USL plans to evaluate Wichita’s potential for professional soccer

FC Wichita plays its home game at Stryker Soccer Complex in northeast Wichita. A team in the USL third division would require an upgraded stadium.
FC Wichita plays its home game at Stryker Soccer Complex in northeast Wichita. A team in the USL third division would require an upgraded stadium. The Wichita Eagle

The United Soccer League will send an expansion committee to Wichita in the coming months to evaluate the city’s potential for a professional outdoor team.

At the same time, FC Wichita is considering if the USL’s new Division 3 is the right step for its future and the future of the sport.

“We’re definitely interested in Wichita,” said USL vice president Steven Short. “There is a lot for us to learn in-market, specifically what the city would want to see from a professional team. You don’t want to force a team there, if it’s not going to be supported. Then it doesn’t help anyone.”

The USL is in the midst of evaluating many cities for Division 3, which is scheduled to launch in March 2019. Short said he likely will visit Wichita by early November. As of mid-September, the expansion team had visited 15 cities, including Lexington, Ky., Macon, Ga., Knoxville, Tenn., Asheville, N.C. and Des Moines.

The USL operates a 30-team Division 2, with teams in cities such as Cincinnati, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Tulsa and Oklahoma City. It is the second-highest level in the U.S. Soccer Federation’s developmental structure, beneath Major League Soccer.

At least five Division 2 expansion teams are in the works. With the USL close to its goal of around 40 teams, the league is looking to expand with a third-tier league.

Wichita’s potential is tied to finding cities within roughly a six-hour drive to form a division.

“We’re focused on building regional rivalries and reducing travel for our teams,” Short said. “It’s important for the teams to be sustainable in the long term by limiting the travel.”

Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission president Bob Hanson sees Wichita’s soccer history — at the youth level and with the indoor professional Wichita Wings — and the recent growth of FC Wichita’s amateur team in the National Premier Soccer League as indications the city may be ready for this step.

“It’s been a big soccer community through the years,” Hanson said. “It's going to take the right guy or the right (ownership) group to make it happen.”

Short expects to talk with city officials, soccer leaders and business leaders. Tops on his list is meeting people who might want to own part or all of a team. USL D3 owners must have a net worth of $10 million (half of the requirement for its higher level league). He declined to reveal the entrance fee.

“We focus on local ownership, because we’ve seen such a tremendous movement in our league with owners who are local, rather than remote,” he said. “They’re ingrained in the community.”

FC Wichita owner Blake Shumaker said he believes Wichita offers potential owners with that kind of money.

“Certainly, Wichita has people capable of doing that,” he said. “It’s without a doubt doable. It may take opening up and having a little bit of a partnership.”

The USL minimum for stadium capacity is 3,500. Some teams will play in soccer-specific stadiums; some in shared stadiums, although American football markings are not allowed to for aesthetic reasons. The season, around 24-28 games, will run from March to September and teams will carry around 30 players.

FC Wichita plays at Stryker Soccer Complex and its stadium, capacity of around 2,000, would require significant upgrades to house a USL team. Another possibility is the new baseball stadium planned to replace Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. In an e-mail, Wichita mayor Jeff Longwell said it is too early to discuss plans, whether for a shared or soccer-only stadium, as a home for an outdoor team.

Shumaker is watching the USL Division 3 as his youth teams grow and the NPSL team, which uses college athletes, succeeds.

“It’s very much in a discovery phase,” Shumaker said. “We’ve been operating in the office with the mentality of continuing to move and expand ourselves for a few years. We’re at the point we’re interested in talking to them.”

The idea of playing soccer in the Delano district and attracting crowds of 5,000 or more fans is exciting and realistic in his mind. The mission is to help soccer grow and if the USL makes sense, he is interested in providing owners a head start with FC Wichita’s credentials and organization.

“This is a turnkey operation for an investor, and that’s what we wanted to establish,” Shumaker said. “That’s why a few people have come to the table and said ‘How much do you need up front?’ We say ‘This much,’ and they say ‘Well, don’t you need this, this and this.’ We already own that.”

Shumaker’s priority is taking the next step in a cautious way. He doesn’t want to see a professional team fail. Travel costs are critical, so he is monitoring the USL’s efforts in regional cities closely.

“I don’t know that forcing us to the next level in the next 12-24 months would be the right strategy,” he said. “Our position is more along the lines of gatekeepers for the game of soccer in Wichita. We’ve slowly grown to put ourselves in a position to be having this conversation. We want to make sure we don’t get wide-eyed and rush into it.”

Paul Suellentrop: 316-269-6760, @paulsuellentrop