Design & Development

‘The team is the catalyst for the community’ – the USL’s stadium boom

Featured image credit: Indy Eleven

The United Soccer League is, by its own admission, in the midst of a stadium boom.

The league operates competitions that sit below Major League Soccer in the US soccer system. Thirty-six teams compete across the top two professional divisions, with further expansion anticipated in the coming years.

With the US set to co-host the 2026 FIFA World Cup alongside Mexico and Canada, interest in the sport has never been greater. Indeed, FIFA president Gianni Infantino predicted last year that soccer would become the “number-one sport” in North America by the time the World Cup comes around.

Followers of the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball may have scoffed at Infantino’s comments but the profile of soccer in the US is growing by the month.

In May, MLS awarded its 30th franchise to the city of San Diego for a reported fee of $500m (£392m/€459m) – a league record and significantly more than the $325m Charlotte reportedly paid ahead of its debut in 2022. Just last week, FIFA announced that the US would host the first edition of its new and expanded 32-team Club World Cup, which is due to take place in 2025.

Throw in the impending arrival of Lionel Messi, arguably the sport’s greatest ever player, at Inter Miami, and Infantino’s comments do not appear so far-fetched.

Stadium projects are at the heart of the sport’s growth in the US. Increasingly, clubs across MLS and the USL are building their own soccer-specific homes as opposed to sharing with NFL franchises or college football teams.

Community vision

One of the biggest USL project currently in the works is a new 20,000-seat stadium for Championship club Indy Eleven.

In February, the Indianapolis-based club unveiled the first renderings for Eleven Park, a new $1bn neighbourhood development project that will be anchored by the multi-purpose stadium.

The stadium has been designed by Populous and Indy Eleven broke ground on the project in May. Completion is scheduled for 2025, with the wider development to include over 600 apartments, 205,000 square feet of office space, over 197,000 square feet for retail space and restaurants, a hotel, public plazas with green space, and public parking garages.

Image: Indy Eleven
Image: Indy Eleven

Multi-purpose stadium districts are becoming increasingly popular in the US, and not just in soccer. The USL is keen to encourage such projects to ensure stadiums can serve as year-round destinations.

“The team is the catalyst for the community,” Will Kuhns, senior vice-president of communications and public relations at the USL, tells

“The team represents different parts of the community; it provides access and equity. Stadiums can help develop or revitalise an area, particularly when combined with new housing, retail, and entertainment options.

“We encourage our clubs to think about the whole matchday experience for fans before even beginning to design or build a stadium. Most of our stadiums are designed to maximise usage year-round with other sporting events, concerts, conferences, graduations, smaller private events, and more.”

Image: Indy Eleven
Image: Indy Eleven

Stadium ownership key

There are several cities with stadiums recently built or renovated for USL teams, including Charlotte, Chattanooga, Colorado Springs, Louisville, Monterey Bay, Pittsburgh and San Antonio.

South Georgia Tormenta FC and Northern Colorado Hailstorm FC recently moved into their own soccer-specific stadiums, while incoming expansion teams in Spokane, Washington and Pawtucket, Rhode Island are in the midst of building their own stadiums.

Image: Rhode Island FC

Existing USL teams with active plans to build new homes include Sacramento Republic, Oakland Roots, Memphis 901, Lexington SC, One Knoxville and the aforementioned Indy Eleven.

Image: Sacramento Republic/Manica

USL expansion markets that have secured land and/or funding for a new stadium include Des Moines, Iowa and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with more to be announced soon.

Image: Pro Iowa
Image: Milwaukee Pro Soccer

For the USL, stadium ownership is a key factor, both in terms of growing a sense of identity among the fan base and in maximising potential revenue streams.

“From a club business perspective, the single most important factor is owning or being the primary tenant of a soccer-specific facility,” says Kuhns.

“We want our team to be primary tenants, or the main show, of the venue. Everything from leveraging matchday revenue streams, priority in scheduling, quality field maintenance, branding – you name it – stems from that. Many of our clubs do not have complete ownership of the stadium, but they are the primary stakeholder of the stadium’s use and operations on matchdays.

“The stadium is an extension of the club brand, the spiritual home of the club. When we say soccer-specific, we mean a stadium purpose-built for and with a USL club, reinforcing the credibility of the sport and establishing that permanence locally. It’s the place where memories are made, and if it’s a place that fans want to bring their friends and family, that’s a long-term win for the club’s identity.”

World Cup the ‘perfect accelerant’

The US has staged the FIFA World Cup on one previous occasion, in 1994.

The tournament led to a massive increase in the sport’s profile in North America, with MLS launching two years later. The US also hosted the 1999 Women’s World Cup, which sparked huge interest and participation in the women’s game.

The US will also host the 2024 Copa América, the national team competition for South American countries, while it is bidding to co-host the 2027 Women’s World Cup alongside Mexico.

It is hoped these national team tournaments, headlined by the 2026 World Cup, can impact US soccer in the same way the 1994 event did.

“There are clear, direct connections between the 1994 and 1999 World Cup tournaments on US soil and the transformation of the United States into a soccer-loving nation,” says Kuhns.

“The difference now is that the foundation is in place, soccer has become part of the mainstream sports landscape, with professional clubs across the whole country. By next August, more than 50 of those will be competing in the USL. Every World Cup boosts the overall interest in soccer, even when it’s held abroad. Having these massive, global events here are the perfect accelerant for everything we’re doing at the USL.

“The USL is in the midst of a stadium boom, and we speak often about our clubs’ venues serving as a kind of a ‘community living room’ where people come together for lots of reasons, many of them non-soccer reasons. Some of our clubs and venues are bidding to be training sites for national teams during the 2026 event, which would be a great economic driver for the community. 

“The fact that Lionel Messi will soon be playing his club ball in the United States is another indicator of how far we’ve come as a soccer nation, and the respect that the rest of world has for what we’re building.”

MLS has witnessed a flurry of stadium openings recently. Since 2021, Columbus Crew, Austin FC, FC Cincinnati, Nashville SC and St. Louis City SC have moved into soccer-specific homes, while Inter Miami and New York City FC are planning new stadiums of their own.

MLS and the USL are separate entities, and the lack of promotion and relegation prevents any crossover between the divisions, but the investment in stadium development in MLS has had an undoubted trickle-down effect.

“There are parallels, for sure, and the rising tide lifts all boats,” says Kuhns. “This goes back to what I was saying about the foundation being in place. In 1996, the year MLS started, if you told anyone in Louisville, Milwaukee, or Indianapolis that you wanted to build a stadium for a professional soccer team, they would have looked at you like you had three heads.

“Yet here we are with active soccer stadium projects in more than 20 different markets. Soccer is a permanent fixture in our great sports culture, cities are proud of their professional clubs, and our clubs continue to innovate and give back to their communities.”

‘Sustainable ecosystem’

Milwaukee’s USL Championship franchise is set to begin playing at a new 8,000-seat stadium in 2025.

The club will be led by local investors Kacmarcik Enterprises and Milwaukee Pro Soccer, and the stadium will form part of the wider Iron District MKE sports and entertainment district.

The Iron District stadium will also house Marquette University’s men’s and women’s soccer teams and lacrosse teams. Kuhns said that the USL had considered the Milwaukee market for seven years but was waiting for the right stadium plan.

“That’s what we have now, and when completed, it’ll be a hot ticket and high on a lot of soccer fans’ bucket list. We had the market and a solid ownership group, we just decided to get the stadium piece before awarding a franchise. It came together in the last couple of years and the groundbreaking was six months ago.”

Image: Milwaukee Pro Soccer
Image: Milwaukee Pro Soccer

In June last year, the USL agreed a wide-ranging partnership with global premium experiences company Legends which is designed to drive the next evolution of its business.

Under the 10-year contract, Legends will seek to bolster national sponsorship sales, provide actionable fan insights, and unlock innovative business solutions for the USL’s suite of men’s and women’s soccer properties.

Last month, the USL announced 13 initial markets that will be part of its new professional women’s league, the USL Super League. The inaugural season, comprising eight teams, will begin in August 2024.

Tampa Bay’s USL Super League has committed to building a women’s-specific stadium, while several men’s clubs are set to integrate Super League into their plans to build or renovate their stadiums.

“Many of our clubs will feature men’s and women’s professional teams playing in the same home stadium,” Kuhns said. “In 2024, those seasons will be staggered, with our men’s leagues starting in March and the professional women’s league starting in August on a more international calendar.”

In terms of further expansion, Kuhns feels the USL can succeed in almost any size market – “from Phoenix to Madison; Oakland to Statesboro” – due to the “sustainable ecosystem” it has created that allows teams to compete on the field while growing their impact and businesses off the field.

“We’re excited about all the new clubs joining the USL over the next few years, and we’re seeing more new investment in our existing clubs, too, like Dominique Wilkins in his hometown Birmingham Legion, Greg Baroni in Loudoun United, and more.”

Long term, Kuhns envisions a future where every USL team plays at its own soccer-specific stadium.

“The term ownership is what we’d love to get to, but short-term, we’re focused on getting teams in the best financial situation as possible and that’s venue-based,” he adds. “But yes, (the vision is) every team in their own soccer-specific stadium because that’s the number one way to increase club valuation and revenue streams.”