USL Founder Francisco Marcos Elected to National Soccer Hall of Fame
Builder grew American soccer from a 5-team indoor league in 1987 to hundreds of teams in several leagues today
Who knows what the landscape of U.S. lower division soccer would look like today if not for Francisco Marcos?
No one could have predicted that the modest, five-team indoor soccer league he started almost four decades ago would have laid the groundwork for an extensive network of so many U.S. soccer leagues at the professional and amateur levels.
But then again, Marcos had a rare, grand vision.
Some of those lower-division leagues across the American soccer landscape include the USL and its many levels, the National Independent Soccer Association and the National Premier Soccer League, among other national and regional leagues.
Through grit, determination and a lot of salesmanship, Marcos went further to create the first coast-to-coast minor league soccer league. He became a nurturing force that helped it grow and prosper.
“Francisco has left an indelible mark on the modern history of U.S. Soccer,” former USL president Tim Holt said when Marcos was nominated for the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2010. “The work he has done not only for professional clubs and United Soccer Leagues but also the U.S. Soccer Federation has helped manufacture the growth the sport has seen over the course of his career.”
For his years of dedication and immense impact on American soccer, Marcos has been elected on the Builder Ballot and will join the Hall of Fame in the Class of 2024.
High honors are not new to Marcos. In 2007, he received the Werner Fricker Builder Award, which is the U.S. Soccer Federation’s most prestigious honor. (The award is named after the former U.S. Soccer president who secured the 1994 World Cup.)
“Francisco has helped grow the sport of soccer at every level in the United States,” former U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati said. “Whether it be his grassroots outreach into scores of different communities across the country or the way in which he has helped develop our professional game, Francisco has given selflessly to the betterment of soccer in the United States.
“After five decades of activity, we are all the beneficiary of his long-term vision.”
It took a while for that vision to become a reality.
The USL had a rather humble beginning as the five-team Southwest Independent Soccer League in 1986-87. The Garland Genesis, Oklahoma City Warriors, Lubbock Lazers, Amarillo Challengers and Albuquerque Outlaws played a 16-game indoor season.
Slowly, but surely, it grew.
The league changed names five times — from the Southwest Indoor Soccer League to Southwest Independent Soccer League to Sunbelt Independent Soccer League to U.S. Interregional Soccer League, U.S. International Soccer League and United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues. In 1999, it became United Soccer Leagues.
By the 1989-90 SISL season, the league had grown to 16 teams. In the league’s media guide, Marcos telegraphed his plans.
“We are now spread across seven state associations, and probably won’t stop there,” he wrote. “How far we’ll go is uncertain, but it is a safe bet that our ‘immediate future’ growth will be more about solidifying our league operation, helping our teams to better market themselves and get ready for what the future may hold in store.”
He had no delusions of grandeur. He wanted to start the league from the bottom up.
“We’re going to do it at this level, and if it’s a higher level, fine,” he told this writer in 1991. “If you do it from the bottom up, we have a great advantage of success rather than the top.”
By the time the U.S. hosted the 1994 World Cup, the league had expanded to 72 teams. It gave current and future U.S. Men’s National Team players Tony Meola, Brian McBride, Peter Vermes and Tony Sanneh, as well as Portland Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese, an opportunity to play professionally before the advent of Major League Soccer in 1996.
In 1995, Marcos added a unique wrinkle to the mix, as the various divisions and conferences explored rules experiments. The ideas ran the gamut: enlarging the goal, awarding shootout attempts during a game, moving free kicks back 15 yards after encroachment and using corner kicks to determine tied matches. In several divisions, the game length was 60 minutes, with the match being stopped for free kicks and when the ball went out of bounds.
“I am not a traditionalist,” Marcos told The Athletic in 2020. “I am a revisionist. The game, as it’s played today, is not perfect. Nothing is sacred.”
Today, the USL has more than 200 teams in several leagues. The Championship and League One are professional leagues. League Two is an amateur competition for college players. The W League is for women.
The USL Academy League has more than 800 youth teams.
The USL was innovative in another way. Before the establishment of the Women’s United Soccer Association in 2001, Marcos created the first U.S. women’s league, the W-League, in 1995. It gave many players, including U.S. Women’s National Team standouts Kristine Lilly, Christie Pearce Rampone, Tiffney Milbrett, Shannon Boxx, Alex Morgan and others the opportunity to compete in a professional environment.
Marcos understood the significance of the ground-breaking league.
“Nobody remembers the name of the second man to cross the Atlantic after Lindberg,” he told Soccer America in 1995.
“Many people feel that women’s soccer has great appeal, perhaps even greater than the men’s game at this time,” Soccer American publisher Clay Berling wrote. “Their game is fluid, energetic, offense-minded.”
A native of Portugal, Marcos built an impressive background before creating the USL. He began as a jack of all trades — and master of many — at Hartwick College. Not bad for someone who had aspired to earn a master’s degree and work as a translator at the United Nations.
At Hartwick, Marcos played for Al Miller, a 1995 National Soccer Hall of Fame inductee. He found time to be the editor of Hilltops, the campus newspaper, winning a New York state journalism award. He was the Oneonta Star correspondent for the soccer team’s road games and also did radio commentary.
He founded a company that organized soccer tours of Europe for American teams and served as assistant coach of the first team, composed of high school, junior college and college players. As an unofficial dry run for the SISL, Marcos formed his first soccer league: the Empire State Soccer League, in upstate New York.
Marcos’ journalism background helped him start Soccer Monthly, which became U.S. Soccer’s official publication. He then became the Tampa Bay Rowdies public relations director, helping revolutionize how North America Soccer League teams publicized their players.
Marcos also was the Rowdies’ vice president of soccer operations and the Dallas Tornado’s vice president of player personnel. He even was a player agent, bringing in such players as star forward Tatu, who filled the nets for Tampa Bay and the Dallas Sidekicks indoor team.
Then came the creation of the SISL.
“I looked around and decided I wanted to make a living from soccer.”
“We all looked around at the time, those of us in soccer, to see what we could do,” Marcos told USNationalSoccerPlayers.com in 2010. At the time, indoor soccer was the flavor of the month, year and later decade.”
Marcos also worked as a liaison for the Brazilian National Team at the 1994 World Cup. He also served on the board of directors of U.S. Soccer, the U.S. Soccer Foundation and United Soccer Coaches (formerly National Soccer Coaches Association of America). He was inducted into Hartwick College’s Hall of Fame in 2001 and into USL’s Hall of Fame a year later.
After 25 years as USL president, Marcos stepped down in 2012, serving as president emeritus since then.
A man with a strong personality, Marcos was humble enough to realize he was far from a one-man show when he was honored with the Werner Fricker Award in 2007, lauding his wife, Beverly.
“There are too many people responsible for this, but I would be remiss not to mention the involvement of two or three people that have made this journey possible,” he said. “First and foremost, my wife Beverly, who started out as my part-time assistant, became my first full-time employee, eventually my girlfriend, my wife and the mother of my son Julian. She accepted, perhaps without fully understanding, that soccer was such a passion that it was part of the blood mix.
“Everything else would have to wait, which possibly explains why 16-year-old Julian has a 61-year-old father. I couldn’t have done this without her.”
Marcos resides in Portugal today. When he isn’t rooting and consulting for his favorite team, Sporting Club Portugal, he has found time to visit his friends in the U.S. several times a year.
In 2024, Francisco Marcos will need to add one more city to his itinerary — Frisco, Texas — for his induction into the National Soccer Hall of Fame on May 4.