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USL wants Canadian franchises, but will wait on the CSA

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United Soccer Leagues president Tim Holt is on a roll. USL-PRO just signed a deal to ensure that games will be broadcast on Fox Soccer Channel for the next three seasons, and he just returned from Antigua, where the expansion Barracuda FC just played their opener in front of 4,000 fans.

But, while the USL is filled with Canadian clubs in the PDL, W-League and youth divisions, there isn’t one in the top flight.

Holt said the USL won’t talk expansion until the Canadian Soccer Association ends its moratorium on approving expansion teams into U.S.-based pro league outside of Major League Soccer. The CSA’s 10-month ban should end in October of 2011.

“We certainly see potential in some Canadian markets,” said Holt. “If we find the right ownership group, the right stadium. But we respect the CSA’s moratorium. For expansion to happen, we would need to reach a comfort level with the CSA. We have some great new Canadian cities in the PDL, like WSA Winnipeg. We see that potentially being a pro market. And there’s Hamilton, too. But Canadian soccer is definitely on the upswing.”

Interestingly, Holt says there are no hard feelings left between his league and the franchises that left USL’s top division to form the NASL. The NASL was granted official Div. 2 status by the United States Soccer Federation for this season, and it will be reviewed when the year is done. Despite the fact the NASL got the sanction, and USL is not officially Div. 2, Holt said “USL is the best-operated, strongest and most visible professional league below MLS in the United States and Canada.”

He thinks that statement is backed by the fact that Fox Soccer Channel — which has showed USL games for the past decade — came back to the table.

NASL has no deal other than local TV pacts in Puerto Rico, Montreal and Tampa Bay.

“It’s more important than branding, it’s the visibility of the league and the teams. That is our main objective.”

But, if NASL did not get a sanction for 2012, Holt admitted that the door would be open for talks.

“There are many different ways you can operate a professional soccer league in North America. We have our model, they have their model. We don’t have any hard feelings. It was a difficult period when we broke up but, now, we are past that. Absolutely, we would be open to talking to those teams, you can never say never. The soccer community in North America is very small. But any team coming into our league would have to work within our budgetary parameters.”

In fact, Holt said he hopes that both USL and NASL enjoy success.

Under new USSF rules, the NASL owners have to each put up US$500,000 letters of credit to ensure solvency, that teams won’t fold during the season. That’s what it takes to be Division 2; this season, at least.

NASL has eight teams at the moment. That could move to nine next season — if the league gets its sanction for 2012 and beyond — if the San Antonio franchise comes in as planned and the Montreal Impact, as rumoured, can launch another Canadian franchise for NASL as the parent club moves up to MLS.

But USL-PRO has 15 clubs. After the one-year USSF-enforced marriage between the USL and NASL was dissolved, Holt and co. undertook an aggressive expansion campaign which saw the league add three new Puerto Rico-based franchises and Antigua Barracuda FC, which just signed former Montreal Impact forward Peter Byers.

The four Caribbean teams play in a division with the expansion L.A. Blues. For small island nations that are too small to sustain national leagues, having one franchise in USL, which helps develop their talent, is an option. Holt said he could see USL adding one team from the Caribbean over the next few seasons.

“But I couldn’t see us going for more than eight teams from there,” he said.

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