American soccer writing, history & data.
In mid-1996, the USISL incorporated in Florida as USISL, Inc. which led to a merger between the USISL and the Division II American Professional Soccer League (aka the A-League) which was completed in October of 1996. The new A-League would be a division of the USISL beginning with the 1997 season. The USISL A-League was sanctioned by the USSF as a Division II professional league and was the highest level of professional soccer in Canada.
Following the merger, the other leagues under the USISL umbrella were renamed and the names "APSL" and "Select League" disappeared following the 1996 season. The USISL Pro League was renamed the United States Division III Professional Soccer League but better known as the USISL D3 Pro League.
USISL founder and owner, Francisco Marcos, was the CEO of USISL, Inc. and commissioner of the new USISL A-League. He had the power to name commissioners for the other USISL leagues. USISL, Inc. was led by a board of directors comprised of five people.
Umbro was a major sponsor of both the USISL and the APSL and brought the two leagues together in negotiation. As part of the merger, Umbro and the USISL completed an agreement where Umbro became a 60% equity partner of USISL. The USISL, Inc. board of directors was formed from three representatives from Umbro, Francisco Marcos, and one person designated by Marcos.
The USISL also introduced promotion and relegation. Beginning with the 1996 season, the Division III USISL D3 Pro League champions would earn the right of promotion to the new USISL A-League if the club met other criteria for Division II membership. Until the USISL A-League reached a cap of 32 teams or three years had elapsed (the end of 1999) there would be no mandatory relegation. Until that cap was reached, a maximum of four teams per year could be promoted to the USISL A-League. The four teams could be 1) the USISL Division III champions; 2) a selected team from the roster of USISL teams; and 3) the top points-getter during the USISL Division III regular season. Once the new USISL A-League reached the cap of 32 teams the USISL planned for automatic relegation of at least one team. Promoted teams would be guaranteed at least two years at the higher level.
The USISL-MLS development agreement was renewed for 1997. The agreement allowed players to move up from the USISL to MLS and for MLS players to be loaned to the USISL. As part of this interleague agreement, all D3-Pro League teams were considered official minor-league affiliated of MLS clubs.
In late 1996, the D3 Pro League unveiled a new logo. It consisted of the block letters "US" to left of the number "3" inside a high-contrast "D" with the USISL flaming ball on top of letters. A pennant with USISL letters sat on top of the "D3" with the words "Pro Soccer League" at bottom.
The USISL D3 Pro League 1997 schedule ran from late April to early August. It consisted of 22 games with 18 of them "league" games against other D3 Pro League teams. Any of the four scheduled "non-league games" (NLGs) could be subbed for one of league games not completed. Games tied at regulation would go to a 15-minute sudden-death overtime followed by a shootout
The NLG Selection Process (if necessary) was conducted as a blind draw at end of the regular season. The league scoring system would be the same as MLS and would only be changed if MLS altered its scoring system. The laws of the game were the same asr FIFA with two exceptions: 1) an option of a kick-in rather than throw in within 35 yards of offensive goal; and 2) a defensive wall must be 15 yards back on all free kicks within 35 yards of offensive goal.
Four league games at the beginning of the season for each D3 Pro League team were designated as U.S. Open Cup qualifers. The six top teams from each division plus two wild cards would qualify for the First Round of the U.S. Open Cup. Five teams made to the Second Round to face USISL A-League teams. Only two D3 Pro League teams won in the Second Round. On July 8, the Chicago Stingers upset the Orlando Sundogs 3-0 at The Hive in Arlington Heights and the San Francisco Bay Seals beat the Seattle Sounders 1-0 at Negoesco Stadium on the campus of the University of San Francisco.
Both teams would again score upsets in the Third Round, this time against MLS sides. On July 24, off a brace by Marquis White, the San Francisco Bay Seals beat the Kansas City Wizards 2-1 before 1400 at Negoesco Stadium. Three days later, the Chicago Stingers beat the Colorado Rapids 2-1 at The Hive in front of 4730 home fans.
Chicago's run would end on August 10 in a 4-1 quarterfinal loss to the Dallas Burn before 3810 at The Hive. But 10 days later, the San Francisco Bay Seals would pin another upset on an MLS team beating the San Jose Clash 2-1 at Spartan Stadium with 4237 in attendance. The dream run would finally end in the semifinals. On September 3, the Seals were beaten by D.C. United 2-1 before 3470 at Stagg Memorial Stadium in Stockton, Cali. The Seals received $10,000 as the last D3 Pro League remaining in the USOC. That amount was nearly half of the team's annual budget of $25,000.
After the regular season, playoffs were held in five of the six divisions. With only four teams, the North Central division did not have playoffs and instead the regular season winner, the Chicago Stingers, drew a bye to the six-team quarterfinals/regional finals. As host, the Albuquerque Geckos, winners of the South Central regular season, received a bye to the national semifinals.
The semifinals and final were held at the University of New Mexico Soccer/Track Complex. On September 5, the Charlotte Eagles beat the San Francisco Bay Seals 4-2 and the Albuquerque Geckos beat the New Hampshire Phantoms 2-1 in overtime. The final was held on Sunday, September 7. It was an easy home win for the Geckos as they beat Charlotte 4-1 in front of 2013 fans.
As champions of the D3-Pro League, Albuquerque had the option to apply for membership in the USISL A-League . They did so and, after meeting all the Division II requirements were promoted to the A-League for the 1998 season. On the strength of their regular season and semifinal result in the U.S. Open Cup, the San Francisco Bay Seals were also selected for promotion to the A-League. They also met the Division II requirements and joined Albuquerque in the A-League for the 1998 season.
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