HICKORY – Professional soccer may be coming to Hickory as early as next year.
Executives from the United Soccer League’s new third-division league will be in Hickory on Friday to meet with city leaders to “assess the potential for professional soccer” here, according to a press release from a league spokesperson. It will be the fifth stop league executives make next week, with trips also planned to Charleston, W.V. and Roanoke, Va., along with Greensboro and Winston-Salem.
The USL was recently promoted to the second tier of the American soccer pyramid, replacing the North American Soccer League, which failed to meet the United States Soccer Federation’s requirements for Division II status. That left an opening in the third division, which the USL hopes to fill with a new nationwide league beginning play next season.
The USL D3 already has founding members in Statesboro, Ga., Tuscon, Ariz., and Greenville, S.C. The release also states that league executives have already held expansion meetings in 30 cities, including Asheville, High Point and Fayetteville.
Mark Seaman, general manager of the Hickory Crawdads and chair of the Hickory Metro Sports Commission, will be among those meeting with USL D3 senior vice president Steven Short and the league expansion team on Friday. Seaman said that this is still in the “very preliminary discussions” stage, though there appears to be interest on both sides.
"The league’s focus remains on building regional-based competition, allowing fans to follow their team on the road," Short said via the release. "By returning to North Carolina and conducting initial meetings in Virginia and West Virginia, we continue to focus on proven sports communities and providing professional soccer to fans and communities that currently do have not direct access to a team of their own."
According to a press release first announcing the league last April, the league will focus on launching in new markets that “possess strong local ownership groups, populations with broad-based diversity, a vibrant millennial and strong family base, established corporate support, and stadiums to properly showcase the sport for fans, partners and the public.”
There are still many hurdles to clear should USL executives decide they are interested in starting an expansion team in Hickory, chiefly among them who will make up the ownership group, where the team would train and play home games, and how quickly all of this could come together.
Currently, North Carolina has two teams in the second-tier USL. North Carolina FC in Cary, previously known as the Carolina RailHawks, was founded in 2006. The Charlotte Independence began playing in 2015.
The state also has five teams in the Premier Development League, which is in the fourth tier of American soccer and considered an amateur league. The oldest of these is the Charlotte Eagles, which has been in existence since 1991. The Carolina Dynamo in Greensboro followed in 1993, with the Wilmington Hammerheads being founded in 1996.
North Carolina FC U23, which first began as Raleigh CASL Elite in 2002, is an affiliate of the senior club in Cary. The last of the five PDL clubs, Tobacco Road FC in Durham, was founded in 2013 and began playing in 2016.
Additionally, the state has one team in the National Women’s Soccer League, which is the top professional league on the women’s side in the country. The North Carolina Courage, which is also based in Cary, began playing last season.