The 5 U.S. cities best suited for the D-3 pro soccer boom

Professional soccer is expanding rapidly in the United States, and these cities stand to gain the most.

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It’s a good time to be a person interested in starting a professional soccer team.

The USL is aiming to start a third-division league by 2019, and Peter Wilt announced plans to start the National Independent Soccer Association, a competing Division 3 that might soon introduce promotion and relegation to the U.S. soccer scene. That leaves hundreds of markets that will likely be considered for a new pro soccer team at some level.

There are many factors that go into picking markets: The right ownership group, the venue options, the population and demographics. Soccer’s popularity in the market can be a big decider, too.

With that in mind, here are five top markets that could be a perfect fit for a Division 3 professional team in the coming years.

5. Greenville, South Carolina

Named the fourth-fastest growing city in the U.S., Greenville may only have a population of around 67,500 but it has the demographics and set-up to be the perfect fit for a third-division soccer club. The city’s 15,000-seat Sirrine Stadium would be perfect for a lower-division club, and it sits in a county with a population near 500,000.

There also isn’t a ton of competition. Greenville is home to minor league baseball’s Greenville Drive, a Class A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, but it’s a market that could easily welcome another sports franchise.

4. Grand Rapids, Michigan

Home to the NPSL club Grand Rapids FC, Michigan’s second-largest city is a market ripe for a professional soccer club. Grand Rapids is home to an NBA D-League team, a minor league hockey team and a minor league baseball team, but the city of nearly 200,000 people could be a good fit for another pro franchise.

The median age is just 31.1, in an ideal range for soccer fans, and the city’s millennial population leads the country in home ownership, with nearly 89 percent living on their own. Houseman Field, an 8,000-seat multipurpose stadium currently used by Grand Rapids FC, is a mile outside of downtown.

3. Little Rock, Arkansas

The city of almost 200,000 would be a strong market in the South, an area where soccer is only starting to make an impact. There aren’t many soccer options in the area – Oklahoma City, Dallas and Kansas City are all a healthy drive away – and the city is keen on keeping its millennials at home in Little Rock. Soccer can help.

Little Rock is home to a minor league baseball team and there are plenty of Arkansas Razorback fans, but soccer may be able to break into the market. There are also multiple stadium options, including War Memorial Stadium and the 15,000-seat Quigley-Cox Stadium, a high school football venue; both have turf, but each would provide the infrastructure of a lower-division soccer team.

2. Des Moines, Iowa

Soccer could find a good home in Iowa, where its main competition is college football in the fall. The PDL’s Des Moines Menace averaged about 3,000 in attendance last season, having seen its numbers drop from more than 4,000 in the early 2000s. Still, the potential is there.

There are plenty of stadium options including Valley Stadium, where the Menace now play, though the ban on alcohol sales could be an issue. There’s plenty of potential in a city whose population of 212,000 includes an increasing number of millennials. With a proven history of supporting a PDL team, it makes it a ripe possibility for the Division 3 leagues.

1. Bakersfield, California

One of the biggest cities on this list, Bakersfield has a population of more than 375,000. Located about two hours outside of Los Angeles, Bakersfield has a massive Latino population – more than 45 percent – and a large community of soccer players. Giving it a professional team to embrace makes total sense.

Bakersfield’s 19,000-seat college football stadium could easily host a Division 2 team, let alone Division 3. In addition, the city has a fast-growing millennial population, always an ideal factor for a professional soccer franchise. While a Division 3 team could hardly boast the same popularity as Liga MX in California, a Morelia-Pachuca friendly in Bakersfield drew a huge crowd.        

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