By Josh Brokaw
This is my first year really following the USL PRO. I knew it existed before this year, I just didn’t really care to be honest. I had checked it out at the beginning of last season and was turned off by what I saw online. I couldn’t tell you what game I watched. All I know is that it was the Riverhounds playing as the away team. The archived game feed was pretty bad looking and there was little to no atmosphere in the stands. I’m not even sure it had a play by play announcer. After the first half I decided I wasn’t that hard-core of a soccer guy and closed out of the feed. That was the only real chance I gave it. Fair? Probably not, but I have a feeling it’s a standard story for a lot of American soccer fans.
Once it was announced that the Riverhounds would be getting a stadium in downtown Pittsburgh I decided to give the league another chance. I got my season tickets and I really started to research the USL PRO. There are a couple of things that really surprised me about the league. While I know this is third division soccer I believe it has some huge opportunities to grow if it improves a couple of key things.
The first things that really needs improvement is it’s ability to be viewed online. It’s great that the USL PRO makes all their games available online for free but half the time the live feeds are terrible. They need to be more reliable. Nothing is worse than inviting people over to watch the game and having to apologize for the laggy and blurry mess on the screen. This makes it very hard to bring in new fans who expect to be able to follow their teams both at home and away.
Some might argue that you get what you pay for. There is a reason why these feeds are free after all, and I would agree with that but at the same time you have to wonder if more people would show up to games if they could actually watch the away games live without issue. Perhaps the league could offer some top tier paid service to supplement funding to improve the online experience. What if you could pay fifty bucks for a season pass that would offer HD playback of Archived games? Maybe throw in mobile apps and even a Roku channel that allows you to easily keep up with the league and watch the games on multiple devices. In all fairness, credit should be given to the league for pushing all stadiums to do live streams this season. Now they just have to make those streams consistently reliable.
The next thing that could really improve things on the field is better officiating. This might be a tough one for the league to do much about though. The good news is that the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) has unionized. This could mean better pay and better conditions for the refs and I hope better quality. Something the league does have a say in though is what fines or consequences they give to teams and players. There are a couple of rules they could put in place that might help stem the amount of fighting on the field. Maybe implementing the new MLS rule of no crowding the ref?
The last thing the league could do to help make it more appealing is its scheduling of games. While it is impressive that they made this season balanced as far as games played they didn’t do such a great job of making the home and away stretches even. This all comes down to the costs of travel. For example teams on the east coast always play Arizona and LA back to back with very little break between. Sure, this means they don’t have to pay to ship the team over there twice but it is terrible for the teams quality of play for the second game. What about next season? Will we see them doing three games in a row when Sacramento is introduced to the league? I sure hope not. Then you have the Baracudas playing all their games away due to the cost of traveling to Antigua for the other teams in the league. I’ve already harped on how bad that is for the Barracudas.
Maybe the league needs to gain more teams in the west and split play into western and eastern divisions. Have the two sides only meet up in playoffs. Something has to happen though because as more teams form in the west travel costs are going to become more of an issue for all teams involved. Dividing into different conference might be the only option.
While it is easy to point out the issues with the league it is much harder to figure out solutions. As the league grows there will be many obstacles in it’s way. So far the league has done a pretty okay job of figuring things out. There are just a couple of roadblocks in their way and if they can move past them I think the future for USL PRO is bright.
What do you think? Leave comments below and hit me up on twitter @CharlieBlix to let me know.