In 2015, the Portland Timbers will return to the USL, only this time, they'll do so with a new team and a new name: Timbers 2.
But the league they're joining is not the same USL you may remember.
After the 2010 season -- the Timbers' last in the lower divisions -- the USL underwent a dramatic reorganization. In previous years, the USL had been split into two separate divisions, and in 2010, due to an ongoing status dispute between the USL and the North American Soccer League (NASL), the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) stepped in, creating the temporary USSF Division 2 Professional League.
To end the dispute, USSF led the two leagues to compromise. In 2011, the USL merged its two divisions into a single league, the USL PRO, that would represent the third division of American professional soccer. Two teams that should be familiar to Timbers fans, the Charleston Battery and Rochester Rhinos, remained in USL PRO, while other clubs -- like the Carolina RailHawks and NSC Minnesota Stars (now Minnesota United FC) -- moved to the NASL.
The next step in USL PRO's evolution came in early 2013, when the league agreed to a multi-year partnership with MLS. That partnership required participating MLS clubs to send at least four players on long-term loan to a USL PRO affiliate—in 2014, the Timbers partnered with Sacramento Republic FC but also sent players to Orange County Blues as well. Beginning next season, every MLS team will be required, at minimum, to have such an affiliation agreement with a USL PRO club.
Back in 2009, there were twenty clubs between the USL First and Second Divisions. Next season, there will be twelve new franchises in USL PRO -- including Timbers 2 -- increasing the total number of teams to twenty-three. For the first time since its reorganization, USL PRO will have more than twenty teams.
What's Remained the Same?
USL PRO might look radically different, but there's one quirky rule that's remain unchanged.
Some Timbers fans may remember that the USL permits teams to make five substitutions per match. The history and rationale behind this goes back to the beginning of the league, when teams played more back-to-backs to cut down on travel costs and when some clubs traveled with as few as fourteen players on the roster.
How did USL get away with it?
"I made the rule," Francisco Marcos, the USL’s founder, told MLSsoccer.com in June. "FIFA looked the other way. FIFA will look the other way whenever it is convenient to look the other way."
The rule is still in place, and according to current USL President Tim Holt, there's been no movement to change it.
Expect plenty of Timbers 2 players to get time on the field in 2015.
What Happened Last Season?
2014 was a banner year for the league.
In its inaugural season, Sacramento Republic FC shattered attendance records and tore through its regular season schedule en route to a USL PRO final 2-0 victory over the Harrisburg City Islanders. Timbers goalkeeper Jake Gleeson, on loan to The Republic for much of the season and in net for the championship win, had a fantastic year with an 11-2-3 record and a 0.88 GAA. His 11 victories ranked second across all of USL PRO and he was named a finalist for the 2014 USL PRO Goalkeeper of the Year.
LA Galaxy II, the MLS club's USL PRO team—the first such team in USL PRO history—came closest to ending Republic FC's storybook run. In its semifinal match, Galaxy II led Republic FC 2-0 on the road before the Sacramento club roared back to life behind three second-half goals from former Timbers midfielder Rodrigo Lopez.
Despite losing that match, the LA Galaxy still celebrated a very successful first season in USL PRO. The Galaxy II reserve team helped injured players like fullback Robbie Rogers return to full match fitness and also provided critical playing time to Homegrown assets like Bradford Jamieson IV, Raul Mendiola, and Jaime Villarreal.
In one of the most shocking upsets of the 2014 season, the eighth-seeded Harrisburg City Islanders defeated Orlando City SC in the first round of the playoffs. The loss proved Orlando City's final match after four wildly successful years in USL PRO. The Florida club will join MLS as an expansion franchise in 2015.
What to Watch Next Season?
The Timbers, Seattle Sounders, Montreal Impact, Toronto FC, Vancouver Whitecaps and Real Salt Lake will all join the LA Galaxy with USL PRO reserve teams of their own. How each MLS club utilizes its reserve team will be one of the major ongoing story lines next season.
With twelve new franchises and growing ties with MLS, USL PRO expects 2015 to be one of the most wide-open and competitive seasons in its history.