in Las Vegas and sold it’s WNBA team to another unrelated Las Vegas group a few years ago. With the pandemic affecting SS&E’s bottom line, a failed MLS bid where they will owe Bexar county and the city of San Antonio money for not successfully becoming a MLS expansion team could see SAFC fold or be sold to new ownership.
Teams in danger of folding in the next two seasons:
Austin Bold –
The club is owned by Bobby Epstein who also owns the Circuit of the Americas and the amphitheater and with the pandemic cancelling concerts, the Formula One Grand Prix race and other events. Epstein appears to have taken a financial hit in 2020. Almost seems like the Bold took a hit when General Manager Roberto Silva was let go as a part of layoffs in May. It’s no secret that Epstein has beef with Anthony Precourt over the controversy of bringing a MLS franchise to Austin. Austin FC is set to start in 2021 and what interest there was in the Bold as an alternative to MLS may wane. Bold should be taking the field in 2021 but it could be doubtful down the road.
East Bay USL (expansion franchise) –
Who? You may be asking that question when you saw the name. Well, it’s been an interesting yet sporadic short history of a club without a name, crest, players or stadium that is supposed to start play in the Oakland, California area in 2021. Back in 2017, Mark Hall (a local developer) acquired the rights for USL Championship franchise in the bay area, with the promise with a 15,000 seat soccer specific stadium. After the announcement, however, East Bay USL remained mostly quiet until January 2019 when the city of Concord gave the go ahead for a soccer complex along with apartments, hotels and shops. After that news and update went dark until May of this year. The city of Concord decided to not go foward with the stadium development plan leaving East Bay USL homeless. “Hall Sports Ventures, a division of Hall Equities Group, planned to build the stadium as part of a larger mixed-use development. The company said a combination of the current economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic, along with community opposition, led to the decision.” according from a report from SFGate.com. This club may fold before it ever had a chance to take the pitch.
Rio Grande Valley FC –
A club with a hybrid affiliation with Houston Dynamo, there were rumors flying at the beginning of the year that the partnership could end and the club would move down to USL League One in the next two seasons. There has been nothing official from the club or the Dynamo.
Attendance prior to the pandemic had drop almost 50 percent from 2017 to 2019 from 7,068 to 3,812. The Toros have also had little success in making the playoffs with there only one appearance in there first year back in 2016. If the Dynamo hybrid affiliation ends, will current owners the RGV Vipers want to continue porfessional soccer in a region that has shown little interest in USL soccer and an area currently suffering from the pandemic..
St. Louis FC –
With MLS side St. Louis City SC coming 2023, it seems that the USL club may not be back.
First reported by Jeff Rueter of The Athletic, The USL has given St. Louis FC has until the end of the month to tell the league whether or not it will return for the 2021 season. Sources say “players and staff alike have come to a grave assumption that this will almost certainly be the end,” Rueter reports.
St. Louis FC have strong supporters with the St. Louligans and a soccer specific stadium with a capacity of 5,550 in Fenton about 20 minutes from downtown St. Louis with near sell outs for every home match. But there have been subtle signs of the possible looming demise. Since St. Louis FC came into the USL, they have bounced back and forth between USL conferences, giving them no continuity with rivals. Also had a affiliation with Chicago Fire that ended in 2017. Also Toyota did not renew its stadium naming rights this year.
With MLS St. Louis coming in 2023, a couple possible options could happen: 1. likely the team will fold 2. possibly the club could move to a new USL market 3. ownership sells the club 4. Ownership takes a chance and continues in St. Louis which looks right now as the most unlikely scenario.