This week, the Expansion Ramble takes us to a historic, wealthy area just outside the District.
With expansion news coming hot and heavy recently, we, Brian Cook and Richard Rainwater, are taking a look at each of the new teams gearing up to begin play in the USL. We will be covering the teams already announced to join the league and will be looking at how the teams can be successful, what struggles they face, and what we think the outcomes will be.
It’s the Expansion Ramble! And we’re glad you’re here to join us on our journey to the land of history, revolution, monuments, and one of America’s most important suburbs.
Loudoun County rests in the quiet, DC suburbs in a picturesque part of Virginia. The county is home to almost 400,000 people, the highest median household in the country. Loudoun County has a rich history, including vital roles in the American Revolution and Civil War. In modern times, it is a fast-growing area, swept up in the incredible growth of the Washington DC area. And while most residents of the area are proud of their connection to the nation’s capital, they can’t help but feel a strong sense of community among the historical significance of this place. More than 200 years after its founding, that history looks to manifest itself on the pitch, with the introduction of Loudoun United.
What will make this team successful?
Being an MLS “2” side brings a lot of criticism from USL fans. The frequent roster changes, lack of independent identity, and the hint of minor-league status make 2-teams targets. But, one thing that Loudoun can count on is financial stability. Operating a team at the Championship level is an ever-increasingly expensive proposition. The push to build a stadium, sign players, and compete in an ultra-competitive Eastern Conference aren’t easy on a club’s books. For fans of United, however, they won’t have to worry about whether their ownership group will have the resources necessary to fund those endeavors.
Loudoun has seemed to have learned from the mistakes of other MLS-2 teams, in that they aren’t planning on playing at Audi Field in DC. Playing USL matches in the first-team stadium is a recipe for disaster, as attendance and fan engagement in those setups could be generously described as non-existent. Placing them in Loudoun County will give local residents something to be excited about, which will bring more exposure to the squad. It also serves DC United well, as the area is close to the District, and the team will help bring them added attention as well.
Finally, the team has chosen to give them unique branding. A name like DC United 2 brings immediate thoughts of minor-league sports systems in baseball and hockey and is difficult to generate buzz behind. By basing the team outside of DC, naming the team after that area, and marketing the area’s historical significance, the ownership group is giving Loudoun all the tools to draw in a strong, local fanbase.
2019 will see another year of MLS 2 teams in USL and with that, we will see the introduction of DC United’s in-house affiliate in Loudon United. Loudon comes in without the glitz and glamour of a new independent franchise but isn’t in the shadow of being named as an MLS 2 team.
Player signing wise, the team should be strong and competent. The first step in that was the team hiring Richie Williams. Williams is no stranger to MLS/US Soccer having both played and coached inside a number of US Soccer circles. He’ll bring the development mind that MLS 2 teams are based off of by providing the philosophy that DC United is seeking.
MLS 2 teams are very interesting to watch because you have either one of two types of teams. You have a team like Toronto FC 2 who struggled to stay competitive in the championship so chose to drop down to League One or you have a New York Red Bulls 2 who not only are competitive but have hoisted the USL Championship trophy over their heads in the past.
What will make this team struggle?
While they have taken clear steps to avoid the “minor league” label, they won’t be able to fully escape the usual critiques of MLS-2 teams. Despite having brilliant marketing that targets local pride, the frequent roster changes and focus on player development will make fan connections difficult. Fans of all sports teams love to label different players as “legends”, with generations of fans debating over whose legend would beat whom. Though this may seem like a minor critique to some, it’s been something that many “2” teams have struggled with, and Loudoun won’t be exempt.
Due to the short nature of this project, Loudoun’s permanent home in Virginia has not been completed yet. That has led to a road-heavy schedule at the beginning of the season, in which Loudoun won’t play a home match until May 3rd. With two solid months on the road, and an already crowded local sports market, United will be climbing uphill to gain any relevance.
To add insult to injury, even when the team does have their home opener, they don’t yet know where it will be played. Audi Field is a possibility, but it won’t excite the local fans they are looking to attract. A venue in Loudoun County would be ideal, but is proving to be difficult to find. The most likely situation could see the team bouncing around the DC Metro area, using open dates at different venues, until their stadium opens in August. No matter which one they choose, however, United will miss out on a key period in their team’s history to really cement their fanbase.
While DC United have loosened the purse strings in recent months, that spending may not bode well for Loudoun United. In a matter of a couple years, fielding a competitive Championship side is proving to be a costly proposition. Teams need a variety of youth and experience to really compete, and the ownership group may not have enough to go around to both clubs. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect United to struggle out of the gate, similar to Toronto FC II last season. The Eastern Conference is going to be a war of attrition, and Loudoun may not be equipped in their first year to deal with what they will face.
We try to stray away from commenting on specific player moves in the Ramble, as rosters in the Championship have a lot of turnover from year-to-year. One thing I would like to point out, however, is the lack of players currently on United’s roster. More specifically, they currently have none. While other teams have started their preseason routines and are playing friendly matches, Loudoun United don’t have a single player under contract. They are finally getting around to open tryouts, which other expansion sides held as early as December. DC United even sold the Championship’s all-time leading scorer, instead of utilizing him for Loudoun’s maiden voyage. The laissez-faire approach to team-building is not going to end well for Loudoun, and fans should be worried about the lack of progress.
Finally, the team won’t be able to participate in the US Open Cup. MLS-2 teams have been prohibited from participating since 2016, and fans of Loudoun United will be missing out on one of US Soccer’s best tournaments. The Open Cup may not mean much to many MLS sides, but it is an incredible event for teams below the top division. Fans get to see MLS teams play in their local arena, and the prospect of an upset can do wonders to galvanize support (see FC Cincinnati). Once the newness of the team wears off, the absence of the contest will be felt, and United will suffer because of it.
You would think if DC United saw down the road that they’d start their own second team, more time would be put towards preparing for that. As it stands in February, as Richard points out, the roster for Loudon is thin to put it lightly. A thin that is both shocking and not shocking given the circumstances surrounding the team.
For Loudon to be unsuccessful in it’s future comes down to how DC United treats the team. Much like the US Open Cup, MLS team’s reserve sides in USL either are well maintained and well put together or they are after thoughts. The comparisons of how this looks have been made already. Outside of the obvious, like securing some kind of home, Loudon United’s future rests comfortably on the shoulders of DC United.
What do you think is more likely with this team: MLS Expansion, Successful Championship Side, Future League One Superstars, Soon-to-be ghost of American soccer past?
Due to their slow start, and many hurdles, Loudoun’s future is murky, to say the least. Having the DC United ownership behind them will give them solid footing, and having their own stadium in their first year will be a crucial key to success in the Championship. However, it seems as though DC is content in using Loudoun as a reserve team, with little consideration to on-field results. And that, at least at this point, has me convinced that United’s future rests outside the pressure-cooker environment of the Championship, and into the more affordable confines of League One.
Loudon’s future is really centered on the future of MLS Reserve teams in the USL. It’s uncertain, but in the future, it’s feasible to see that the United Soccer League might need to institute a competitive floor that teams need to hit. This obviously is something that has the feel of a “promotion-relegation” system but as the league grows the reliance on MLS teams to provide teams in the league should shrink from the glaring obvious to much more subtle.
For now, we will see Loudon United stay a Championship squad but their future will be centered around what the future of MLS 2 teams will be.
If you liked this article, you’ll love the rest of the series. Check out our takes on Austin, Birmingham, Chicago, El Paso, and Hartford, and drop us a line with your comments on how you think these teams will fare.
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