TAMPA, Fla. – Compared with where things stood in the professional soccer landscape when Bruce Arena took the reins as D.C. United’s Head Coach for the inaugural season of Major League Soccer in 1996, things have definitely changed for the better.
Visiting the USL Offices last week as part of the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup Trophy Tour in his current position as the Head Coach of the United States Men’s National Team, Arena said the way the landscape had transformed was unimaginable in Major League Soccer’s early years.
“I think when we started Major League Soccer in 1996 we could never have envisioned today that we’d have our first-division league with 22 teams in it, and the USL that has grown to 31 teams, and covering really every boundary in the United States,” said Arena. “The sport in our country has grown tremendously, and from the east coast to the west coast, north and south, everywhere in the United States you can find a soccer club, and that’s obviously a tribute to the growth of the USL as well as Major League Soccer.”
The success of the U.S. Men’s National Team – which Arena led to the quarterfinals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup and to two Gold Cup championships in his previous stint as Head Coach – has certainly played a role in that. So has the expansion of the USL, which will see four of the league’s markets feature as hosts in this year’s edition of the Gold Cup. In addition to Tampa Bay, the tournament will see games in San Antonio, Phoenix and 2018 expansion market Nashville as part of July’s tournament.
Arena got to see the growth of the USL first hand in his previous position as the Head Coach and General Manager of the LA Galaxy, where he was part of the team that established the first MLS-owned-and-operated team in the USL in the LA Galaxy II. The club has been a success in multiple facets, not only winning the USL Western Conference Championship in 2015, but also seeing the likes of Daniel Steres, Dave Romney and Clement Diop make the move into the club’s MLS squad.
“We found that as the league developed over the years and we gave these players opportunities, it became a tremendous platform for us to move these players from the USL into Major League Soccer,” said Arena. “Today, you see anywhere from two-to-three players that are in the Starting 11 for the LA Galaxy that were products of the USL. It’s been a tremendous relationship for the LA Galaxy.”
While the advent of the Galaxy II provided a boost for that organization, a broader benefit of the USL’s growth has been the expanded playing opportunities now available for the top young players in the United States and Canada.
The U.S. U20 National Team currently preparing for the FIFA U20 World Cup in South Korea, which kicks off on Saturday, includes nine players who have seen action in the USL, while the U17 National Team that advanced to the FIFA U17 World Cup later this year in India included five players who have competed in the league. Add in the number of Canadian U20 players competing consistently in the league, as well as top Academy players across both countries, and the framework the USL offers for the sport as a whole is evident.
“If we have the right development ladder, we’re going to see players from all parts of the country – from our academy programs to your national youth team programs – eventually be elevated to the senior national team,” said Arena. “We see now there are great opportunities, and a great platform for all of our young players. It speaks volumes of the development of the USL, the academy programs in Major League Soccer, and for Major League Soccer as well.”
With North American soccer officials now looking at where the sport could move into the next decade, there’s certainly a very bright future ahead.
“I think we’re making great progress with the sport in our country, and we’re excited about perhaps hosting a World Cup again in 2026,” said Arena. “The sport in our country has grown tremendously, and we should be real proud of where we are in 2017.”