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USL League One kicks off inaugural season, thinks big

Tormenta FC's players at a ceremony Wednesday ahead of their USL League One season kickoff Friday night. (Photo courtesy South Georgia Tormenta FC)

South Georgia Tormenta and Greenville Triumph kick off a new era for American soccer Friday night when they square off in the inaugural match of USL League One.

USL League One is the new third tier of the United States soccer pyramid, two levels beneath Major League Soccer and one under the USL Championship. League One contains 10 teams — nine in the United States, one in Canada — five of which are affiliated with existing MLS clubs.

“One of the main goals of USL League One is to bring soccer to cities that haven’t had it before,” said Ryan Madden, vice president of communications for USL. “Success for this league is seeing that passion and seeing the game grow.”

That could be why South Georgia and Greenville were picked to launch the new league in its maiden season. Officials are expecting a packed house at Eagle Field in Statesboro, Ga., for the 7 p.m. ET match. Madden said upward of 300 Greenville supporters will also make the nearly 200-mile trip to the Savannah suburb.

South Georgia just broke ground on a $25 million soccer-specific stadium. Greenville is coached by former United States men’s national team captain John Harkes.

“We see both teams as regional rivals, and I think they do, too,” Madden said. “In a lot of ways, both teams, in terms of the investments they’ve made into training and coaching, they are a model for what we want USL League One teams to be.”

In other action for USL League One’s opening weekend, the Richmond Kickers host Lansing Ignite on Saturday; North Texas Soccer Club hosts the Chattanooga Red Wolves; and Orlando City B hosts FC Tucson. Toronto FC II and Forward Madison FC start their seasons next weekend.

Before a ball has even been kicked, one of USL League One’s defining characteristics has been its desire – and ability – to execute on big ideas. Aside from involvement of MLS clubs, many teams, besides Greenville and South Georgia, have invested tens of millions of dollars into infrastructure and training. All games will be streamed live on ESPN+, while the league in general has put together an aggressive media and awareness campaign.

Clubs take their branding seriously and have earned major plaudits, including for Wisconsin team Forward Madison FC, which kicks off its first season in baby blue and hot pink kits, a fun color scheme that has been all the rage with fans.

Like its counterparts across USL League One, Forward Madison – as its name suggests – is forward-thinking. It is affiliated with MLS’ Minnesota United, has a marquee friendly planned for this summer against the Bundesliga’s Hertha BSC and signed a three-year sponsorship deal with insurance company Dairyland.

Thinking bigger picture, USL League One may even lead to something many American soccer fans have been clamoring for – promotion and relegation. Two new teams (in Rochester and Harrisburg) will join the league in 2020, while other cities across the country have expressed interest in launching franchises, too. By the time everything is said and done, MLS, USL and USL League One could combine for more than 100 clubs across the continent.

“I think there’s a realistic possibility [of promotion and relegation],” USL president Jake Edwards told Sports Illustrated. “The sport is evolving. The sport is changing. What is considered normal now might not be correct in a couple of seasons’ time.

“How we’re approaching that — and I get asked the question all the time — is the launch of our second league, League One. A lot of focus and attention needs to go into building that league up over a short period of time. But we’ve got to get the right owners in League One, the right stadiums and infrastructure. We’ve got to make sure the quality on the field is at a good standard. You have to create parity as much as you can between the two divisions. Of course, the Championship will be different from League One in many respects, but it can’t be obscenely different.”

But there’s plenty of buzz and excitement around USL League One in the short term, too.

Each team this season will play 28 games, with the playoffs starting Oct. 11. USL League One teams are also eligible to play in the U.S. Open Cup.

“We’re very excited about the response we’ve gotten in the lead-up to our first season,” Madden said. “It’s a fresh start, in a way, for a new era in American soccer, and we’re primed to see how USL League One grows this season and beyond in every sense — for the clubs, the fans, the players and the game in our country.”

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