A third American soccer league season has been swept away by the coronavirus pandemic. The USL announced Thursday afternoon that League Two, the 82-team developmental circuit that occupies the de facto fourth tier of the domestic soccer pyramid, won’t play its 2020 campaign. The league has been in operation, in one iteration or another, since 1989.
League Two joins the other half of the fourth tier, the NPSL, and third-division NISA, in calling off its season (NISA intends to play a fall-to-spring schedule and still plans on starting its 2020-21 season). A significant number of League Two and NPSL players are in college, so must return to campus in August. Guaranteeing that League Two teams can play a sufficient number of matches safely, and in time to conclude their season this summer, has become impossible.
The USL said it still hopes to find a way to help League Two teams create “regional exhibition schedules” in areas of the country where it becomes safe to play.
“The momentum our clubs have built in League Two across the country in recent years has been tremendous and today’s announcement, while disappointing, will do nothing to alter that,” League Two VP Joel Nash said in a statement. “We will continue to support soccer being played when and where possible in 2020, and use this time to get even stronger as a league.”
Regarding its pro competitions, the second-tier Championship (35 teams) and third-tier League One (12 teams), USL said Thursday that the suspension of the 2020 seasons was being extended from May 10, with a new target date hinging on “further guidance and clarity” from various authorities. Training moratoriums now run through May 15.
“As things stand today, the USL is still in a position to reschedule all matches in both leagues,” it said. “While a complete season remains the preferred outcome of any return to play scenario, a variety of alternative competitive formats in both the Championship and League One are also being explored as the USL continues to prioritize the health and wellness of everyone involved.”
The vast majority of Championship and League One clubs will be reluctant to play behind closed doors since they’re so heavily dependent on game-day revenue.
MLS has suspended play until at least June 8, although that target date surely won’t last long. Each of the 26 clubs played two matches before competition was suspended in mid-March. The league’s training moratorium also runs through May 15.
“MLS remains focused on exploring a wide variety of formats for playing the entire 2020 season including pushing back MLS Cup into December or later,” the league said a couple weeks ago.
With MLS, the two USL pro leagues, and NISA all hoping to be in action by this fall, if not sooner, the U.S. Soccer Federation remains hopeful that it can stage the 107th U.S. Open Cup tournament. According to a club source with knowledge of U.S. Soccer’s discussions, a preferred way to salvage the event would be to stage a five-round, 32-team competition from September through November. Each participating league would furnish a predetermined number of clubs based on established criteria, and no league would be allowed to enter all its members.
So, for example, MLS could enter 16 teams based on its 2019 regular season standings. The USL Championship could then send 10 of its eligible clubs, and League One and NISA would furnish three each. Or qualification could be based on a percentage of eligible teams. Admitting close to half of each league, give or take a team or two, also would fill a field of 32. (To be clear, these possibilities are speculation.)
USL president Jake Edwards told Sports Illustrated this month that as things stand, he didn’t foresee Championship or League One clubs participating in this year’s Open Cup.
“The compression of the schedule when we return to play this year is going to be significant, and that presents huge challenges for our league. And our league, as we’ve said, is match-day revenue dependent,” Edwards said. “We need to focus on the league matches, the regular season and postseason, as the priority for the health and long-term well-being of our clubs.”
If soccer returns by the fall, and if U.S. Soccer does settle on this limited format or something like it, a change of heart among USL teams might be the difference between salvaging the 2020 tournament or seeing it canceled for the first time. The Federation certainly can tweak the format as teams and leagues take the field, but in the meantime it has a template off which to work. Its interest in maintaining the Open Cup’s century-plus streak, a record in American sports, is clear. The Cup also serves as a qualifier to the 2021 Concacaf Champions League.