USL Pro ties could lead to next expansion cities in MLS

While the new USL-MLS partnership may not necessarily result in "promotion-relegation" for American soccer, what if it led to just "promotion"?

Markets like Orlando, Phoenix, the Carolinas and lately even Tampa Bay have been the topic of MLS expansion chatter in recent months and those first-division dreams will only be fueled by the joining of forces between MLS and the third-division USL Pro.

As part of this new relationship, current MLS reserve sides will either move to USL Pro, face USL Pro clubs or in some cases affiliate with current USL Pro teams with the goal of creating a stronger and more competitive lower division in the USA. And, according to USL president Tim Holt, one of the byproducts will be new expansion candidates for MLS.

READ: MLS exec believes USL partnership can change soccer in the USA

"It’s a way to build the professional soccer base in a market and see where that goes, especially if that market potentially has the upside of becoming an MLS market," Holt said on a Thursday media teleconference call. "We have a few teams in our system right now which are aspiring to do just that. In no way does [teams moving to MLS] threaten us in terms of operating USL Pro and building a league.

"We understand the role we play in this and we think it’s a great opportunity and can be a pathway not just for players and coaches, but for markets and owners to move to the highest level of soccer in this country."

The USL has already seen four of its former teams make the jump to MLS: Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps, Portland Timbers and the Montreal Impact.

But despite the defections, USL Pro will still be at 14 teams by 2014, and that's without the potential addition of any MLS reserve teams. Holt believes that the MLS ties will lead to even further expansion, especially on the West coast.

"This partnership [with MLS] really has the potential, if done right on everyone’s part, to accelerate that league growth process," Holt said. "We do envision that that’s part of what could happen here and it’s a major opportunity.

"We think it’s a model [USL Pro] and approach that will resonate with prospective professional soccer team owners in markets where there hasn’t been professional soccer at least in the recent past. We’re excited about that potential aspect of things, but we need to work together with our partners at MLS to try to make that come to fruition."

READ: MLS and USL reach agreement on new structure for lower division soccer league

Although Holt wouldn't go into the financial details, he indicated that the USL will continue to ensure that any new USL Pro candidate teams pass the three-prong test: 1) a properly capitalized ownership group that believes in the USL model; 2) a market that can support pro soccer; and 3) a viable short-term venue.

Could the addition of new clubs and the association with MLS boost USL Pro from its third-division national status? The US Soccer Federation confirmed on Thursday that the tiers are already established for 2013: The North American Soccer League (NASL) is sanctioned as the US second division league and USL Pro will return this year as the third-tier league.

When contacted by MLSsoccer.com on Thursday, the NASL declined to comment on the new developments.

A US Soccer spokesman indicated that two different leagues have never applied for the same lower-division tier in the American soccer pyramid. The USSF's bylaws and policies establish the "professional league standards" which are required to be met as part of the annual sanctioning process for Divisions 1, 2 and 3 status.

Although making the jump to formal second-division status is not top of mind for USL Pro for now, it's also not out of the question.

"Every year we evaluate with our teams, our partners and with US Soccer where we are," Holt said about the annual sanctioning process. "We’re not consumed by what our divisional designation is below MLS or what anyone else’s is.

"We’re channeling our resources and energy into building the best possible league and the most sustainable professional soccer league model below MLS. And where it takes us over time is where it takes us over time."