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United Soccer League kicks off season with six new teams and high hopes

In this May 1, 2012 photo, San Jose Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop leads practice in Santa Clara, Calif. The United Soccer League, bolstered by the addition of six new teams and the likes of former Canadian national team coach Frank Yallop and U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer John Harkes on the sidelines, kicks off its new season Friday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-San Jose Mercury News, Patrick Tehan
March 24, 2016 - 12:01 PM

The United Soccer League, bolstered by six new teams and some high-profile off-field additions, kicks off Friday.

With plenty of ties to Major League Soccer, including clubs owned by the three Canadian MLS franchises, the 29-team league opens with high hopes for continued growth.

"Exciting times," said league president Jake Edwards.

"We are building here the highest level of competition on the field outside of Major League Soccer ... Our goal is to be one of the very best second divisions in the world," he added.

New this year are Bethlehem Steel FC, FC Cincinnati, Orlando City B, Rio Grande Valley FC, San Antonio FC and Swope Park Rangers.

Bethlehem Steel, Orlando City B and Swope Park are operated by the MLS' Philadelphia Union, Orlando City SC and Sporting Kansas City, respectively. The ownership group behind FC Cincinnati includes former Reds owner Carl Lindner while San Antonio FC is owned by Spurs Sports & Entertainment and Rio Grande Valley is run by the NBA Development League's Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

The 29 teams include 11 owned and operated by MLS franchises: Bethlehem Steel, FC Montreal, LA Galaxy II, New York Red Bulls II, Orlando City B, Portland Timbers 2, Real Monarchs SLC (Real Salt Lake), Seattle Sounders FC 2, Swope Park Rangers, Toronto FC II and Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2.

Ten others have MLS affiliations: Charleston Battery (Atlanta United FC), Charlotte Independence (Colorado Rapids), OKC Energy FC (FC Dallas), Pittsburgh Riverhounds (Columbus Crew SC), Richmond Kickers (D.C. United), Rio Grande Valley FC (Houston Dynamo), Rochester Rhinos (New England Revolution), Saint Louis FC (Chicago Fire), Sacramento Republic FC (San Jose Earthquakes) and Wilmington Hammerheads FC (New York City FC).

The league has added some star power in the coaching ranks with two-time MLS coach of the year and former Canadian national team coach Frank Yallop at Arizona United, U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer John Harkes at FC Cincinnati and Marc Dos Santos, 2015 NASL coach of the year with Ottawa Fury FC, at Swope Park Rangers.

Diplo, a Grammy-winning producer and DJ, is part of the Arizona United ownership group.

Edwards says league franchises range from US$3 million to almost $20 million in value but declined to discuss profitability.

Teams will play a 30-game regular season with the top eight in each conference advancing to the playoffs.

"There's no easy game .... Every team is going to be a challenge," said Harkes.

"The league is extremely competitive ... It's a tough league, it's a good league and it continues to get better," said L.A. Galaxy II coach Curt Onalfo.

FC Montreal hosts Bethlehem Steel to open the season Friday — admission is free at Olympic Stadium — while Toronto FC II visits the New York Red Bulls II and Vancouver Whitecaps FC II play at the Orange County Blues FC in two of 11 games Saturday.

The USL offers a variety of different club cultures, from developmental teams for MLS clubs to more established teams with veteran rosters.

Toronto FC II's 19-man roster features 10 teenagers.

"Being one of the older guys on the team, I'm looking to adopt more of a leadership role," said defender Skylar Thomas, who is all of 22.

The idea is to have everyone playing on the same page.

"The club philosophy is the same, whether it's the first team straight down to the under-12s," said Toronto FC II coach Jason Bent. "We want to be playing the same kind of football so the transition is seamless."

Still each week can be a different challenge.

"Absolutely and I think that's what makes it great," said Onalfo. "As a player you have to deal with different circumstances. Sometimes you're playing on a turf surface. sometimes you're playing on grass. Sometimes you're in the heat, sometimes you're in the cold. And all those things help players get better.

"But I think the thing that needs to be stated is how good the league is."

Onalfo points to 25-year-old Daniel Steres, who is now starting at centre back for the Galaxy's first team.

"He was our most consistent player over the last two years in USL. Which basically makes the statement that there's probably a whole bunch of other guys that are in USL that could be starting in MLS or be playing significant minutes."

Forward Mo Babouli, who made the jump to Toronto FC from TFC II, has already drawn rave reviews.

Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney says the progress his youngsters have made from last year to this year has been "massive."

"The gap between our first-team players and our up-and-coming players is getting smaller and a lot of that, to me, is due to the USL league."

Rochester is the defending USL champion having beaten L.A. Galaxy II 2-1 after extra time last October. None of the Canadian teams made the 2015 post-season.

The league, which has no salary cap restrictions, allows seven international players per team.

Canadian players count as domestic players in the USL and do not count against the international player slots. At least half of the players on a Canadian team roster must be Canadian citizens or landed immigrants.

While the USL strengthens its ties with the MLS and applies for second-tier soccer status in North America, the rival North American Soccer League continues to strike its own path. The 11-team NASL, whose membership includes FC Edmonton and Ottawa Fury FC, kicks off its season on April 2.

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News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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