Thursday, May 16, 2019

New USL structure, strength of minor league soccer benefiting Revolution

By Zachary Baru

With the 2019 soccer season upon us for multiple leagues, the strength of minor league soccer is tremendously benefiting clubs across the country, including our own Major League Soccer franchise in Foxborough.

The "American Soccer Pyramid"

The New England Revolution are the highest level of soccer in New England as part of the so-called American soccer pyramid, but fortunately for soccer in the region, there are plenty more teams that help create a true minor league system for development for the Revs and all MLS clubs throughout the country.

The improved structure and stability of minor league soccer in the United States starts and ends with the United Soccer League.  The USL is an organization that operates several soccer leagues throughout the United States.  As of 2019, it is the only organization in the U.S. that runs professional minor league soccer, after the North American Soccer League cancelled its 2018 season and has since been on hiatus.

A Changing Soccer Landscape

After the 2017 season, the United States Soccer Federation, more commonly referred to as U.S. Soccer, lowered the NASL's status from the only Division II league to the only Division III league.  The NASL did not return for a 2018 season, and is currently on hiatus.

The changing landscape may not have been good for the NASL, but for several clubs in New England, the changes have helped shape the soccer structure both in the region and nationally.

In New England, the USL has seven franchises in two different leagues - USL Championship and USL League Two.  Six of the seven New England teams are in USL-2, with the one regional USL Championship team in Hartford.  USL-2 teams in New England include the Boston Bolts, Western Mass. Pioneers, Black Rock FC of Great Barrington, Mass., Seacoast United Phantoms of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, AC Connecticut of Danbury, and GPS Portland Phoenix. 

New League, New Opportunity for Minor League Soccer

Over 11,000 fans attended the inaugural Hartford Athletic
game in April 2019 at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field.
The new organizational structure is what is really helping these New England teams in terms of long-term potential.  With all of the changes happening in minor league soccer in 2018, the USL responded with a new league format for 2019.  For starters, it's name.  The organization dropped the "s" from its name, changing its name from the United Soccer Leagues to the United Soccer League.  This changed its top leagues' name from the United Soccer League to USL Championship, differentiating the name of the organization from the name of the highest league.

The 2019 season brings both a new name for the league, and an expansion team for USL Championship to Hartford, allowing New England to have a U.S. Soccer-sanctioned Division II league franchise for the first time since the Connecticut Wolves in 2001, which left the then-named A-League that year.  The USL has changed many of their leagues multiple times, changing the A-League to the USL First Division in 2005, then to USL Pro in 2011, to USL in 2017 and now USL Championship in 2019.

The Growth of Soccer in New England

With seven franchises throughout the various USL leagues, New England is one of the higher-represented regions, which really speaks to the state of soccer throughout New England.  With so many minor league teams in the region, fans are able to see live, professional and semi-pro soccer up close and in their local communities, greatly benefiting the Revolution.  While some areas in New England may be far from Foxborough, not allowing fans to go to as many Revs games as they would like, having USL teams throughout the region truly allows soccer fans to engage with the sport.  The more engagement fans have, the better chance they will stay a fan, and become an even stronger supporter of the sport.

With the current state of both MLS and the USL very strong, the Revolution are in a great position to use this rich soccer environment in New England to grow their fan base, and rise up in the rankings of the crowded and competitive New England sports scene.

Source: United Soccer League, Hartford Courant

Zach Baru can be followed @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.

Friday, March 8, 2019

"Whalers Night" brought something special to TD Garden

By Zachary Baru

Officially it was not "Whalers Night", but throughout the TD Garden Tuesday night, it was 1997 all over again.  That was the last season the Whalers played in Hartford before moving to North Carolina.  But a decision this season by the Carolina Hurricanes to hold a "Whalers Night" in Raleigh featuring vintage Hartford Whalers jerseys followed by a game in Boston to again wear the famous Whalers green allowed fans to unofficially declare Tuesday Night in Boston their own "Whalers Night".

For New England hockey fans, it was something special.  Hearing chants of "lets go Whalers", a following of faithful fans making the trip from Connecticut wearing Whalers green, and a very rare opportunity to see the Bruins once again wearing their white jerseys at home made for a unique atmosphere at TD Garden.

Since the 2003-04 season, National Hockey League teams typically have worn white jerseys only on the road, with the exception of certain situations.  Tuesday night was not only reminiscent of seeing the Bruins in their traditional white home jerseys, but also gave fans an image they have not seen in 21 years - Whalers green on Boston's home ice.

Tuesday night was an occasion seldom seen in sports - a "promotion" during an away game.  The Hurricanes franchise deserves credit for paying homage to a historic New England rivalry, and even doing so while not on home ice.



After a 4-3 overtime win for the Bruins, Tuesday night brought out the best in hockey.  A game that had the feeling of 1997, paying tribute to 18 years of an intense regional rivalry, but also showcasing the exciting brand of modern hockey we see today.  Had this game been played the last time the Whalers existed, the game would have been played with 5 skaters during overtime instead of the 3 skaters per team now used, a rule that has been enacted to increase goals during overtime.

Anyway you want to put it, Tuesday night was an exciting night for hockey fans.  A night only made possible by a Carolina franchise bringing back the sight of a classic, special New England rivalry.

Zach Baru can be followed on Twitter @zbaru and reached at zachbaru@gmail.com.