On the state of soccer in Greenville

I never thought an announcement about a sports team coming to my hometown would elicit mixed feelings. As a lifelong Greenvillian and sports fiend, I thought almost nothing could make me happier. However, today’s announcement that USLDIII is coming to Greenville, SC in 2019 brought me excitement, very quickly followed by sadness, confusion, and a healthy dose of reality. First, my credentials: I love sports. I grew up on American football, but when Brandi Chastain and Mia Hamm led the US to a World Cup, that all changed. Since then, I’ve been an avid USWNT and USMNT supporter (though, more recently, some deserved criticism has also made an appearance), embraced MLS through my beautiful Portland Timbers and their Timbers Army, celebrated a Portland Thorns National Championship, and watched countless college games; I’ll take the game almost any way I can get it. Case in point: I spent an hour yesterday outside watching three-year-olds play (and, as cute as they are, I use the term “play” in the loosest sense). I am ravenous for more soccer, especially live games.

Second, a clarification: I desperately want soccer to do extremely well specifically in Greenville, for a multitude of reasons. I would like my eventual children to have the option of bypassing American football, with all its potential for long lasting brain injury, in lieu of something more elegant. I signed the petition going around last year to bring attention to Greenville from the USLDIII. I have season tickets for GVL FC, which came available as I was walking my husband into the dentist to have his wisdom teeth removed; we both became season ticket holders while he was being put under anesthesia. I can’t tell you how much time we’ve spent around TVs and dinner tables and pitches, talking and guessing about teams and stadiums and partnerships. I just never imagined that dream of professional soccer in my backyard finally materializing might have the potential to sink something beautifully grassroots that already exists now, in GVL FC.

Does Greenville have room for two teams? Maybe, but Greenville has quite the track record when it comes to professional teams falling by the wayside. While the Greenville Drive baseball team has seemed to thrive, any Greenvillian will remember the Greenville Grrrowl (yes, apparently, the three R’s were necessary, for reasons never fully explained). The city announced the hockey team as they demolished the Greenville Memorial Auditorium to build the Bi-Lo Center (now the Bon Secours Wellness Arena, or “The Well,” if the marketing campaign is to be believed). The team played in the ECHL for 8 seasons, declining in attendance a quick 3 years after winning the championship in 2001-2002, and eventually shuttering in 2006[1]. In 2010, another ECHL franchise moved from Pennsylvania to become the Greenville Road Warriors. The team has since changed names to the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, along with several ownership changes[2].

Along with hockey, Greenville has also dabbled in other sports. The Greenville Groove played 2 seasons in the National Basketball Development League (now the NBA G League), winning the championship their first year, and folding after their second[3]. The Carolina Rhinos called the Bi-Lo Center home from 2000-2002, playing in the AF2 Arena Football division[4]. The Greenville Force took another shot in 2009 and 2010 (after another team announced in 2004 they would play in Greenville, but never did)[5]. With all this history of sports teams with dubious tenure in the last 20 odd years, a healthy skepticism seems prudent at best.

It might seem like I am ungrateful that teams keep taking a chance on my city, or even that I am anti-Greenville sports; both of these could not be further from the truth. I remember multiple Grrrowl, Swamp Rabbits, Greenville Braves, and Drive games fondly, and the Drive at least seem to have discovered the keys to both staying power and success within the city. Soccer presents a unique challenge, at least partially stemming from the unorthodox setup of the structure.  When the average person hears the announcement of a USLDIII team coming to Greenville, they may assume we already have one. USL, technically, is the second tier in a pyramid system: MLS is the pinnacle, followed by USL (now that NASL has lost their sanctioning status[6]); both of these are sanctioned by the US Soccer Federation. USLDIII seeks to fill the third tier of this pyramid, above amateur leagues like the NPSL and PDL, who are unrecognized by the USSF. I assume that these facts are how the USLDIII committee this morning in Greenville could claim that they were “bringing professional soccer” to the city, not even deigning to mention GVL FC.

So what do I see happening? Well, best case scenario and worst case scenarios seem the easiest way to explain it. Best case scenario: Greenville gets not one, but two ways to take in the beautiful game in person. The two teams feed off each other’s energy, GVL FC attracts talent and passion this year that dovetails nicely into the USLDIII’s team next year. Eventually, maybe GVL FC becomes a stepping stone for the DIII team. That asks a lot of an organization that has yet to play a single game, and barely allows a season for them to get established. It seems GVL FC has a lot of fans aboard the “hype train,” but it is far too early to pass any judgements. Then comes the worst case scenario: two teams divides the attention of a curious potential fanbase, not allowing either franchise to find a secure footing. If that becomes the case, both could fold, becoming small footnotes in the history of teams in Greenville. USLDIII seems excited to reach new heights in new places, but I wonder if that comes at the expense of sustainability. Maybe the league has been considering their moves for a while, but the optics seem to imply they are lumbering into a burgeoning market in Greenville they may disrupt and even permanently alter. I, for one, hope that they start treading lighter, in hopes of keeping the soccer dream alive at all levels.

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