Is there conflict brewing between the USL and MLS NEXT Pro?

Quick Hits
  • There’s conflict brewing between the USL and MLS/MLS NEXT Pro
  • Last week, Orange County SC released a statement alleging that the LA Galaxy are seeking exclusive use of Championship Soccer Stadium, which would replace Orange County SC as the tenant
  • However, the LA Galaxy recently clarified that they are not seeking exclusive tenancy. The situation is still developing
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UPDATE: Since the time of writing, the LA Galaxy clarified that they are not seeking exclusive tenancy of Championship Soccer Stadium, and the Irvine City Council delayed discussion of the matter. The situation is still developing.

Late on Friday afternoon, Orange County SC released a statement that the LA Galaxy are seeking exclusive use of Championship Soccer Stadium for LA Galaxy II, replacing Orange County as the tenant. 

The two clubs are rivals on the pitch in the USL Championship, but Galaxy II are leaving the USL for MLS NEXT Pro in 2023. The possible change in tenancy and operation is set to be discussed by the Irvine City Council on Tuesday, August 9.

Background

Orange County SC have occupied the venue since 2017. Coming into this weekend, their average attendance was 4,346, up from 3,302 in the club’s title-winning 2021 campaign. The Cal United Strikers of third-tier NISA and FC Golden State Force of USL League Two also share the venue. Galaxy II, meanwhile, currently play in front of a closed stadium at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson. Their average attendance hasn’t exceeded 1,215 in eight years of existence. Furthermore, Championship Soccer Stadium is 37 miles away from Carson and the Galaxy organization’s main operations.

The City of Irvine put out a request for proposal in 2021 to find a partner to take over the venue’s operations. Orange County SC submitted a proposal at the time, but, by their reckoning, discussions and negotiations went quiet after a round of local elections. Multiple requests to meet with city officials went unanswered as the LA Galaxy began talks of their own. 

Things came to a head this weekend in anticipation of Tuesday’s council meeting.

Why might LA Galaxy pursue such an aggressive course of action? Extending the reach of their brand within Southern California is one possibility. The club has also committed to expanding youth camps and other community programs beyond the levels supported by Orange County. 

Losing out on USL Championship crowds often hitting above 5,000 in favor of the sparse LA Galaxy II attendance will affect local business in Irvine. However, the Galaxy promised to reimburse the city for the losses of revenue related to cratered attendance. In 2021, Orange County generated 66% of the $296,000 revenue from events at the site. While the Galaxy would cover these sums, the loss of event-related revenue in the broader Irvine community is harder to calculate. AEG, the ownership group for LA Galaxy, also vowed to cover maintenance costs for the stadium beyond the costs swallowed by the current tenants.

MLS NEXT Pro/USL rivalry

Still, the larger ramifications for the MLS NEXT Pro/USL rivalry cannot be ignored. 

Orange County has established a foothold in California youth soccer through a network of affiliate programs and a USL Academy team. At the professional level, Orange County SC consistently promotes young talent and boasts a relationship with Rangers FC in Scotland. The club sold Aaron Cervantes, a goalkeeping prospect, to their Glasgow-based partner in 2020. More famously, Orange County fostered Kobi Henry, a U.S. youth international, before his $700,000 sale to Reims this year. Without a stadium and with added competition from an Irvine-centric Galaxy setup, OCSC’s budding pipeline could crumble.

The Galaxy’s desire to take over Championship Soccer Stadium certainly looks like an escalation of conflict between MLS and the USL. 

In July of 2022, Nashville SC announced that their MLS NEXT Pro affiliate would play in Huntsville, Alabama despite talks dating back to at least 2021 of a USL team joining the city. Rumors of MLS NEXT Pro expansion to Baltimore in affiliation with D.C. United also threaten a longstanding USL target market. With Atlanta United 2 and New York Red Bulls II exiting the Championship next season along with Galaxy II, no pacifying links remain between the leagues.

Even so, the USL’s track record isn’t entirely clean. 

In 2018, USL League One expanded to Chattanooga with a non-local ownership group. That outfit poached the general manager of then-NPSL side Chattanooga FC, a well-supported and long-existing club. The new Chattanooga Red Wolves engaged in similar venue-centric machinations to claim Chattanooga FC’s Finley Stadium but were ultimately rebuffed. Today, Chattanooga FC continues to draw similar crowds as their USL rival, but the community in the city is splintered.

Past mistakes don’t justify LA Galaxy’s current course of action. Whatever the Irvine City Council decides this week, this kind of squabbling benefits no one. The USL has grown into a stable entity and is flourishing as a role player for youth development in the global market. MLS also continues to thrive, signing big-time players and growing its reach. 

Challenging Orange County SC‘s existence for local marketing and interleague one-upmanship might be beneficial for the Galaxy, but it represents the worst of profit-first tendencies in American soccer for all other parties.