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power rankings: NPSL and USL2 expansion

Okie dokie, so it feels like it’s time to try and make sense of all the clubs that have been announced in this quasi-4th tier between NPSL and USL League Two.

There’s a lot of variety here, and for that reason, it’s hard to know whether to be excited or bored by the crop that’s been announced for summer 2021 so far.

Thankfully, smallworld is here to do the research that normal people who manage their time well aren’t able to. Without further ado, here’s a ranking of the announced NPSL and USL2 expansion clubs for 2021, based on their potential and how excited I am to see them in their respective leagues.

14. Southern States SC: This club seems to have little to no intention of running themselves the right way. Everything from the Twitter page to the website to the lack of exposure in general screams lack of interest. That’s a shame, because the state of Mississippi deserves some better local teams to support and NPSL could use another good club in the deep south. SSSC isn’t shaping up to be one of them, as their branding is poor and their communication to the public is sparse at best. We’ve got them on level pegging with the club just ahead of them, and the only difference is state pride from yours truly. They’re both pretty boring and uninteresting clubs in my view.

13. Georgia Storm: Oh boy. Sadly, my home state’s lower-league representatives are tending to be more and more youth systems with a sad attempt at a Path to Pro model rather than authentic clubs adding something to the landscape. Hopefully the Storm prove me wrong, and Carrollton could certainly support a real semi-pro club, but given the lack of engagement and effort on social media to date, I can only see this being stagnant.

12. Morris Elite SC: It’s never a good sign when your league writes an entire article about “tremendous progress” at your club when you release a substandard set of jerseys for your upcoming season. I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility for Morris to find some on-field success, maybe even in year one. But there’s not a whole lot here to convince me that they’ll make many moves off the field to be a club worth following. It’s all still to be seen, of course, but it’s very much a classic extension-of-the-youth-system-for-money structure that’s all too common.

11. Iowa Raptors: I’m really torn on the Raptors. I want to be excited for what should be a fun in-state rivalry with Des Moines Menace, but then I also don’t feel a sense of seriousness from the club in its approach so far. They’ve been announced since July, and they’ve not done much with publicity and media. There’s also surely a story behind this beef with another club in Cedar Rapids. The Inferno are a non-profit club, keep in mind, so it doesn’t reflect well on Raptors that a non-pay-to-play club has issues with them. It’s too early to say, and the location brings potential of intrigue, but I’m not seeing it yet.

10. Round Rock SC: The Rams are in a great location that’s proven it can support great lower league soccer on the women’s side (courtesy of FC Austin Elite). In fact, the club plans on introducing a women’s squad of its own in Fall 2021. Round Rock, TX is a nice size for an NPSL club, and these guys aren’t brand-new to the game, either. They became a member of UPSL two years ago and had some success in their first season, finishing in 2nd in their division. They’ve struggled more recently, currently sitting second-bottom in the Central Conference’s Heart Division. Hopefully they can turn things around for the summer and rise to the level of their new USL League Two opponents. As an aside, we fully support their youth club that’s called the Little Rams because that was the name of the kindergarten rec team I coached.

9. Florida Roots FC: Panama City is an intriguing location for a lower-league club. Roots have been in the academy level for a while in PCB, and it seems like they’re very much filling a gap for the local talent there. If they can turn that into success on the field and get the local communtity out to support them, maybe they’re onto something cool here in the Florida panhandle! It’s also got the makings of a great rivalry with both Pensacola FC and Tallahassee SC based on geography alone.

8. Irving FC: Los Gallos have some cool potential. They’ve got a very local squad and Irving is an exciting place for a lower-league club. Small to mid-size Texas towns have supported quality NPSL clubs in the past, and I certainly think the same could be the case in Irving. I also like the couple of years of on-field experience that IFC brings among a crop of fellow newcomers that’s very new. The potential is here, but it’s still got a lot of unknowns for now.

7. Real Central New Jersey: Like Morris Elite, Real CNJ will represent the Garden State. They’ll do so from a different area, though, claiming what’s apparently a contentious geographical area, Central Jersey. Some say it’s not a thing, but these guys clearly feel it is. Whatever you call Trenton, NJ, it’s a bit removed from where most of the clubs in the state have populated, so it should provide a cool opportunity for local talent. There’s also quite a lot left to be determined for Real, who won’t actually use that name permanently. They’re looking for fan input on their branding before they make anything official, which is definitely a good sign of community interest. They’re also lining up a 6,000-seat venue to play in, so there are some intriguing pieces here. Hard to tell if they’re just smoke, though.

6. Project 51O: Project’s potential comes solely from the fantastic track record of its parent club, Oakland Roots. 51O will be the second team/youth system for the new USL Championship side, and there’s nothing particularly crazy about the model or the structure here. Just given that Roots are running this side is enough to make it exciting, though, as Roots were one of NISA’s coolest clubs while they were there and drew pretty nice attendance. I’m expecting some on-field quality on display as well, even given the tendency for second teams to perform below average in USL League Two.

5. Panathinaikos Chicago: they may not have the history of other ethnic-based clubs like Brooklyn Italians and Bavarians SC, but they’ve certainly got the ambition. Their youth academy was only started in 2019, and this NPSL season will be their first competitive effort for an adult team. They’ve expressed clearly that they intend to win the division in season one and make a run at the national playoffs as well. That may prove a tougher task then they anticipate given that the only two divisions they could end up in are Minneapolis City’s North Conference and a Midwest Conference sporting Muskegon Risers and Fort Wayne FC. Either way, though, they should be instantly competitive on the pitch and bring a cool international flavor. Their owners are Greek, but they’ve also got some Hispanic blood in the mix with an Argentinian head coach. They’ll be one to watch as far as how the local area unites around them and supports the team.

4. FC Málaga City: I first read the announcement of Málaga City a couple of days ago and thought, “oh these guys will be top two for sure.” As you can tell, that was not the case, but that has much more to do with the quality of other clubs than a lack thereof on Los Lobos’ end. Those of you who are skilled in the art of geography might be asking yourself whether I know that Málaga is, in fact, not in the United States. Answer: this Málaga is in New York! More specifically, Málaga City is an extensive and well-respected youth academy in three locations, one of which is stateside. That location will be represented in USL League Two in 2021, and given the opportunities a lot of players in this system have received, that’s an exciting thing. From a simple glance at the club’s branding and website, it’s evident that this team cares about what it’s doing. A further bit of research reveals that City din’t utilize the pay-to-play system, which is AMAZING. The potential is just oozing from this club, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see Los Lobos as the type of club that keeps USL2 relevant in grassroots circles sooner rather than later, alongside the likes of San Francisco City, Lionsbridge FC, and now Little Rock Rangers (see below).

3. Appalachian FC: not to be confused with West Virginia’s Appalachia FC (another equally exciting club, but not in either of these leagues), Appalachian are located in the high-altitude college town of Boone, NC. The local school, Appalachian State, cut their men’s soccer program, and Michael Hitchcock responded by collecting a strong ownership group to get a semi-pro soccer team to take its place. Boone is a very cool city for a lower-league club and one of the reasons I myself considered going to App State for a while. It’ll be an exciting away day for its new division rivals, which I would expect to be the Southeast Conference, and a local population that’s quite loyal to Boone and should latch on to this club fairly quickly if the owners are as high-quality as they’re made out to be. This one isn’t just hype for me; I’m placing some pretty high expectations for community engagement and professionalism on AFC from day one.

2. Fort Wayne FC: We were fans of Fort Wayne when they expanded to NPSL last year, and we’re still fans now as they make the move to USL League Two (albeit without having kicked a ball in NPSL). The ambition they’ve added with their intent to jump to USL League One in 2023 is exciting as well, and I see them slotting right in at that level based on the organization’s fan engagement so far. They were ready to go for last year, so I have no worries for them on the field. I’m expecting a quality roster that plays well together, something that’s not easy to find at this level. Their Great Lakes Division will be one of the more difficult ones in the league by my estimation, but they’ll challenge for that title and be a formidable playoff opponent if they advance from the group.

1. Little Rock Rangers: It almost doesn’t feel fair putting the Rangers in a group like this. They’ve been NPSL mainstays since 2015 and are without a doubt a big loss for that league. They’re equally a great addition for USL2, as they provide a great fanbase, a passionate SG in The Red Watch, a newfound presence in Arkansas, and a successful on-field product. They could very possibly walk the Mid South Division in 2021 and make a deep playoff run as well. Whether or not they should have moved is another question for another time, but in any case, USL League Two will be glad to have them, and they should be instant contenders. It’ll be exciting to see how they match up with new division rivals like Mississippi Brilla and AHFC Royals after being so successful in NPSL, both on and off the field.

There you have it! Newly-announced Appalachian FC nearly take the cake after just a few days of existence, but a couple of stalwarts changing leagues force them to settle for a top three spot. In reality, it’s near-impossible to see a scenario where a brand-new club could compare to what Rangers and Fort Wayne have put together.

All that to say, there’s a good mixture of really exciting new projects and some filler clubs that we don’t expect to do too much. If a few more of the former find their way to either of these leagues for 2021, we could be in for a great summer. Especially considering how many cool expansion clubs from 2020 will finally get to take the field as well!

Thanks as always for reading, and support local soccer!

Blessings,

Danny

By danny kotula

danny kotula is an aspiring sports writer and play-by-play commentator. unfortunately, he is not good at either one. his interests include watching soccer and listening to obscure music genres, and those aren’t even his most boring ones. he was born in Tacoma, Washington but has called South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, California, Georgia, and Costa Rica home over the course of his life. he generally knows where to put a comma, which is by far his most redeeming quality. he is writing this in third person as if he were famous enough for someone to write him a biography, but don’t be fooled. he’s not famous.

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