The 2016 USL season has been going very well for New York Red Bulls II. The team is the regular season champion, setting new single-season records along the way. And its next priority is to make a splash in the playoffs. The post-season will see NYRB II settle in at Red Bull Arena, playing every game at home until or unless it gets knocked out of the tournament.
What's that? Oh, yes. Maybe not every post-season game at home.
Since it adopted its current identity in 2011, USL's basic competition structure has echoed that used currently in MLS: teams play a regular season, a healthy number make the playoffs, and the big finale (USL Cup) is hosted by the qualifying club with the best regular-season record.
But a press release from RBNY outlining NYRB II's potential schedule for the USL post-season included a bit of unexpected news:
The site of the USL Championship game is determined by a bid process, in which each teams submit requests to the USL league office.
That is different from the league's traditional approach, different from the competition structure it published at the start of the season, and different from what was expected by a great many people following the league.
It is also different from the way USL describes its plan for selecting a USL Cup host venue. It's not quite as simple as a bid.
A spokesperson for USL confirmed that the league has decided to deviate from its traditional approach to staging USL Cup. The prior system - Cup finalist with the best regular-season record hosts - has been shelved in favor of a more selective approach. Not a bid process - the league's spokesperson rejected that characterization out of hand -but one that will rely on "guidelines".
A list of guidelines for eligibility to host the USL Cup final has been issued to all playoff-bound teams.
Indeed, the guidelines have been issued to more than the playoff-bound teams, since USL stated they were sent out over the last couple of weeks and the last qualifying playoff team was only confirmed on September 25.
Those guidelines are "not a checklist" but viewed more as "parameters" that will inform the decision as to which team ultimately hosts USL Cup.
What are the guidelines exactly? USL isn't saying, but does confirm that they include "a minimum attendance requirement."
For New York Red Bulls II - a team whose attendance is as bad as its performance on the field is good - that sounds ominous. But the league is also clear on another point: there is nothing inherent in the guidelines that automatically eliminates any current playoff team as a potential host of the Cup final.
It is tempting to interpret the late change to the rules of competition (home advantage in USL Cup is significant: since 2011, no away team has won the final) as specifically targeting NYRB II and its lamentable attendance. But the league views its new approach as "part of the growing process", and points to last year's Western Conference Semifinal between Orange County Blues and LA Galaxy II as perhaps the moment when it became painfully apparent USL might not be able to sustain a simple "best team hosts" policy for its biggest games.
In 2015, Orange County Blues won the Western Conference and should have hosted the playoff semifinal against LA. But the team couldn't get access to its home field (Anteater Stadium at University of California, Irvine), so the match was switched to the Galaxy's stadium in Carson.
It would be embarrassing to see a final moved for a similar reason. So it's not difficult to accept USL's point that the incident highlighted the need for a policy that was more alert to the reality several of its teams face: they do not have exclusive (or even necessarily priority) access to their home fields.
Even NYRB II, currently playing in Red Bull Arena - a facility owned and operated by the New York Red Bulls - has twice been shunted out of its stadium this season to facilitate other priorities (the first occasion was to allow Video Assistant Referee equipment to be installed at the Arena; the second was to allow RBA's grass to grow a little greener).
And 2016 brings additional concerns for USL. Foremost: it has snagged a broadcast partner for USL Cup. Most of the league's regular season games are screened in relative obscurity on the USL YouTube channel. The Championship game, however, will be broadcast on ESPNU: an important step toward the league's goal of boosting its profile and broadening its audience. The Cup final will also mark the official launch of USL Productions: the league's new content production division, which will be producing and distributing all USL matches in 2017.
"It's the evolution of the league," USL's spokesperson told Once A Metro, "we have to be more organized, more professional."
And from USL's perspective, that evolution necessitates treating USL Cup as a special case. The league doesn't have many opportunities to show itself to a national TV audience, and it wants to make the most of this one:
We're going to take great care moving forward and put our best foot forward with regard to our Championship game.
Absent a look at the guidelines that have been presented to the USL's playoff teams, it is impossible to say how realistic NYRB II's shot at hosting the Cup final might be. How you feel about the change of plan likely corresponds to how you feel about the intrusion of commercial objectives on the league's rules of competition , or whether or not you work for USL. (Or RBNY, whose irrefutable claim to home advantage in USL Cup is now refuted.)
For its part, USL does not expect to dig into the task of evaluating an appropriate USL Cup host venue until the current playoff field is narrowed to its final four. And all we can say with certainty is that the league's new policy might not be to everyone's satisfaction, but it can no longer be called a surprise.