Support for lower division teams will be biggest indicator of soccer’s success in America

FC Cincinnati has only played nine games in its entire existence, but the USL side has started to capture a lot of buzz, not only in the city, but across the U.S. soccer scene.

Photo of large crowds at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium from the team’s match ups against rivals Louisville City and Pittsburgh have made their rounds around the internet. Each game pulled in over 20,000 fans and each game breaking the USL single-game attendance record.

On May 14, 23,375 fans showed up for the Pittsburgh match, which outdrew all but one of the ten MLS matches this weekend. In total, FC Cincinnati is averaging 17,462 fans in four home games this season, which would place it 14th in MLS at the moment.

Whether or not they can keep this up over the course of the season remains to be seen, especially if the team’s form drops off at any point. But they’re success brings to the front a crucial aspect of growing the sport of soccer in this country — the success of the lower divisions will be the biggest indicator of the success the sport is having in the U.S.

MLS and the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams get all of the attention and rightfully so. They are at the top level of the sport, supposedly the best of the best in this country. But making America more of a soccer country requires more than just having 20 teams or 24 team or 28 team or whatever the final number of teams is in the top division. It’s going to take having very successful teams in the second division (NASL) and third division (USL) and even below towards the amateur ranks, and that goes for in the stands as well as on the field.

It’s easy to support top level teams — the teams that get all of the attention. But supporting the lower level teams, those that don’t get on national television can be difficult, especially with no promotion/relegation. Still, the more these lower level teams are able to draw supporters, the more firm the footing is for those teams to grow and the better the atmosphere and the game are. Plus, it perks the attention of other investors and helps start new clubs in other towns, continuing the cycle of growth. And then, maybe then, we can have actual promotion and relegation in this country.

It also has the added benefit of growing the depth of the player pool for the men’s national team. More players will get a chance to play at a higher level, more players will be discoverable, both for MLS teams and teams in other countries. That, hopefully, will lead to better player development, better players overall and a much better national team.

Of course, FC Cincinnati is still the exception and not the norm, especially when it comes to the NASL and USL and there’s a long way to go in getting support for those lower leagues. But the two are a reminder to watch those leagues and support those teams because that’s where the future success of soccer in America is going to come from.