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USL reportedly launching third-division league in 2019

An announcement is expected soon on a new venture for the league

Pat Jacoby Photography

The vacancy in the third division of U.S. soccer could be filled by a new league the United Soccer League is looking to launch in 2019, according to a report in Sports Illustrated.

Brian Straus reported Thursday that USL is “on the verge of revealing its intention to launch a new D3 competition in 2019.” A formal announcement could be coming by the end of the week, Straus wrote.

The USL opened its 2017 season last weekend as a D2 league, a distinction it now shares with the eight-team North American Soccer League after being granted provisional D2 status by U.S. Soccer in January.

USL President Jake Edwards floated the idea in an interview with FourFourTwo last week where he noted eight groups with strong interest in expansion:

“It might be a situation where not enough teams will meet the standards, or there won’t be enough spaces – because you’d have kind of a 50-team league – so we are looking at maybe launching another division and seeing how we might populate that with some of these new, smaller markets and potentially some markets in our league already. There might be a restructure of that as we continue to expand, probably in 2019 and beyond.”

The USL currently has 30 teams and has one expansion club - Nashville FC - already planned for next season.

What the new league would mean for Bethlehem Steel FC and Harrisburg City Islanders is unclear, but a new third division could make a lot of sense for both clubs. Harrisburg is currently one of the smallest markets in D2, and Steel’s focus is more on development than competing for trophies or drawing large crowds.

Straus speculates in his story about the possibility that Steel FC and the eight other MLS-owned USL teams would drop down to the new D3 league.

“It’s unknown whether MLS would allow it, but it might make sense for squads that are designed to develop players, not draw crowds,” Straus writes.

Some teams in the USL’s amateur Premier Development League could also be in line to make the move to the professional ranks, but Philadelphia Union PDL affiliate Reading United A.C. and the other two PDL teams in the region - Ocean City Nor’easters and Lehigh Valley United Sonic - wouldn’t seem to be likely candidates in this scenario.

Some larger PDL markets that would make more sense to enter D3 or D2 would be Baltimore (the Bohs are taking this season off), Las Vegas, Tucson, Albuquerque and previous PDL market Austin.

Future MLS expansion could also come into play as several teams in USL - Sacramento Republic FC, San Antonio FC, St. Louis FC, Tampa Bay Rowdies, FC Cincinnati and Phoenix Rising FC - eye a move to the top flight.