A Monday visit may set the stage for professional soccer to come to the Kanawha Valley.
The United Soccer League’s Division III expansion committee, led by USL Division III senior vice president Steven Short, visited Charleston on Monday on an initial fact-finding mission into the city’s viability in hosting a franchise. The Charleston visit was part of a five-city tour during the trip. The group also will visit Roanoke, Virginia, and Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Hickory in North Carolina on this trek.
The USL is a Division II professional league in the United States (Major League Soccer is Division I). It currently has 33 teams throughout the country, including the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, FC Cincinnati and Louisville City FC, and six more expansion teams joining soon. The league has decided to create a Division III — USL Division III and the current logo are placeholders, with an official name and logo coming later this year — and already has three founding teams in South Georgia Tormenta FC in Statesboro, Georgia, FC Tucson in Arizona and Greenville Pro Soccer in South Carolina.
The target, Short said, is to launch the league in March 2019 with 12 to 16 teams.
“What we’re looking to launch with USL Division III is that foundation for professional soccer, that entry point,” Short said. “It sits above amateur soccer and the amateur leagues throughout the country. It really allows that platform for players and coaches and executives and even cities to continue to grow and aspire to a higher level.”
In its path of expansion, the league is looking at cities that support their local sports teams and their local universities and their athletic programs. It looks also at the city’s corporate base and administration, as well as facilities that are available. Short said that, in visiting Charleston, the group learned about the city’s strong youth soccer culture and visited Schoenbaum Stadium at Coonskin Park, the under-construction Shawnee Park Multi-Sport Complex in Dunbar and other facilities.
Short said the opportunity for facility choices in a city is something the league appreciates.
“It certainly is attractive,” Short said. “With the growing youth scene that’s here, plus the 800-member recreational league we learned about, it certainly is attractive. It’s nice to know that there are options, whichever works out for a potential ownership group.”
Charleston already has a strong soccer foundation. It hosts the West Virginia Chaos of the USL’s Premier Development League, a league where the talent pool consists mostly of college players looking to keep playing during the summer break while maintaining their college eligibility. The University of Charleston won the 2017 NCAA Division II men’s soccer championship, the third time in four seasons the Golden Eagles played for the national title.
Charleston was the 31st city the expansion committee has visited since it began. It recently visited both Lakeland and Fort Myers in Florida. Short said more announcements should be made in the next 60 to 90 days and, while this was the group’s initial visit to Charleston, that puts the city in the mix to be part of the 2019 season.
Even if Charleston isn’t part of the initial 12 to 16 teams in the new league, Short said the door won’t close at just that number.
“We’re not stopping there,” Short said. “We’re out in markets and looking at markets for 2019, 2020 and beyond that would like to have pro soccer in their city.”