Opportunity. That’s what Steven Short and Josh Keller, executives of the United Soccer League’s newly minted Division III, sensed when they arrived in Greenville this past summer.
The purpose of their trip: to meet with Upstate entrepreneur Joe Erwin and his leadership team at Erwin Creates to discuss Greenville’s potential as an expansion city for the league’s inaugural season, which kicks off in March 2019.
That meeting and others that followed culminated March 13, as USL awarded Greenville and Erwin Creates with franchise rights for the D3 league’s third team in addition to South Georgia Tormenta FC and FC Tucson.
“We can look at spreadsheets; we can look at numbers, and it all looks good,” said Short, senior vice president of USL D3. “Once you set foot in a city, that’s when you really know. There was just an energy in Greenville.”
“It’s a great soccer city,” Short added. “We’re excited to bring pro soccer to the Upstate. … We were huge fans of Joe and his team from day one. It’s not a Joe Erwin project. It’s something for the region. We were impressed with their vision and the way they were able to convey it. They want a first-class product on the field — something that would set the bar for the league. We know they’re going to do it right.”
Leaders in the Upstate’s soccer community said the market is primed, and has been for some time, for a top-level professional franchise.
Burns Davison, chairman of the state Youth Soccer Association’s rules and compliance committee, said the number of US Youth-affiliated soccer players in South Carolina is just less than 30,000. He said that is a more than 50 percent increase during the past decade.
Coupled with unaffiliated recreational programs across the state, Davison said the actual number of youth soccer players in South Carolina is more than 40,000.
Within a 50-mile radius of Greenville, there are at least 11 collegiate soccer programs, according to Short.
“The opportunities for pro soccer in South Carolina are great,” Short said. “Our fans are fanatic and passionate. We certainly see the potential in Greenville. It is another element the city will be able to offer its residents and visitors.”
Past attempts to bring professional soccer (above the amateur or semi-pro level) to the region have not been successful.
The most notable efforts include the South Carolina Shamrocks and the Greenville Lions.
The Shamrocks, owned by Spartanburg businessman Sean McMahon, competed from 1996 through 1999 in the USL’s D3 Pro League, or U.S. Independent Soccer League. The team’s franchise rights were revoked by USL before the 2000 season due to financial performance issues.
In 2001 and 2002, the Greenville Lions played in the USL D3 Pro League. The Lions competed in the USL’s amateur Premier Development League in 2003 and then folded due to financial issues.
But there are several reasons why USL and Upstate soccer leaders are bullish about the new D3 team’s long-term success. And those reasons add up to provide an optimistic outlook for the game’s future in the region.
Growth at the national level
Soccer has continued to see a steady rise in popularity at the national level since the United States served as the 1994 host of the World Cup, the world’s largest international soccer tournament.
In January, a Gallup poll showed that soccer is the fourth most popular spectator sport in the U.S., with 7 percent of Americans saying it was their favorite sport to watch behind football (37 percent), basketball (11 percent), and baseball (9 percent).
According to the industry publication Soccer Stadium Digest, the average attendance at Major League Soccer (the nation’s highest level of professional soccer) games in 2017 was 22,109. That number has already increased to 22,674 in 2018.
Atlanta United FC, an MLS expansion franchise, averaged 48,200 fans per game during its inaugural season in 2017. The team set an MLS record with more than 70,000 fans during a game against Orlando City in September, according to published reports.
US Youth Soccer, a nonprofit organization that bills itself as the largest member of the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF), the nation’s governing soccer body, said participation among players between ages 5 and 19 has continued to increase during the past three decades.
The organization said its number of annual registered players rose from 103,432 in 1974 to 3,055,148 in 2014.
According to the Federation Internationale de Football Association, soccer’s international governing body better known as FIFA, more than 24.4 million people in the U.S. played soccer as of 2006.
Most American soccer fans would admit that the recent failure of the U.S. Men’s National Team to qualify for this year’s World Cup — the first time it hasn’t qualified for the global event since 1986 — is unequivocally the low point for the domestic game.
There are some, however, who believe it will be a defining moment similar to 2014 World Cup winner Germany’s overhaul of its youth development system following a series of disappointing showings at the tournament during the 1990s.
Rich Dixon, athletics director for Greenville County Rec, attended the USSF’s annual general meeting in February in Orlando.
Dixon serves on the board of the South Carolina Amateur Soccer Association (SCASA), a recognized member of the USSF.
Because of that, he was able to cast a vote during an election that resulted in longtime Goldman Sachs executive Carlos Cordeiro being named the new president of the federation.
Cordeiro succeeds Sunil Gulati, who had served as USSF president since 2006.
Dixon said there’s hope that, under new leadership, the game will soar to new heights. Potentially even the nation’s first World Cup victory.
“It was a great experience seeing where soccer is nationally,” Dixon said. “Not making the World Cup, at least from a U.S. Soccer perspective, has rejuvenated the base. There is a new vested interest in the game in America. … There seems to be a renewed focus on making soccer accessible to all.”
Growth at the grass-roots level
For decades, soccer has taken a back seat to other popular sports in the Upstate, including football, baseball, and basketball.
But economic growth in the region has fueled population growth, particularly among international residents, many of whom hail from countries that highly value “The World’s Game.”
Dixon said he’s also seeing a trend where American “kids of the ’80s and ’90s” who grew up playing soccer are moving back or relocating to the Upstate.
“Their first question when they move here is, ‘Where can I play soccer?'” Dixon said.
According to its website, Greenville County Rec’s amateur soccer league is the only league in the area sanctioned by SCASA. It caters to men and women age 15 and older.
Dixon said the league typically registers 30 teams during the winter months and anywhere from 60 to 80 teams during the spring, summer, and fall.
There are a few other leagues in Greenville County, Dixon said. He hopes the new USL D3 team will help unify the soccer community in the Upstate.
Pearse Tormey, co-executive director of Greenville-based Carolina Elite Soccer Academy (CESA), said his club has grown at about 3 to 4 percent annually during the past several years.
CESA can trace its roots back to 2000 when Greenville’s Downtown Soccer Association merged with Golden Strip Soccer Club to form Greenville Football Club.
In 2004, Greenville Football Club merged with St. Giles Soccer Club to form CESA.
The club started with 2,500 players ranging from ages 4 to 19.
Today, CESA serves more than 4,000 players. That’s a 60 percent increase in 14 years.
In addition to the region’s population growth, Tormey said youth soccer fans have the ability like never before in history to watch the world’s top leagues, such as the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, or Italian Serie A, on television or a mobile device.
Tormey emigrated from Ireland to play soccer for Clemson University, where he was a member of the Tigers’ 1987 national championship team and was twice named an All-American. He played pro soccer for the Charleston Battery, a USL D2 team that currently averages about 3,000 to 4,500 fans per home game, as well as the now-defunct Shamrocks and the Lions.
He said the level of competition at the youth level has grown tremendously since the early 2000s.
“[Soccer] is a game everybody can play at a young age for a relatively low cost,” Tormey said. “You can continue to play it relatively inexpensively, or you can choose to pay a little more and advance to a higher level.”
He said players on CESA’s most competitive teams have access to more comprehensive, professional coaching that includes not only skills and an understanding of the game, but other things like nutrition, and speed and agility.
Tormey said those players are also training year-round and more frequently during the week.
He said he believes the team led by Erwin Creates is a positive for local soccer, but its success is not assured.
“At the end of the day it comes down to what the product is on the field,” Tormey said. “What is the location [of the stadium]? How do the spectators relate to that team? Everybody wants to see something new. … Will people travel on the road to go watch them? Can you get fans to watch you at home?”
Rafe Mauran became director of the Spartanburg-based youth soccer club Carolina FC in 2015.
At the time of his arrival, the club had 264 registered players. This year, the club has more than 800.
Mauran said the launch of a recreation program, the introduction of new programming, and better teamwork in Spartanburg’s soccer community has helped the club grow.
“We made a conscious decision to do things a little differently,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we offer everything a kid would need to get to the next level. … We’ve seen the [competitive] level of our teams continue to rise during the past couple years.”
Short said the Upstate, Greenville County in particular, has become a destination for local, state, and regional youth soccer tournaments.
“Tourism on the soccer side is already strong,” he said. “The infrastructure is already there.”
New semi-pro teams in the Upstate
The American soccer landscape is divided into two categories: professional and amateur.
Three USSF-sanctioned leagues that are ranked by division populate the professional category. The top tier belongs to MLS, followed by USL D2 (the Charleston Battery’s division), and USL D3, where the new Greenville team will compete.
All of the teams that compete in these divisions are recognized by the USSF and FIFA.
The amateur category is composed of two subdivisions: amateur and youth.
USL defines the term “amateur” as collegiate and nonprofessional leagues that offer no player contracts recognized by FIFA. Those leagues include the NCAA, NAIA, PDL, NPSL, UPSL, USASA, and ASL.
Excluding college programs in the NCAA and NAIA, most of the other leagues are viewed as the fourth tier of American soccer.
Short said many of those leagues fall into the loosely defined “developmental” category, meaning they are designed to give emerging players a taste of pro soccer while still enabling them to maintain their eligibility to compete at the collegiate level.
Three teams competing in various leagues not associated with or sanctioned by USSF have already or soon will begin playing in the Upstate.
The list includes the Upstate Strikers in Anderson, Greenville FC, and Spartanburg-based Sparta 20/20.
Upstate Strikers is an independent indoor soccer team that hopes to compete in the Major Arena Soccer League, a not-for-profit indoor soccer league with teams in the U.S. and Mexico.
Greenville FC will kick off its inaugural season in May, competing in the developmental National Premier Soccer League’s Southeast Conference. The team will play its home games at Furman University.
In August 2017, the amateur United Premier Soccer League announced the addition of Spartanburg-based Sparta 20/20 to its Southeast conference. Co-owned by Kendall Reyes and Raymond Curry, the team is currently playing its home games at Spartanburg Day School.
Greenville FC’s proximity to the Greenville USL D3 franchise has sparked a misconception that Greenville FC is the county’s first professional team.
Based on the USSF’s definition, Greenville FC is actually an amateur team.
However, Short said Greenville FC’s presence in the market will be a boon for soccer in the area.
“We definitely think there is space in Greenville for both leagues,” Short said.
Just around the corner
Erwin said a site for his team’s permanent home, as well as its name, colors, and logo, will be announced later this year.
He said he expects the team will play its first season at a temporary venue that should be secured sometime in the months ahead.
Erwin said the team’s ownership, which is also composed of his son, Doug Erwin, and Erwin Creates Managing Partner Shannon Wilbanks, is committed to building a “first-class facility” from scratch, if need be, for its permanent home.
He said seven sites are being considered for the stadium. The sites include downtown Greenville, Greenville County, and multiple municipalities.
The company said it has hired veteran sports manager Chris Lewis, who previously served as team president of the Greenville Swamp Rabbits hockey team, to serve as president of the new soccer team.
Short said USL D3 is poised to have 12 to 16 teams competing in its inaugural season. Those teams could be divided into two conferences, East Coast and West Coast.
“March 2019 is just around the corner,” Short said. “We’ve got a lot to do. It’s an exciting time.”