USL (formerly USL PRO) was formed when two existing professional leagues were combined into a single league property prior to the 2011 season. The league was designed to help ensure the long-term stability of professional soccer in North America, and featured 12 teams in a pair of six-team divisions during its initial campaign. Among the league’s founding members were six longtime USL clubs with more than 100 years of operation between them – the Charleston Battery, the Charlotte Eagles, the Harrisburg City Islanders, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, the Richmond Kickers and the Rochester Rhinos.
It was one of the newcomers that shone brightest that season, as Orlando City finished atop the standings and prevailed in penalty kicks in a thrilling championship game against the Harrisburg City Islanders. Even more impressive was Orlando City’s ability to connect with the community, as it saw more than 11,000 fans fill the Citrus Bowl for that inaugural championship match.
At the forefront of Orlando’s success was 2011 Most Valuable Player Yordany Alvarez. The Cuban holding midfielder may not have had the statistics of other candidates for the league’s top honor, but his consistency earned him plaudits from throughout the league, and saw him make the move to Real Salt Lake of MLS in the offseason. Rookie of the Year Luke Mulholland also saw his star rise after an outstanding year for the Wilmington Hammerheads, who finished second in the regular season standings, with the former PDL standout beginning his path to MLS that would also see him join RSL’s ranks.
On the field Orlando City only got better during the 2012 season, and once again topped the regular season table, losing only once and creating a 16-point gap between its closest competitor. However, the fifth-seeded Hammerheads pulled off one of the league’s greatest upsets in the semifinals, charging out to a 3-0 advantage and holding on for a 4-3 victory to eliminate the defending champs. The Hammerheads traveled to meet No. 3 Charleston in the final, with the hometown Battery pulling out a 1-0 victory to take the title.
The Battery were led to the championship by the duo of Nicki Paterson - who finished the season second in the league with 10 goals - and Rookie of the Year Jose Cuevas, who claimed Championship Game MVP honors as his assist set up Michael Azira for the winner against Wilmington. Azira built on a successful rookie season, and joined Seattle Sounders FC before the 2014 MLS season.
Elsewhere, the Charlotte Eagles, Dayton Dutch Lions and Harrisburg City Islanders all made runs to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup, as Eagles goalkeeper Clint Irwin in particular shone as he led his side past MLS opposition. Irwin’s performances paid off in the winter, as he signed with the Colorado Rapids, and after early-season injuries quickly ascended to become the team’s No. 1 goalkeeper.
The 2013 season brought a new energy to the USL as it entered into a groundbreaking partnership with Major League Soccer that saw all 13 USL teams compete in two inter-league games against MLS Reserve League opponents. Additionally, the first MLS-USL affiliations saw direct working relationships between D.C. United and the Richmond Kickers, the New England Revolution and the Rochester Rhinos, the Philadelphia Union and Harrisburg City Islanders, and Sporting Kansas City and Orlando City.
On the field, Orlando City saw its two-season hold on the top of the standings ended by the Richmond Kickers, who used a league record 24-game unbeaten streak to finish one point ahead of Orlando. This time the Kickers were the victims of the major playoff upset, as the No. 5 Charlotte Eagles defeated them 2-1 in the semifinals to earn a spot in the 2013 championship match. Orlando City made it two titles in three years, however, as Sporting Kansas City loanee Dom Dwyer scored four goals in a 7-4 win against the Eagles to earn MVP honors.
Dwyer, who went on to help Sporting KC claim MLS Cup later in the year, was not the only player to benefit from his time in the USL. Brian Ownby played a key role for Richmond on loan from the Houston Dynamo, while goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra claimed Goalkeeper of the Year honors for the Kickers on loan from D.C. United. Most Valuable Player Jose Angulo and Dwyer also set a new league record with 15 goals apiece in the regular season, while Angulo’s teammate with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds also set a new league mark with 12 assists as the Steel City saw soccer-specific Highmark Stadium open for its first season.
The MLS-USL partnership truly began to blossom prior to the 2014 season as the league welcomed the first MLS owned and operated team – the LA Galaxy II. The western expansion push also included the additions of Arizona United SC, OKC Energy FC and Sacramento Republic FC, as the 14-team league stood poised for explosive growth.
Orlando City, which had been announced as the 21st MLS franchise prior to the season, claimed its third regular-season crown in four years, but Sacramento became the real story of the season. Never once behaving like an expansion team, Republic FC rode the strength of 17 consecutive home sellouts and a league attendance record to a second-place regular season finish, capping its amazing year with a 2-0 win in the title game against the Harrisburg City Islanders at Bonney Field.
Leading the way for Republic FC was former Portland Timbers player Rodrigo Lopez, who claimed championship MVP honors after being nominated for league MVP. The man that claimed that award, however, was Orlando City’s Kevin Molino, who smashed the previous record with 20 goals in an unforgettable season that saw him claim his second MVP honor. Signed to an MLS contract prior to the season, Molino was joined by Lions stalwart Luke Boden as the club moved into the top flight of North American soccer in 2015.
The USL also saw the introduction of new, young stars. A pair of U.S. U20 internationals, the LA Galaxy II’s Bradford Jamieson IV and Orlando City’s Tyler Turner, were both nominated for Rookie of the Year, and are set to be followed by many other young stars as they make their way into the professional seasons in 2015 and beyond.
The Rookie of the Year award was claimed by Rochester’s John McCarthy, however, who also earned Goalkeeper of the Year for his stellar season for the Rhinos. McCarthy is now on the cusp of Major League Soccer himself, as he attends training camp with the Philadelphia Union this spring.
Spurred on by the success of the LA Galaxy II, seven more MLS clubs placed teams in the USL following the 2014 season, with the Montreal Impact (FC Montreal), the New York Red Bulls, the Portland Timbers (Portland Timbers 2), Real Salt Lake (Real Monarchs SLC), Seattle Sounders FC (Seattle Sounders FC 2) Toronto FC (Toronto FC II), and Vancouver Whitecaps FC (Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2) all joining.
Pushing the league lineup to 24 teams for 2015, other new additions included the Austin Aztex, Charlotte Independence, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, Louisville City FC, Saint Louis FC, and Tulsa Roughnecks FC. While Austin made the move up from the PDL, the Independence replaced the Charlotte Eagles, who moved back down to the PDL after 20 professional seasons.
The USL was split into 12-team Eastern and Western Conferences in 2015, with teams facing each of their conference opponents at least twice during the 28-game regular season schedule. The additional six games (beyond the standard home and away against the other 11 intra-conference foes) are matchups against geographic rivals resulting in several cross-conference contests.
“Transitioning to a conference-based structure is consistent with our long-term growth strategy and enabled by the rapid expansion of the league,” USL President Jake Edwards said. “This new format will promote regional rivalries, allowing fans greater opportunity to support their clubs home and away as the league continues to bring its brand of professional soccer to enthusiastic markets throughout the U.S. and Canada.
For the 2016 season, five new clubs have been announced with FC Cincinnati - owned by Ohio business giant Carl Lindner III - joined by Rio Grande Valley FC, Orlando City B, Swope Park Rangers KC and Bethlehem Steel FC a Philadelphia Union-owned club placed in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. Additionally, a new club in Reno, Nevada, owned by Indiana Pacers owner Herb Simon, is set to join for the 2017 season.