Holt stays optimistic with USL


United Soccer Leagues president Tim Holt has a clear, comprehensive vision for the growth of minor league soccer in the United States.

After an offseason of turmoil that nearly saw its flagship professional league, the USL First Division, become extinct, Holt is confident that better days are ahead for the sport and the United Soccer Leagues.

Founded in 1986, the USL features six different leagues in North American, including two professional leagues, a women's league and two high-level amateur leagues. The Charleston Battery was a charter member of the USL First Division, but dropped down to the USL Second Division this season.

In the next 10 years, Holt hopes to build a national soccer league that will stretch from South Carolina to California and points in between. However, to sustain long-term success in an already crowded minor league sports market, Holt wants the league to have a regional flavor to it to help promote local rivalries.

"When the Battery was in the USL-1, they didn't really have a rivalry with Vancouver or Portland," Holt said in a recent telephone interview. "There's just too much of a geographical distance between the two clubs. Fans are not going to travel cross country to watch a game. What soccer needs is five or six regional divisions in the Southeast, Northeast, Midwest and West. It's spread out across the country, but it's regional. I think that's the best way to build a league and to build rivalries."

Down the road, Holt envisions a 24-to-32 team league made up of five or six different divisions. A league that has a solid regional foundation, but with a national footprint. Teams would play against their regional rivals throughout the regular season and only travel on a national scale during the playoffs.

"Last year, Charleston traveled to Portland, Vancouver, Minnesota and Puerto Rico," Holt said. "I would imagine most of their budget went to travel costs. That's just not a good business model and that's what we need in this league. We need to think on a regional level where teams from say Charleston, Wilmington, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Atlanta are all in the same division. It creates rivalries and it makes sense from a travel standpoint.

"You're not pouring money into travel costs that are only going to increase. The only time teams would travel long distances would be during the postseason. You look at the leagues that are successful and this is their business model."

Holt knows there's plenty of work ahead of him this season. One of his first priorities is to solidify things in the USL-1. The troubles for the USL-1 began last year when Nike Inc., bought Umbro, Ltd., which owned USL. Several of the USL-1 owners attempted to pool their resources and buy the league from Nike, but could not reach a deal. Finally, last August, Nike sold its interest in the USL to NuRock Soccer Holdings, a real estate development company based out of Atlanta.

As a result of the sale, the Team Ownership Association (TOA) made up of USL-1 owners from the Carolina RailHawks, Miami FC, Minnesota Thunder, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps announced the formation of their own league -- the North American Soccer League. The Atlanta Silverbacks, who suspended operations last year in USL-1, also joined the new league.

In January, U.S. Soccer Federation stepped in and forced USL-1 and NASL to join forces for one season.

With Portland and Vancouver headed to Major League Soccer in 2011 and Montreal in 2012, Holt said he hopes to have at least eight teams and as many as 10 franchises in USL-1 next summer. FC New York has already announced plans to join USL-1 in 2011.

"It's a fluid situation, but next year we're pretty confident we're going to have eight-to-10 teams in USL 1," Holt said. "Down the road, we hope to expand to as many as 16 teams, but we need to be careful and not expand too quickly. We need to find the right ownership groups with the right business model."

What happens in USL-1 will directly affect the Charleston Battery. Holt said he expects to have a six-team "Western Conference" next season in USL-2 and add at least two teams to the current stable of teams in USL-2.

Holt also wants to build a closer relationship with MLS.

"We have no intention of competing with MLS," Holt said. "Just the opposite. We want to cooperate with them. We'd like for the USL to be used as a developmental league for the MLS like the minor leagues are used in baseball and hockey. I just think that makes sense for everyone involved in soccer."

Reach Andrew Miller at apmiller@postandcourier.com and check out the Charleston Battery 'Battery Shots' blog at www.postandcourier.com/blogs/battery