“The Winter Summit is one of our most important events of the year,” said USL President Jake Edwards. “It not only offers the chance for all of us to reflect, assess and improve on another tremendous year across all of our leagues, but also for team executives and staff to gain valuable insight from their peers. We look forward to seeing everyone together.”
Jake Edwards, USL President
Recap of the 2019 USL Annual Winter Meetings
Orlando, FL – Renaissance Orlando at Seaworld.
Dec. 10-12, 2019
This was the largest meetings in USL history. More than 750 team executives, staff members and technical staffs from USL clubs attended, in preparations for the 2020 USL Championship, USL League One and USL League Two seasons.
Three days of sessions and discussions. Programs for attendees that offer insights, new ideas and discussion platforms in the areas of operations, ticketing, merchandise, communications and social media among others. It is an opportunity for league personnel to hash out key decisions like potential expansion, rule changes, and other alterations to the future of the league.
The Winter Summit is one of two annual events with full-league attendance, with the other event taking place in the summer.
In the past, those mid-year meetings had coincided with MLS’s All-Star weekend. This allowed overlapping figures working for both MLS clubs and their USL affiliates a chance to catch both events. Moving forward, however, the USL will have its own midseason event without any MLS attachment.
Sale of Ottawa Fury’s franchise rights to The Miami FC, who will join the USL Championship in 2020.
This was the top topic of discussion among attendees at the event. At first it was a rumour as nothing had been announced on Tuesday, December 10. Once revealed, the consensus among those in attendance at the Summit was that Miami’s addition was great for the league.
Delegates discussed whether there is a growing disparity between the East and West conferences. The East appears to be more focussed on athleticism and “Route One” soccer, while the West is building a reputation as a more technical league.
The current lack of inter-conference play was a topic discussed. Currently, the USL Championship Final is the only competitive game of the year pairing teams from the East and West against each other.
Before this year’s final, Louisville City head coach John Hackworth was straightforward in calling on the league to create more chances for the two conferences to play against each other.
USL is exploring options in this regard. One easy possibility is a preseason game, like the Community Shield match in England, where the top teams in the East and the West would face off right before the start of the regular season. This game could take place as soon as this coming season.
Another request from clubs was to create parallel sets of awards to honour players and coaches from each conference. Under the current award structure, USL awards one MVP, one goalkeeper of the year, one defender of the year, one coach of the year, and a unified Best XI. Until there is inter-conference play, clubs want to see separate Eastern and Western awards. It also makes sense to honour more players and personnel given the size of the league.
New All-Star Game
USL is planning to hold its first all-star game this June. Formats are still under consideration. The talk coming out of the Winter Summit is that the most likely scenario is a roster comprised of players from across both of the USL’s conferences playing a foreign club. This of course is what MLS has done for years until scrapping it for the 2020 season and substituting in its place a matchup against the Liga MX All-Stars in 2020.
The inaugural USL All-Star Game would take place at Toyota Stadium in San Antonio, seen as one of the league’s best soccer-specific stadiums. It was one of many developments from a busy event in The City Beautiful.
The USL continues to be in growth mode. This year’s summit featured a new set of expansion-specific sessions for clubs that are either confirmed to enter the league or groups wanting to study the implications of associating with the league.
There were as many as 30 representatives from 19 planned or potential clubs at the winter summit. Most of these potential franchises would likely reside in League One, as that league has more growth potential. New members to League One for 2020 include reserve teams from the New England Revolution and Club Internacional de Fútbol Miami.
The meeting also provided some updates on the future of three clubs on hiatus. It is thought that the league is close to closing a deal to sell Fresno FC to a new group in Monterey, California (See story reported by The Athletic ). The new team would play in League One and likely kick off in 2021.
The Rochester Rhinos, also entering a second year of sabbatical, are believed to still have committed ownership and are on track to resume play in 2021.
There was no announcement at the Winter Summit about Penn FC. The club, formerly known as the Harrisburg City Islanders, were expected to play in USL in 2020. However, they have not found a suitable venue in the Harrisburg area and have ceased operations. The club no longer has any employees.
MLS Affiliates Evolution
Borrowing on the Real Monarchs’ model, two MLS-affiliate clubs are taking steps to differentiate or diversify their brand, instead of treating them as an outright reserve club of their parent organisation.
The Portland Timbers announced that T2 will be operated and hosted by minor league baseball’s Hillsboro Hops. The Timbers 2 have played to nearly empty crowds at Providence Park. Going forward they will play at Hillsboro Stadium, located 14 miles northwest of the Timbers’ home field. Sources indicated that the club would take a more ambitious approach on the pitch in 2020, hoping to replicate the title-winning formula of their Salt Lake City rivals.
Colorado Springs is taking steps to orient its identity to that of a team for the Colorado Springs area, with less emphasis on its relationship with the Colorado Rapids. The club had its stunning soccer-specific stadium plan approved last month by the city council.