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USL Arkansas Scores Big: Bringing Pro Soccer to NWA in 2026

5 min read

The teams don’t have names, the ownership group isn’t finalized and designs for the new stadium in Rogers haven’t been completed, but USL Arkansas aims to bring soccer to northwest Arkansas in 2026.

It’s a dream that Chris Martinovic, 47, has been pursuing since 2019. Martinovic, who played college soccer at Seton Hall University and later professionally, moved to northwest Arkansas as an executive with a Walmart Inc. vendor in 2007.

Martinovic loves soccer and professional sports, and he found northwest Arkansas lacking in both. But he knows people — including Jake Edwards, a childhood friend and a former president of the United Soccer League, which has pro teams in 200 cities across the country that can generate between $50 million and $200 million each in economic impact per year.

Citing local demographics and population projections, Martinovic pitched northwest Arkansas as a great place for an expansion team for the USL’s top-tier Championship League, which has 24 teams across the country and a partnership with streaming video service ESPN+.


“At first, they thought it was too small,” Martinovic said. “They didn’t say no, but they weren’t as enthralled as I was. In about two days, they called me back and said Chris we should look at northwest Arkansas.”

The second look worked, and in July, USL Arkansas announced plans to start a men’s USL Championship team and women’s USL Super League team in 2026. Martinovic and USL Arkansas co-founder Warren Smith of San Diego are working now to attract investors to the ownership group, which must pay a $20 million league expansion fee and acquire 11.5 acres just north of the Pinnacle Hills Promenade for a 5,000-seat stadium.


USL Arkansas co-founder Warren Smith
USL Arkansas co-founder Warren Smith (Michael Woods)


“This is not the first market I have done this in,” said Smith, who started USL franchises in Sacramento and San Diego and is working on other soccer projects in New Orleans and Oklahoma City. “It is amazing how quickly we have gotten there compared to my other markets in the past. I’m not unfamiliar with this market. I’ve watched and have seen this community punch above its weight class. A lot of people don’t know who you are but yet you’re doing some amazing work every single day.”

Location Goal

For Smith, location was key. He wanted to proceed only if they could put the team’s stadium in Pinnacle Hills alongside Interstate 49 in Rogers.

“Pinnacle Hills has become your living room, a place to gather as a community,” Smith said. “People are very familiar with it.”

Enter Johnelle Hunt, the co-founder of J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell. One of her companies, Pinnacle New Hope LLC, agreed to sell to USL Arkansas a plot in the booming retail and entertainment district.

“We are only a two-hour event,” Smith said. “Sporting events are just events where people go to to be with other people. People want to be entertained before and after. If we are really cognizant of our business model, the location is the most important piece of our ability to be successful selling tickets.”

Martinovic, who originally considered putting the stadium near Arvest Ballpark in Springdale, called Pinnacle Hills “absolutely perfect for what we are trying to do in terms of accessibility.”

“We could have done this several years ago,” he said. “We had other land options, but they weren’t the perfect location. We really took our time. That was the biggest and most important step.”


Last week, the club unveiled early renderings of the stadium, a multi-use facility projected to cost between $15 million and $20 million. Martinovic said the stadium design is flexible, capable of expanding to 15,000 seats so it can grow with the region. Average attendance for Championship League games is 5,552.


A rendering of a planned 5,000-seat stadium in the Pinnacle Hills area of Rogers. The multi-use stadium would be home to men’s and women’s teams.
A rendering of a planned 5,000-seat stadium in the Pinnacle Hills area of Rogers. The multi-use stadium would be home to men’s and women’s teams. (Rendering provided)


Martinovic said the team’s local investors understand that putting professional soccer in northwest Arkansas would add to the cultural amenities that attract workers.

“This is a very sophisticated business market; the outside world may not know that,” Smith said. “There is a lot of love for this community and wanting to make a difference in something like this. The people we are talking to really understand what this could do for them. We’re not going to be a panacea for that but we are one more recruiting tool that will help.”

Not Just Men

USL Arkansas also aims to start a women’s team to join the USL’s new Super League, which starts next year.

Speaking to Martinovic and Smith on a podcast sponsored by Northwest Arkansas Council on Sept. 27, USL Super League President Amanda Vandervort said  more than 4,000 women are playing collegiate soccer in the United States. But with only a dozen professional women’s teams, there are few options to go pro.

“When we started talking to this group in northwest Arkansas, it was a no-brainer,” Vandervort said. “Communities around the country, but specifically northwest Arkansas, are hungry for women professional sports [and] the opportunity for women to work in the game, play in the game, watch the game they love.”

She said the University of Arkansas’ women’s team recently drew a record 3,660 fans to a game against Alabama.

Martinovic said he wants USL Arkansas to be a destination for top local players who might otherwise have to leave to advance their careers.

“The challenge we have is we continuously lose our top-level talent from northwest Arkansas as they go to other markets, as they age into competitive levels,” Martinovic said. “They have chosen to leave our market because we haven’t been able to offer the highest level of training, highest level of coaching, the highest level of competition. Those are the three elements a player needs to develop. We see this as a great opportunity to fill that gap in the community.”


Founded in 2010 in Tampa, the USL oversees three men’s leagues: the Championship League; the 12-team professional League 1; and the 120-team pre-professional League 2.

One of the USL’s League 2 teams is the Little Rock Rangers.

The Rangers set a league attendance record when it drew 7,723 fans for a playoff game against Texas United on July 23 at War Memorial Stadium.

In all, the Rangers had more than 14,800 fans show for matches July 21 and 23.

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