Riverhounds making strides along with USL
The USL is poised to continue its growth, and its clubs, including the Riverhounds, must keep pace.
That view of the future was one of the themes presented Thursday afternoon by USL president Jake Edwards, who discussed the state of the league one day before the USL championship between the Rochester Rhinos and LA Galaxy II in Rochester, N.Y.
Edwards pointed to the league's expansion to 29 teams for next season and in-process plan to move up from third- to second-division status from the U.S. Soccer Federation as indicators of USL's upward trend. But where do the Riverhounds, one of the longest-running franchises in the league at 16 years, and the Pittsburgh market fit into that plan for growth?
“We're expanding rapidly, aggressively but deliberately,” Edwards said. “It's very important to build sustainable markets and a sustainable league. Everyone is going to be at different levels, but there is a cutoff where teams cannot meet the standard, and they have been terminated by the league.”
The Riverhounds' outlook on that front appears to be a mixed bag.
Highmark Stadium, the club's Station Square home, places the Riverhounds among the 13 USL teams already with a soccer-specific stadium, a must for membership in the near future. With a capacity near 4,000, the stadium would need to undergo a small expansion to meet the current second-division requirement of 5,000.
“Ten years ago, lower-league soccer was like the Wild West,” Edwards said. “Now we work with every single member club. … We work very hard to identify problems and find out what's going well and what isn't. Is it an equal playing field? No, but we are working to make sure each of our clubs keep growing with the league.”
Having just emerged from bankruptcy late last year, the Riverhounds want to avoid the fate of former opponents like the Dayton Dutch Lions, VSI Tampa Bay, Charlotte Eagles, and already this offseason, the Austin Aztex, all of which dropped out of USL play or folded completely.
The Riverhounds' rivals in Harrisburg were mentioned as a club with an uncertain future due to their subpar stadium, and though Edwards expressed hope the team will get a new or renovated venue, he made it clear the City Islanders weren't long for the league in their current home.
“It's not a good enough environment for the players or for fans,” Edwards said. “But they had some good crowds there, and we absolutely want Harrisburg to succeed.”
During his hour-long talk, Edwards also said USL's two-conference format will remain in place for 2016, confirmed the addition of a team owned by MLS' Orlando City for next season and said the league wants its clubs to grow their own youth academies, another thing the Riverhounds already have in place.