CARY, N.C. – The United Soccer League and North Carolina FC announced Sunday that the club will compete in USL League One, beginning with the 2021 campaign.

North Carolina FC had competed the past three seasons in the USL Championship, joining the league prior to the 2018 season.

League One is the third tier of professional soccer in the United States.

There is little doubt the COVID-19 pandemic had something to do with the club’s decision as many teams took a major financial hit during the 2020 season because no or few fans were allowed into stadiums.

“We are pleased to continue the partnership we have had with the USL since 2018 as North Carolina FC prepares to compete in USL League One,” club chairman Steve Malik said in a statement. “We are in the midst of a very important period with key initiatives. In addition to this strategic move to League One, we remain focused on the Downtown South project and the associated future professional soccer stadium, the 2021 NC Courage season, and enhancing our youth-to-pro development model for both boys and girls.”

The move will mean less travel for the team, which will cut down the travel costs.

The Richmond Kickers and the Greenville Triumph, the 2020 League One champions, will be the closest teams geographically to North Carolina FC and Cary, N.C. The established regional rivalry between the Kickers and NCFC is well-known, while new rivalries emerge with the Triumph, South Georgia Tormenta FC, and Chattanooga Red Wolves SC.

“North Carolina FC are a terrific addition to our growing league,” USL senior vice president Steven Short said in a statement. “It’s a club with a proven ability to compete for trophies and develop young talent. We can’t wait to see all that they can accomplish in 2021 and beyond.”

It was not immediately known whether Dave Sarachan, who coached the U.S. men’s national team as the head man and assistant and the Chicago Fire as head coach in the past, would be retained as coach. His name was not mentioned in the press releases sent out by the club and league.

According to a team press release, North Carolina FC will be able to increase first-team minutes for young academy-aged players and focus additional financial resources on youth development. NCFC also will aim to attract the country’s top young players into the club’s development pathway through enhanced scouting and recruitment.

“We can do more to develop our best players and are committing that player development will be the focus of our professional team for the foreseeable future,” club president and general manager Curt Johnson said in a statement. “I could not be more excited about the next step and can’t wait to collaboratively work with NCFC Youth Academy players and coaches as well as other elite players and coaches throughout the state and country.”

It would not be surprising if other clubs follow NCFC’s lead.