No, we shouldn’t read too much into U.S. Open Cup results. Having two USL-2 teams in the quarterfinals and no one from the USL/NASL shotgun marriage of a second tier doesn’t mean the USL-2 teams are doing everything right while the USL/NASL teams are getting it wrong.
But there’s something curious happening in the USL ranks. Several years after Dave Ungrady’s Unlucky chronicled a professional team at this level that had organizational struggles (one side effect: paychecks?), we’re seeing a couple of well-established American soccer clubs that are at this level voluntarily, and they’re quite happy.
You could call it the final nail in the “promotion/relegation NOW” argument. Though these clubs have roots, either with youth systems or stadiums, they’re not fretting away that they can’t be promoted to MLS. They’re not even interested in moving up to the second level of American soccer.
“Ultimately, we want to be in a situation where we are now where we’ve got local rivals, we have a stable league and stable group of teams,” Kickers coach Leigh Cowlishaw said after his team played well but lost 2-0 to D.C. United in the round of 16. “We’re not looking to change the recipe. The reason we’ve been successful over the last 20 years is that we try to make financial decisions that make sense long-term not only for the club but the growth of soccer. We’re very happy where we are. Hopefully there will be more teams that want to follow the model that we have.”
So the Kickers have opted for stability and short trips in their handsomely appointed bus over trips to Puerto Rico and ambitions of challenging MLS anywhere other than an Open Cup bracket.
“We’re more excited, we have something to prove,” said Kickers captain Mike Burke, who played for D.C. United several years ago. “So I think we’re going to have the edge from that standpoint, and that’s why a couple of USL-2 teams win games. Obviously the quality in MLS is better. But sometimes these lower-division teams are just more up for the game.”
The teams advancing through the Cup bracket have more going for them than a pro team and some grandiose marketing hype. The Harrisburg City Islanders, like the Kickers, have an extensive youth program. The Charleston Battery have a soccer-specific stadium with 5,100 seats, a few amusements for kids and a pub for adults.
What distinguishes the Kickers is that its long-running youth system — a team makes an appearance in the 1994 book Twenty-Two Foreigners in Funny Shorts — is producing players for the pro team. Midfielder Bobby Foglesong played with the Kickers’ Super Y League and PDL teams. Defender Roger Bothe was a U-15 player for the Kickers in 2002.
“I was there when he was 13 or 14 and coached him a few times,” Burke said, joking that he feels old. “It makes you feel good that you have a kid with your youth club who’s with the pro team now.”
“We’ve got programs for 2-year-olds up to the pro level,” Kickers forward Matthew Delicâte said. “So we’ve got everything in place. It’s a great system now. The pro players can be around and help teach young players about the game.”
The system also is ideal for older players with coaching aspirations like Burke, an assistant technical director in the youth ranks, and Delicâte, who traveled to the LA area’s Home Depot Center to earn his “B” coaching license in the offseason.
“Those are the kinds of things that are going to keep me around,” Burke said. “My soccer career’s almost over. I have maybe one more year in me.”
Richmond is a hospitable place to settle down — Englishman Delicâte first came to Richmond to play for Virginia Commonwealth and is happy to live close to his wife’s family. Having the Kickers in place gives players with ties to Richmond a nice option, particularly with a youth program producing a steady stream of talent.
“The goal is to play at the highest level possible, but if they want to continue to play professional soccer and Richmond’s their home, that’s a great situation,” Cowlishaw said.
And so as we follow along tonight with the Battery hosting MLS’ Columbus Crew (plus an all-MLS matchup of Houston and Chivas USA), the annual questions of whether USL teams are better than MLS teams seem less interesting than this question: What will it take to replicate Richmond?