Life for clubs in the lower tiers of American soccer has always been precarious, but the USL seemed to have moved forward into a new era.
Questions over folding clubs and financial woes were secondary to youth development and the possibility of promotion and relegation. The news that the San Diego Loyal would cease operation at the end of the 2023 season tests the extent of the USL’s progress.
The Loyal face a unique situation with the impending entrance of an MLS team into their market. Torero Stadium, their current venue, takes too great a share of ticket revenue to make that location viable. However, a dearth of alternatives sites made a switch difficult. With a better-funded, higher-profile competitor on the way, the capital expenditure needed for the Loyal to purchase land and build a stadium was impossible to justify.
As recently as 2019, the USL Championship and USL League One boasted 46 teams. That number is down to 36, and it’ll be 38 at best in 2024 assuming no other clubs fold between now and then. Some of the attrition has come from the exit of MLS affiliate teams, but USL clubs still lack the competitiveness and revenue to easily make ends meet.
The league has made stadium development and ownership a priority for new expansion teams, and there will be more losses on the road to every USL club finding their proper home. Until then, it’s important to balance the real, tangible progress that the USL has spearheaded with the equally real insecurities of the lower leagues.
Amidst the off-field drama, the USL Championship got down to business with well under two months left in the regular season. Who left a mark on the pitch? Let’s dive in.
1.) Orange County (No change)
Result: W 2-0 at Sacramento
In the middle of a historic nine-wins-in-ten run, Orange County SC made waves off the pitch by selling teenaged forward Korede Osundina to Feyenoord in the Netherlands. Orange County established a developmental relationship with Feyenoord this February, mirroring a prior deal with Scotland's Rangers. Both partnerships have seen Orange County's young stars train in Europe and have ended up with full-blown sales. This is yet another success for the USL's best club in terms of youth development.
In the case of Osundina, a graduate of the Barca Residency Academy with four goals in 2023, this is a natural step up. The 19-year-old is a powerful dribbler with an improving touch, and his game is defined by excellent body control and top-end speed within a 6’1”, 165-pound frame. He has taken steps forward as a finisher this season, and his future could hold national team caps if Feyenoord oversees his development properly.
Lose one youth star, highlight another: fellow Barca product Bryce Jamison got his seventh start of the season but his first since May on the road in Sacramento this Saturday. It was a banner night in general, with Jamison getting the hockey assist on the winning goal as Orange County utterly suffocated the Republic.
The rotation within the Kevin Partida-Kyle Scott-Seth Casiple midfield trio was without fault all night, and Dillon Powers was a standout at center back. Milan Iloski wasn’t even on the pitch, but it didn't matter; Morten Karlsen has this club clicking at a systemic level. Things couldn't be sunnier in Orange County.