Battery sees benefits of USL Pro expanding to 24 teams

Charleston Battery players celebrate after winning the 2012 USL Pro Championship at Blackbaud Stadium on Daniel Island. (Tyrone Walker/postandcourier.com)

When the Charleston Battery moved to the USL Division-2 in 2010, team president Andrew Bell envisioned a soccer league that emphasized regional rivalries.

What started from humble beginnings with just six teams, based mostly on the East Coast, has grown to 24 clubs that stretch from the coast-to-coast and feature eight teams that are owned or operated by clubs in Major League Soccer.

The 2015 USL Pro season will feature 24 clubs — up from just 14 last season — competing in two 12-team conferences (Eastern and Western). Each team will play a 28-game regular-season schedule, facing each conference opponent at least twice. The additional six games will feature matchups against geographic rivals.

The move to a more regionally based league was what Bell and the club’s owners envisioned when making the move to USL 2 five years ago. When the Battery was in USL 1, they would routinely travel to the West Coast a half dozen times during the regular season. Those trips added huge travel costs to the Battery’s operating budget and took away from the club’s bottom line.

“It just made sense on so many different levels for us to make that move and we knew that the USL had a vision for what was to come next,” Bell said. “We think this is a great move for the league to go to two conferences and to put added weight to the regional matchups and regional rivalries. We’ve always talked about becoming a more regional league for the past several years and this is a huge step in the right direction.”

The Battery will be a member of the Eastern Conference, which also will feature the Charlotte Independence, FC Montreal, Harrisburg City Islanders, Louisville City FC, New York Red Bulls, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Richmond Kickers, Rochester Rhinos, Saint Louis FC, Toronto FC II and Wilmington Hammerheads FC.

This revamped system will produce six playoff berths in each conference, with the two conference champions facing each other for the USL Pro title. The plan expands the playoff field while making each spot more competitive — since eight of the 14 teams in last year’s league qualified for the playoffs, while only half will reach the playoffs in 2015. The single-elimination playoff format will pit the top six finishers in each conference against each other in a month-long postseason.

“Transitioning to a conference-based structure is consistent with our long-term growth strategy and enabled by the rapid expansion of the league,” said Jake Edwards, the USL Pro vice president and former Battery player. “This new format will promote regional rivalries, allowing fans greater opportunity to support their clubs home and away as the league continues to bring its brand of professional soccer to enthusiastic markets throughout the U.S. and Canada.”

Bell isn’t sure the new structure will mean a reduction in travel costs, but he thinks that teams will benefit in other ways.

“What it does save you is time,” Bell said. “Playing on the West Coast is great, but it takes a lot of resources, and it means you can be out of Charleston for a week. Time is a resource. We could be using that time helping our players foster links to the community, or just working here in the office.”

The biggest benefit will come from a natural emphasis on games that matter most to players and fans.

“It allows us to play Wilmington and our closest teams an extra time,” said Battery coach/general manager Mike Anhaeuser. “That’s really big. Those additional regional games will help create better rivalries.”