By Alyssa Hertel, Des Moines Register
Des Moines’ new USL Championship soccer team is set to take the field in 2024 and will compete in the second tier of professional soccer in the United States, one step below Major League Soccer.
The yet-unnamed soccer team will join three other Des Moines professional teams playing just below the top level in their respective sports: the Iowa Cubs (AAA affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs), Iowa Wolves (G-league basketball affiliate of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves) and Iowa Wild (American Hockey League affiliate of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild). There’s also the Iowa Barnstormers of Arena League Football.
Here are some things fans should know about the United Soccer League.
What is the USL?
The USL claims to be the largest and fastest-growing professional soccer organization in North America. In addition to the second tier USL Championship, it is comprised of USL League One (tier 3) and USL League Two (semi-professional). For women, there are the USL Super and USL W leagues.
The USL Championship league is made up of 28 member clubs, including the new Queensboro FC in Queens, New York.
How long is a USL Championship season?
Pre-season games begin in February. This year’s 32-game regular season runs from March 11 to Oct. 15.
Each team plays each conference opponent twice — once at home and once away. Teams play the remainder of their games against interconference opponents of the organization’s choice, split 50/50 between home and away.
Each team plays from two to six games a month, depending on its schedule.
How do teams accumulate points?
The USL uses the standard point system of FIFA, the world soccer sanctioning organization, to determine team standings. Teams are awarded three points for a regulation or overtime victory. If a game results in a tie, both teams earn one point. The losing team gets no points.
In a 32-game season, the maximum number of points a team can accumulate is 96. The Tampa Bay Rowdies were the top USL Championship team last season with 71 points (23-2-7), but lost the final to California’s Orange County SC (15-7-10).
What is the USL’s Championship playoff format like?
At the end of each regular season, the top seven teams from both the Eastern and Western conferences compete in the USL Cup Playoffs. The top seed in each conference receives a first-round bye. Teams are reseeded after the quarterfinals.
Postseason action lasts four weeks and teams face off in a fixed-seed format. The playoffs are single-elimination, meaning teams have one game to make it to the next round. The championship, or the USL Cup, is held at the home of the conference champion with the best regular-season record.
What makes the USL Championship different than European leagues?
In European and most other soccer leagues, clubs move up and down between tiers based on how they perform each season. The second-tier champion often gets promoted to the first-tier league, and the bottom finisher in the first-tier is demoted to the second-tier league.
That isn’t how MLS and the USL operate, meaning that MLS is one of the only top-tier professional leagues in the world where clubs don’t fear demotion.
At this point, the only way for a USL team to move to the top tier would be for it to be chosen as an MLS expansion team. The happened to FC Cincinnati, which started in the USL and then won an expansion berth from the MLS.
What kind of players can fans expect to see in Des Moines?
The USL Championship league has several clubs that are affiliated with MLS teams, including Loudoun United (DC United), LA Galaxy II (LA Galaxy) and Sporting KC II (Sporting Kansas City). These teams act as a pipeline to their MLS affiliates.
What does that mean for Des Moines fans? There is potential to see high-level players as well as some under-the-radar prospects rising through the ranks.
What does the addition of MLS Next Pro mean for USL Championship?
MLS plans this year to launch a new league called MLS Next Pro, comprised of MLS-affiliated teams. The new league will be third-tier, so it shouldn’t compete directly with the USL Championship league.
Still, some USL Championship teams with MLS affiliations will transfer to MLS Next Pro over the next two years.
Alyssa Hertel is a college sports recruiting reporter for the Des Moines Register. Contact Alyssa at [email protected] or on Twitter @AlyssaHertel.