Swansea City at Richmond Kickers

The Richmond Kickers have continued to be a strong draw at the gate, even as the team struggles.

Now in their 26th year of existence, the Richmond Kickers have made a habit of weaving through the lower divisions of American soccer, trading divisions six times within the U.S. Soccer pyramid.

Though it was never the Kickers’ choice to move in each of the previous instances — as various iterations of the USL moved up and down, the Kickers always followed — the seventh move will be voluntary.

On Tuesday, the Kickers revealed the club has chosen to leave the USL at the end of the season for the new USL Division III — USL D3 — the third tier of American soccer that will kick off its inaugural season in 2019.

The USL was previously a third-division league, but it made the jump to second-division status at the start of the 2017 season. MLS occupies the first-division spot.

Since that time, the Kickers have failed to make a telling impression on a league otherwise flush with resources after being one of the league’s most successful teams in years past.

Finding competitiveness in the new league fleeting, the opportunity for the Kickers to rejoin the third tier was a way for the club to find its footing in an evolving American soccer pyramid.

The Kickers are taking it and running.

“I’m not sure there was really a lot of debate about it. It seemed like it was a fairly easy decision based on all the things going on,” said Kickers professional team president Vernon Inge of the changing USL landscape and the decision to make the move.

“It was an easy decision for us that we needed to be playing at the D3 level when the [USL] was offering this level. It’s just the right place for us right now.”

When USL D3 was first announced in April 2017, the league’s focus was on “launching new third-division clubs in 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,” according to a press release. Many of those are hallmarks of Richmond’s current soccer culture.

Another key focus of the league is to expand into markets of 150,000 residents or more, setting up shop in localities which do not have professional soccer teams previously established.

With the USL showing a knack for growing the second division after expanding from 15 teams in 2011 to 33 in 2018, Rob Ukrop, the longtime Kickers Board of Directors president, is excited about the possibilities for the Kickers in the league’s third division.

“They understand that there’s a platform out there that’s not being served right now and this Division III is an opportunity to get some soccer-playing communities into the professional leagues,” Ukrop said of the USL and its owners.

“We feel like this is a great opportunity for us to reorganize and refocus and get to the next level we want to be at. … The USL has proven an incredible track record over the last several years in terms of growing franchise values and growing the beautiful game of soccer.”

The expansion of the American lower leagues falls in line with the Kickers’ current expansion plans, which are centered on the revitalization of City Stadium and the $20 million of renovations for which the club is on the hook after signing a 40-year lease with the city in December 2016.

In financial terms, fielding a second-division team with second-division players was creating “a huge financial commitment to keep up in a league like [the USL],” Inge said. Even then, Richmond struggled to keep pace with its opponents with a budget that often paled in comparison despite the strain.

FC Cincinnati, which is on the cusp of moving to Major League Soccer, is employing players on its roster with MLS contracts. Fanendo Adi, who joined Cincinnati midseason from the Portland Timbers of the MLS, makes an annual salary of $1.25 million. Though the Kickers declined to reveal their budget for player salaries, Inge confirmed the entirety of the Kickers’ 23-man roster makes less than Adi does alone in Cincinnati.

“I think everybody recognized that we weren’t going to be able to win championships without some extremely great coaching, players and everything else — who were going to be paid a lot less than everyone else in the league,” Inge said.

“We have great players, fantastic players who play for us because they love being part of the club and we’re thrilled with the players we have, but we certainly don’t have a budget like that.”

Acknowledging on occasion that the drop in divisions likely will polarize some fans, Ukrop not only left the door open for a future return to the second division, he noted that the Kickers have existed in many forms over the years — a point of pride for one of the best players in the club’s history and an important fact that has ensured the Kickers’ status as America’s oldest team.

“A lot of smart people and a lot of hard work from the board members and staff have contributed to the success, and we felt like this was the best path to get to the next version of the Richmond Kickers and we’re really excited,” Ukrop said.

“I hope that we have enough credibility that the fans will trust us and know that we want to win. We want to compete, we want to represent them well. … We’re committed to getting this ship on the right course so we can showcase Richmond as the wonderful place that it is.”

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