In the midst of more big-name foreign signings in Major League Soccer, the players that teams hope will define the league’s future toil in much smaller venues. The 2015 season marks the third year of MLS’s affiliation with the United Soccer League, replacing the old Reserve League.
“Reserve leagues throughout the world, they rarely have a lot of benefits,” USL president Jake Edwards told SI.com in a recent phone interview. “The games are not competitive, and they’re not played in front of very many people. They don’t serve the purpose that they need to.”
Under the new system, less experienced players who aren’t ready for the jump to MLS or are simply crowded out by more talented teammates can play meaningful games where teams compete for a national championship.
“When we had the Reserve League, it was all younger players sort of playing against each other within the league,” MLS executive vice president of player relations and competition Todd Durbin told SI.com. “That’s good in terms of getting them games, but that’s different than playing a non-affiliated team [where] you have pros of various ages and experience, and they’re out on the field with the goal of winning the league. It’s that environment, and it’s that week-in and week-out, high-level competition that we think is fundamental to developing players.”
Kaká pulls the strings for Orlando City SC, David Villa is tasked with scoring for New York City FC and Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard are set to anchor NYCFC and the LA Galaxy’s midfields, respectively, starting this summer. But the next big American talent could be playing in the USL right now.
“If we’re going to continue to improve the product on the field, there are two ways to do it: one is to import players by going out into the international market and bringing players in, and the other way is to develop them. You have to do both,” Durbin said. “If we are going to continue our growth, and if we’re going to be successful long-term, a very, very important part of that is player development, and this partnership is central to that.”
It started with four teams in each league forming a loan agreement in 2013 in lieu of fielding reserve squads, along with friendly matches between USL teams and the remaining MLS reserve teams. In 2014, it grew to 11 affiliations, and LA Galaxy II began playing in the USL under the same ownership as the first team.
Full elimination of the MLS Reserve League followed in 2015, with eight MLS-owned teams in the USL now and the 12 other MLS teams forming affiliations. The lower league now comprises 24 teams, double the number it contained in 2011. The only four teams in USL without an MLS affiliation are the Orange County Blues, Colorado Springs Switchbacks, Tulsa Roughnecks and Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
The MLS-USL partnership model sits between the European system in countries such as Germany and Spain, where reserve teams play a minimum of two tiers underneath the first team in the pyramid, and the North American minor-league baseball and hockey system of affiliating with lower teams throughout the continent for developmental purposes.
Scores of top-level players in Europe started their careers for reserve teams in the third or fourth division before earning consistent first-team places. Xavi debuted for Barcelona B in 1997, as did Lionel Messi in 2004.
Officials see the growing partnership between MLS and the USL as a major turning point to raise the level of lower-division soccer in the American game. Edwards spent his career in his native England’s lower divisions, and he wants players in the United States to be able to make a living outside MLS.
“If the top division and the national team programs are going to succeed, you need a robust league below,” he said. “Our league is an aspirational league—it’s a professional league with the opportunity for talented players.”
Durbin, who brokered MLS contract agreements with Landon Donovan and Cuauhtémoc Blanco as part of the thousands of deals he’s signed, echoed Edwards’ sentiments.
“As our country grows and evolves, part of what happens is that not only are we going to continue to have a thriving first division, but to have a thriving second and third division is also very important,” Durbin said. “I think that’s part of just the natural growth and evolution of the sport in this country.”
MLS teams can loan first-team players to affiliates, such as Will Johnson joining Portland Timbers 2 in the final stages of his rehabilitation from a broken leg. Players can also sign USL-exclusive contracts. MLS “2” teams operate under USL rules and regulations, as well as some MLS roster rules when it comes to player movement.
As part of any loan arrangement, teams are required to disclose contract terms as they would for permanent roster members. This prevents using a USL affiliate to circumvent the MLS salary cap.
The agreement encourages MLS teams to invest more resources in their academies and take more chances on Homegrown Players, giving them a place to play before the first team. It’s a step in the right direction toward bridging the pesky gap between the oldest youth ages and first-team environments.
That area has proven problematic in recent years, with the college system coming under more scrutiny than ever. Reduced training opportunities and a condensed match calendar are more likely to cause stagnation at ages where players elsewhere around the world begin to establish themselves as full-time professionals.
A proposal in front of the NCAA to split the season into fall and spring halves will be stuck in bureaucratic limbo for a while. Meanwhile, the modest spending on MLS academies increases annually, and players often leave college early.
The USL now exists to provide opportunity for younger professionals and those cast away from the first team. Beyond the professional leagues, Edwards said existing MLS and USL teams are being encouraged to either start or adopt existing franchises in the Premier Development League, USL’s under-23 amateur league.
The Northwest MLS teams pioneered the concept of using their own PDL teams to keep tabs on Homegrown Player prospects, giving them a place to train in the summer to maintain their status. Others have sprouted in recent years, including under D.C. United, the New York Red Bulls and Orlando City’s banners.
“It’s hugely valuable to the MLS clubs—65, 70 percent of draftees every year in the MLS SuperDraft have played in the PDL,” Edwards said. “It will continue to play a major role in terms of the development laboratory, let’s call it, for players to come onto the USL and become professionals.”
At all levels, the USL is growing at a record rate. A record 13 expansion teams joined the league in 2015, and further announcements are on the way for 2016 and 2017.
“We’ve worked hard to get into this position, and we are able now to really critically evaluate all ownership groups that are putting business plans together for the various markets that we’re looking at,” Edwards said. “They not only meet ownership requirements and capitalization requirements and appropriate stadium requirements, but they add value to the league.”
Beyond expansion, the league also wants to raise standards for existing teams. Architectural firm HOK signed an agreement to lead an overhaul in stadium standards throughout the league, with MLS “2” teams held to the same requirement as independent franchises.
“We’ve got some really great venues, but we’ve got some venues that need a bit of work. Everybody that’s coming in now is coming in with a stadium plan in hand to build a 10,000-seat stadium,” Edwards said. “It’s critical that we get to the stage where our games are in these 8-to-10,000-seat stadiums with a good crowd in there. The markets that we’re in should sustain those kinds of stadiums.”
Edwards admitted it’s an ambitious project, as the numbers show. Besides the MLS expansion candidate Sacramento Republic, no team in the USL currently breaks 6,000 average spectators, let alone the five-digit mark.
“I think that’s the future,” Edwards said. “We’re not there now, but in the next three to five years, we’ll be there.”