USL League One announces expansion team Lexington Pro Soccer

USL League One announces expansion team Lexington Pro Soccer

USL League One soccer balls are pictured at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington. Vince Gabbert, the president of Lexington’s new expansion professional soccer franchise in USL League One, also works with Keeneland on strategic initiatives and legislative affairs.

USL League One soccer balls are pictured at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington. Vince Gabbert, the president of Lexington’s new expansion professional soccer franchise in USL League One, also works with Keeneland on strategic initiatives and legislative affairs.

United Soccer League

After nearly two decades, Tuesday’s announcement that Lexington is getting a USL League One franchise signaled pro soccer’s return to Kentucky’s second-largest city.

The expansion team — which currently has the placeholder name Lexington Pro Soccer — will begin play in 2023.

You may have questions about Lexington’s newest sports team. Here are some answers:

What is USL League One?

USL (United Soccer League) League One serves as the third-highest tier of professional soccer in the United States.

What is the connection between USL League One and other soccer leagues with American teams?

Major League Soccer (MLS) is the highest tier, followed by three descending tiers that are governed by USL: USL Championship, USL League One and USL League Two.

In 2017, the United States Soccer Federation gave USL second-division sanctioning.

A team’s playing level is fixed in USL’s three divisions, and no form of promotion or relegation exists.

This means that no matter how good or how poorly a team performs in a season, they will remain in that same league next season, similar to minor league baseball.

For example, Louisville City FC has twice won the USL Championship, but has remained in that division.

During an interview after Tuesday’s announcement, USL President Jake Edwards told the Herald-Leader that feasibility studies are underway to evaluate the use of promotion and relegation in USL.

“We’re working on it,” Edwards said.

Why is USL League One expanding to Lexington?

According to the USL, it’s targeting “U.S. communities ranging in population from 150,000 to one million” for USL League One expansion.

“League One has focused on launching new clubs in markets that possess strong local ownership groups, populations with broad-based diversity, a vibrant millennial and strong family base, established corporate support and stadiums to properly showcase the sport for fans, partners and the public,” according to the league’s website.

The total estimated population of Fayette County is 322,750, according to U.S. Census Data released in August.

What other cities have franchises in USL League One?

USL League One, which began operations in 2019, currently has 12 clubs, but the league will add two new expansion clubs for the 2022 season.

The clubs listed for the 2022 USL League One season and the cities of their home stadiums are:

Central Valley Fuego FC (Fresno, Calif.), Northern Colorado Hailstorm FC (Windsor, Colo.), Chattanooga Red Wolves SC (East Ridge, Tenn.), Fort Lauderdale CF (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), Forward Madison FC (Madison, Wis.), Greenville Triumph SC (Greenville, S.C.), New England Revolution II (Foxborough, Mass.), North Carolina FC (Cary, N.C.), North Texas SC (Arlington, Texas), Union Omaha (Papillion, Neb.), Richmond Kickers (Richmond, Va.), South Georgia Tormenta FC (Statesboro, Ga.), Toronto FC II (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), FC Tucson (Tucson, Ariz).

USL League One teams with an MLS affiliate, who essentially operate as a reserve team for an MLS club, are Fort Lauderdale (Inter Miami), Forward Madison (Chicago Fire), New England Revolution II (New England Revolution), North Texas (FC Dallas) and Toronto FC II (Toronto FC).

In the short history of USL League One only two teams have left: Lansing Ignite FC of Lansing, Mich., folded and Orlando City B was withdrawn by its parent club, Orlando City SC of MLS.

The champions of USL League One were North Texas in 2019 and the Greenville Triumph in 2020, but last season’s championship game was canceled due to positive COVID-19 tests.

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Chattanooga Red Wolves SC forward Marky Hernandez (20) works between FC Tucson forward Shak Adams (77) and midfielder Roberto Alarcon (7) during a USL League One match in East Ridge, Tenn., last season. C.B. Schmelter AP

Who are the key figures of Lexington Pro Soccer?

The expansion franchise is majority-owned by Tower Hill Sports. The founder of Tower Hill Sports is William J. Shively, who also owns the historic Dixiana Thoroughbred horse farm.

Vince Gabbert is the president of Lexington Pro Soccer. Gabbert has served on the boards of Commerce Lexington and the Bluegrass Sports Commission. Gabbert, who is currently Keeneland’s vice president of strategic initiative and legislative affairs, will continue his work with Keeneland alongside his role with Lexington Pro Soccer.

Gabbert told the Herald-Leader “a private investment group” is supporting Lexington Pro Soccer.

“So everything there, in order to take care of the team and do all the things that we’re doing, there’s no public support that’s being required or any of that kind of stuff. It’s all local private investment,” Gabbert said.

Sam Stockley is the sporting director for Lexington Pro Soccer.

Stockley, originally from England, played professional soccer for nearly two decades in England, Hungary and the United States. He has served as a coach and technical director in England and the United States at levels ranging from youth to professional, including spending time with the U.S. Soccer Federation and with the Football Association of Wales.

Michelle Rayner is the senior director of performance operations for the club.

Rayner is a former associate head coach for the University of Kentucky women’s soccer team, and also previously served as the Wildcats’ recruiting coordinator and as the head coach of the High Point University women’s soccer team. Rayner played professionally in Australia and England and was a member of the New Zealand women’s soccer team that competed in the 1991 World Cup.

When will the Lexington USL League One franchise play its first match?

Lexington Pro Soccer will begin play in spring 2023.

What other teams will Lexington Pro Soccer field?

In addition to the USL League One franchise, Stockley said Lexington Pro Soccer will field a USL League Two team that will be the club’s Under-23 men’s team and also a USL W League team that will be the club’s Under-23 women’s team.

USL League Two and USL W League are both pre-professional leagues overseen by USL.

Lexington Pro Soccer will also field academy teams at various age levels for boys and girls.

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Sam Stockley, a former pro soccer player from England, was introduced Tuesday as the sporting director for Lexington’s new USL League One franchise. Ryan C. Hermens rhermens@herald-leader.com

Where will Lexington Pro Soccer play its games and practice?

According to Gabbert, discussions are ongoing with the University of Kentucky for the franchise to use the Wendell and Vickie Bell Soccer Complex on the UK campus for USL League One matches when the club debuts in spring 2023. The complex currently houses both the UK men’s and women’s soccer teams.

Long-term, Gabbert said a full development plan will be submitted and that Lexington Pro Soccer will be responding to the request for proposal (RFP) for the High Street Development Project, with the intent to construct a soccer-specific stadium on that site that could also hold concerts and other events.

This future stadium would be located next to Rupp Arena and the Central Bank Center in downtown Lexington.

Proposals for the project are due by Dec. 10, according to Lexington Center Corporation documents.

Lexington Pro Soccer is launching a survey to hear from community members about what they would want to see in a new stadium. Fans can complete the survey here.

When speaking to reporters after Tuesday’s announcement, Shively said he has contracts for land near Interstate 75 in Lexington that would serve as a backup stadium option if the downtown stadium doesn’t get built.

Shively also said there is “no funding from the city in any of the plans” for a new stadium, and added that the target size for the venue would be a capacity of between 6,000 and 10,000 people.

Lexington Pro Soccer is also exploring different site locations in Fayette County to be developed into training facilities and to serve as the home base for Lexington Pro Soccer’s academy program, which will include several youth teams for boys and girls.

Shively said the land near I-75 could also be where Lexington Pro Soccer builds its training facilities, with designs for as many as 15 soccer fields on the land.

Gabbert said the construction of training facilities would also be funded by private investment.

He said the target is to have training facilities and academy teams ready to go by the end of summer 2022.

What is the format of a USL League One season?

The 2021 USL League One regular season features 28 games for each of the league’s 12 teams.

Each team will play each other home and away, with six additional matches mainly slated for regional opponents.

The top six teams in the regular season advance to the playoffs.

The 2021 USL League One regular season is scheduled to run from April to October, followed by a postseason in November.

How can I watch USL League One?

The league is available to watch in the United States on ESPN Plus and from international locations on YouTube.

Will Lexington Pro Soccer ever play competitive matches against MLS teams?

While the team is located in the third tier of American soccer, Lexington Pro Soccer and other lower-division teams can earn the opportunity to play top-level MLS teams in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

The competition is a knockout cup competition contested by amateur and professional teams in the U.S., and often pits lower-division teams against MLS sides in its later rounds.

No lower-division team has won the competition since 1999 and none have reached the finals since 2008.

The competition was not held the last two years, but is set to return in 2022.

Are USL League One franchises successful?

Justin Papadakis, the USL’s chief operating officer and chief real estate officer, told the Herald-Leader that team financial information for USL League One clubs is confidential.

But, he added that USL League One has a strong track record of franchise growth.

“When the league started three years ago, teams (were) worth $500,000,” Papadakis said. “Now our franchise fee is $5 million.”

Papadakis added that USL is on pace to hit its goal of 35 USL League One clubs in the next four years.

How much will tickets cost?

Gabbert said feasibility studies are underway to determine appropriate pricing for tickets compared to the marketplace, while ensuring prices are accessible for families and fans.

When looking at eight of the 12 current USL League One teams (excluding New England Revolution II, Richmond Kickers, Toronto FC II and Fort Lauderdale), the average cheapest season ticket price for one ticket for the 2021 USL League One season is about $172.

Fans interested in placing a deposit on tickets for the 2023 season can go here.

Will the team actually be called Lexington Pro Soccer?

No. The club’s full crest and brand will be “developed through input from community members and soccer fans, who will play a vital role in the process,” according to the club.

Lexington Pro Soccer will host multiple listening sessions in the coming weeks and months to receive community feedback to craft the team’s identity.

Gabbert said the naming process began Tuesday and will feature community focus groups and other opportunities for fans to submit suggestions and ideas for the team brand and name.

“We hope to have it finalized this winter,” Gabbert said of the team name and identity.

Where can I follow the team?

Lexington Pro Soccer has launched team social media accounts, including on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, as well as a team website here.

Who is the coach going to be and how big is the staff?

The head coach for Lexington Pro Soccer and their coaching staff has not been named yet.

Both Gabbert and Stockley indicated there is a six- to nine-month timeline for naming a head coach and getting a coaching staff assembled.

How many players will be on the roster?

As of Tuesday, the 12 current USL League One teams averaged about 27 players who have played at least one game this season, with MLS-affiliated teams using more players because of their ability to toggle players between the MLS club roster and the USL League One roster.

Unlike MLS, which features a laundry list of bureaucratic roster rules and specific guidelines for things like allocation money and designated players, USL League One roster rules are more simplistic.

Where will the players come from?

Players in USL League One come from a variety of backgrounds, including international players and players who recently completed their college careers or who were drafted by MLS clubs and have been sent to play in the lower division for experience.

Lexington Pro Soccer also hopes to rely on players who have progressed through the club’s academy and youth teams.

Stockley said one of the goals of the club model is to “win championships with 65 to 70% homegrown players,” both for its men’s and women’s teams.

Lexington Pro Soccer is also planning to field a USL League Two team as its Under-23 men’s team, and those teams commonly provide college players with a team to play with during the summer months. For example, current Kentucky men’s soccer midfielder Bailey Rouse played for USL League Two team Colorado Rush last summer.

This story was originally published October 5, 2021 10:39 AM.

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Cameron Drummond works as a sports reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader with a focus on the University of Kentucky women’s basketball program, in addition to other college, high school and professional sports in the area. Drummond is a first-generation American who was born and raised in Texas, before graduating from Indiana University in 2020. He is a fluent Spanish speaker who previously worked as a community news reporter for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper in Austin, Texas.


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