The Rumors of MLS-USL Collaboration

Jason Davis of NASN.tv reported today that USL (United Soccer Leagues) and MLS (Major League Soccer) have reached an agreement over creating a viable third division of soccer in the U.S. that would double as the reserve league for MLS clubs.

The details as understood are:

1. If an MLS city has a USLPRO team nearby, MLS will provide 5 players and pay their salary.

2. If there’s no USLPRO team, the MLS reserve side will become a new, permanent team in USLPRO.

3. All USLPRO teams will have an MLS affiliate.

I have a few initial thoughts on this arrangement but I’ll reserve full judgment until the details pan out.

Pros:

  • This would obviously mean more teams in USL-Pro which could lead to geographic scheduling system in which teams play a bulk of their games against teams in relative proximity (ie: Rochester playing New England, Montreal, New York, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Dayton).
  • USL-Pro becomes an established cornerstone of the MLS system, thereby reducing the chances the league would fold if some teams become insolvent.
  • This system would provide the game minutes and competitive atmosphere for the meaningful development of young players.  There have been several notable success stories for players loaned from MLS to USL-Pro, first among them Bright Dike.
  • There could be an interest around the league to see the next young stars of MLS.  This affect could be doubled if more MLS sides sign youth national team players like Luis Gil and Mobi Fehr.  For clubs struggling to establish themselves, this could be a draw to stabilize attendances.

Cons:

  • USL-Pro loses some prestige despite ensuring its continued survival.  USL’s Professional Division might not be strictly professional anymore.  And certainly if the league is the equivalent of a reserve division, they must stop using the quote “USL PRO is the strongest, best operated and most experienced North American men’s professional soccer league below MLS, both on and off the field.”
  • USL-Pro will become a development league instead of a place for experienced professional players.  Think about the Rhinos: Would Krystian Nicht or George Kyriazis want to come to the United States to play in a glorified reserve league?  The former MLS players who play in USL and NASL have been some of (if not a majority of) the most exciting players on the field; though there are certainly exceptions.
  • Similarly, teams who have professional ambitions may want to leave USL-Pro for NASL.  USL teams (or fans) without clear links to an MLS club may not be too interested in merely borrowing young players from MLS for a year at a time.
  • Many MLS teams use their reserve league team to tryout potential signings in their system.  It wouldn’t be possible in a professionalized league for a team to use an unregistered player in matches.

Questions/Concerns/Complications:

  • Recent changes to the NCAA rules with regard to players being paid (which made it possible for some USL-Premier Development League teams to play their players) would not cover all of the features of the reserve league.  For example, the rule change allowed teams who didn’t pay their players to play against teams who did.  The players on an amateur PDL team (which didn’t pay salaries) would maintain their NCAA eligibility despite playing against professional PDL teams in the same division.  However, this change does not mean that (to the best of my knowledge) a single team could pay some players and not pay college aged players hoping to keep their eligibility.  So for rising academy products like Rochester’s Jordan Allen playing with the Real Salt Lake academy team in Arizona, they might have to choose between maintaining the option of NCAA ball or going professional early to play on the reserve side.
  • How close is “nearby”?  Harrisburg City Islanders and Philadelphia Union (about two hours apart) have an affiliation deal in which four Union players were loaned to the USL side in 2012.  Columbus has loaned a player to Dayton Dutch Lions, about an hour away.  But on the other side, Portland Timbers loaned forward Bright Dike to L.A. Blues who were the closest USL club despite a distance of 1000 miles.
  • How are teams paired up?  The release by Davis said that every USL team will an MLS affiliate.  There are 19 MLS clubs and only 13 in USL-Pro, including one in Antigua and Barbuda.  If Antigua Barracuda FC is included in this deal, it will be interesting to see which MLS teams gets stuck supplying players to the Antigua national team based side.  Also, which of the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA get a deal with the LA Blues of USL?
  • I’ve said before that this country needs to have a restructuring of developmental soccer and that a good first move would be a national u-21, u-22, or u-23 league.  This arrangement would be a step towards the establishment of such a league, however a distinction will become apparent.  There will be a divide between current USL teams that are interested in developing players for MLS (Harrisburg, for example) and teams that have professional ambitions of their own (like Orlando City now and Rochester of old).  Eventually, if this report is true, the divide that exists in third division of Mexico (called la Segunda Division) between professional clubs and developmental clubs will play itself out in the U.S.
  • The details of the the contracts and the specifics of each loan arrangement for the USL-Pro teams receiving 5 players from MLS teams will be very important.  If a player on loan from an MLS team is performing very well and there is a lack of depth due to injury at that MLS side, will they be able to recall that player’s loan prematurely?  Surely a team competing for their own championship would not want to let go of an in-form asset to his parent club.
  • What will happen to current PDL teams belonging to MLS clubs?  Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, Chicago Fire and Vancouver Whitecaps operated u-23 teams in the Premier Development League in 2012 while D.C. United will enter a team in 2013.
  • Will full reserve sides of MLS teams be able to compete in the U.S. Open Cup?  For example, Portland Timbers u-23 and Seattle Sounders u-23 are both participating in the 2013 edition of the U.S. Open Cup, according to this report by Josh Hakala.  If these teams are promoted will they participate starting in 2014 when full implementation of the purported plan begins?  Or, in the case that current PDL teams are not “promoted” into USL-Pro, will the new full reserve sides for teams without nearby USL clubs be able to participate in the cup?

This salaciously brief report raises more questions than it answers, but has sparked interest in the USL.  No matter which side of the argument you fall under, this is certainly an exciting offseason for lower division soccer in the United States.