Thursday’s announcement that a Premier Development League will be setting up shop in Statesboro next spring was exciting, to say the least. Statesboro is officially adding to its already-stellar reputation as a sports town and is getting a bit closer to the professional ranks as well.
Soccer is steadily growing in popularity around the country and especially in younger demographics represented on the rosters of the PDL. It doesn’t take much to get a basic grasp of the game, but the place of the new Statesboro team in the soccer world may need some clarification.
The structure of the soccer pyramid in the United States differs a bit from most European models while also sharing some traits.
Things are easiest to understand at the top – Major League Soccer. These are the American teams that are routinely shown on television. The players on the men’s national team who aren’t playing out their regular seasons in Europe are often the star players for the 20-team league.
MLS was formed in 1996 and continues to gain momentum as the league will be up to 24 teams by the 2018 season. The Southeast hasn’t had much representation in the league, but that will change in 2017 as the newly-founded Atlanta United FC begin play.
Below the MLS ranks sits the United Soccer League. This second tier features 24 teams, the most familiar to Statesboro residents being the Charleston Battery.
The third tier, about to set up shop in Statesboro, is the Premier Development League. The league is comprised mostly of collegiate players, but can also field elite youth players and – to an extent – some players older than the league’s U23 setup.
Statesboro franchise owner Darin Van Tassell compared the PDL to the Cape Cod League in baseball as the league puts college players on display for professional scouts while maintaining their eligibility to return to their respective schools in the fall.
The PDL is split into four conferences, with divisions within those conferences further focusing on regional competition for each team. Statesboro won’t know its conference or division placement until after the league meetings in December, but seem likely to either join up with the six PDL franchises currently residing in Florida or possibly joining up with a group of teams scattered throughout the Carolinas, West Virginia and Ohio.
The makeup closely mirrors the European structure, but has one notable difference.
In Europe, the makeup of each league is constantly changing due to relegation and promotion. Teams finishing at the top of the lower leagues will annually jump up into the next tier the following season. The number of teams in each league remains stable from year to year as the bottom of the standings gets demoted by a tier to make way for the up-and-comers.
That’s not quite the case in the USA. While teams have moved up or down in the past, it has usually been due to financial or league expansion reasons.
But just because teams can’t automatically play their way in or out of a league doesn’t mean that teams from differing leagues will never meet.
Similar to England’s F.A. Cup, the new Statesboro club will be in the running to participate in the annual Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The tournament welcomes participants from nine different leagues, spanning from the MLS, all the way down to the smallest club levels.
Of the 64 PDL teams, the top 19 receive a bid to the tournament. As the top two tiers enter into the tournament in later rounds, a win or two from a PDL club could earn it a date against an MLS power and could even get the privilege of hosting a top club from the country’s highest tier.
But no matter how the tournaments or league plays out, the real winner is Statesboro.
The PDL routinely sends its top players into the MLS and into prestigious international leagues. It has also served as the stomping grounds for most of the U.S. players who competed in last summer’s World Cup. By all means, the ‘third-tier’ moniker doesn’t do the PDL justice.
Statesboro’s summers are about to be filled with exciting soccer, played by soon-to-be household names. And if all goes well, the new Statesboro team may very well make a splash at a higher level a bit farther down the road.
After all, Statesboro has a little bit of experience with taking startup sports teams and turning them into something big.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.