Though our current time, one made up of equal parts uncertainty and frustration, continues to be both uncertain and frustrating, American sports leagues have grown tired of waiting. The NWSL, MLS, and both professional tiers of the USL have all announced detailed plans to restart soccer in the United States.
While both the NWSL and MLS have opted for a centralized playing model, with teams traveling to Utah and Florida respectively to play in league-wide tournaments, the USL has taken a different approach to their on-field return. Instead of setting up shop at a single location and having teams from both conferences fly in for a lengthy tournament, the USL Championship is keeping its teams in their home markets for a 16 game regular season.
Why did the USL choose to deviate from the models established by the NWSL and MLS?
Well, largely because having 35 teams, many of which were already on tight budgets before a pandemic wreaked havoc on the United States’ economy, fly in from all across the country and house players and staff members at one location wasn’t feasible.
“We knew it [the centralized tournament approach] was really unrealistic for the USL just from a financial standpoint,” Phoenix Rising head coach Rick Schantz said over Zoom on Wednesday. “Not all the teams in the league could fly and put their players in a hotel for 30 days straight. It’s just, it’s unrealistic.”
While keeping teams in their home-markets may add to the everything is back to normal facade that is sweeping across large sections of the United States, it saves money by eliminating a massive un-budgeted expense. For the USL, a league that was at risk of losing some of its teams during the pandemic, saving money is critical.
“I don’t think anybody would be shocked if it was some [USL franchises dissolving during COVID-19],” Phoenix Rising co-owner Brandon McCarthy told The O and Joe Show in April.
The USL Championship’s return to play model splits its teams up into eight different groups. Each team will play half of their 16 games at home and most of the other half against a group of set near-by opponents. The 16 game schedule, of which Phoenix will play 15 because they already played one match against Portland Timbers 2 before the season’s postponement, presents the option of local governance allowing fans to attend USL games.
While Arizona’s reported number of positive COVID tests continues to rise, Phoenix’s need to generate ticket revenue remains strong.
“If we can’t get fans in the stands, finances are very tough,” McCarthy said. “We’re not a large sports league in the sense that there is a large TV contract washing over everything that kind of helps mitigate all this. We’re much smaller and people being in the stands is a big deal for us.”
However, according to General Manager Bobby Dulle, Phoenix Rising hasn’t decided whether a limited number fans will be allowed to attend their seven remaining home games.
For the coaching staff, the 16 game (15 for Phoenix) regular season creates its own set of challenges.
“[The shortened season is] very, very difficult,” Schantz said. “The [opponent] has a lot of knowledge about who you are, and the way your team plays. And the more you play an opponent it’s just inevitable that they’re going to figure out a way to tie or beat you.”
Schantz referred the the mythical “third game” repeatedly on Wednesday’s Zoom call, trying to make it clear just how challenging playing the same opponent not once, not twice, but three times in a single season is. Phoenix will have four of those third games, one against each of their four group opponents: Las Vegas Lights, Los Angeles Galaxy II, and the two California SC’s, Orange County SC and San Diego Loyal SC.
On paper, there could be some more challenging matchups in Phoenix’s three out-of-group games, which are currently against unknown opponents. Reno, Real Monarchs, and El Paso are dangerous on the field, but they won’t be “third game” opponents, making those games a little easier for the players, Schantz, and his staff.
Between third games, an unmade ticket-revenue decision, and the responsibility associated with navigating a historically unique time, Phoenix Rising have plenty of obstacles left to clear before USL’s return on their provisional start date of July 11th.