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MLS-USL deal is huge for American pro soccer

Photo: Earl Gardner

Some day, when MLS is successful enough that it has all 22 clubs in soccer stadiums and no longer needs a comparatively miniscule salary budget, people may look back at its partnership with USL as one of American soccer’s most significant developments.

The partnership, first reported last week by NASN’s Jason Davis, would see a youth development system under which each MLS club would send five players to an affiliated USL PRO club and pay the players’ salaries. All USL PRO clubs would have an MLS affiliate. If there is no USL PRO club near an MLS club, an MLS club’s reserve team would become a USL side.

MLS and USL haven’t confirmed the report, but Rochester Rhinos president Pat Ercoli reportedly told WYSL-AM the deal would be announced “hopefully within several weeks.”

“We were told that there’s something that will be in place for this next season, and obviously it’ll be expanded upon in the future,” Ercoli said, according to The Sporting News.

That’s kind of a big deal.

This partnership would create a minor league soccer system unlike any in the world.

In Europe, it’s common for young players to go on loan to lower division teams for anywhere from a few weeks to a few years, with loans being renewed annually and players sometimes bouncing between different clubs in the lower tiers while their rights are maintained by the parent club. Some countries, such as Spain and Germany, see their top-tier teams field entire reserve clubs in the lower divisions.

The MLS-USL model would split the difference, formalizing a loan arrangement at a particular team for multiple players, but allowing the the USL clubs to maintain their own identities and control over the franchise. Teams like Harrisburg could see an MLS club pay 20 percent of their players’ salaries, which would help them financially.

And it would give young players the competitive games they aren’t currently getting while buried on MLS benches.

Philadelphia Union led the way

The MLS-USL deal would effectively formalize an approach pioneered by Philadelphia Union when the club partnered with USL PRO’s Harrisburg City Islanders in 2010. Union players Antoine Hoppenot, Jimmy McLaughlin, and Greg Jordan all played for Harrisburg in 2012, while Sheanon Williams and Chase Harrison signed with the Union after successful seasons with Harrisburg.

Typically, when Union players played for Harrisburg, it was a game here and a game there, but the players basically remained Union players. The loan deals for McLaughlin and Jordan changed that. Both went on extended loan from mid-July till Harrisburg’s season ended in late August, but the Union maintained the right to recall them, which is typical in Europe.

Chances are, the Union-Harrisburg partnership’s success was a key precursor to a formalized deal between leagues.

The experiences of other MLS players on loan last season were probably the clincher. For example, Corey Hertzog lit up USL with 9 goals and 5 assists in 17 games while loaned from New York to USL’s Wilmington Hammerheads. D.C. United goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra became the Charleston Battery’s starting goalkeeper. Bright Dike scored six goals in 10 games on loan with the Los Angeles Blues and then returned to Portland to win a starting job and an eventual cap with the Nigerian national team.

Geography matters

In all of this, geography could be key. No professional soccer league spans a vaster area than MLS, not even the Russian Premier League. That poses some challenges. Only three of USL PRO’s 14 clubs are west of Ohio, while 12 of the 19 MLS clubs are located west of Dayton, Ohio.

Also, USL PRO currently fields five teams in the American southeast, where MLS has none. Considering the successes of Hertzog and Dykstra, those clubs will likely continue taking players on loan. Equally as significant, the USL’s footprint in the southeast could aid MLS efforts to establish a presence in a region where it has often been tough for pro sports to succeed.

In some places, the affiliations seem obvious:

  • Harrisburg and Philadelphia;
  • Richmond Kickers and D.C. United;
  • Rochester Rhinos and Toronto FC;
  • Dayton Dutch Lions (or Pittsburgh Riverhounds) and Columbus Crew;
  • Phoenix FC with Real Salt Lake and/or Colorado;
  • the new Sacramento franchise and San Jose Earthquakes;
  • Los Angeles Blues with Los Angeles Galaxy and/or Chivas USA (unless Chivas decides the blues aren’t Mexican enough).

But what of teams like Kansas City, Dallas, Houston, and the Pacific Northwest trio, which have no USL clubs nearby? Seattle and Portland seem like they could draw enough fan support for full reserve clubs right now, but would that always be the case, particularly with both cities fielding teams in the new National Women’s Soccer League?

Some model will emerge, and it will probably be organic. Maybe a Detroit franchise starts in USL because the option to affiliate with Chicago makes it a more attractive fan draw and more financially sustainable due to MLS salary support. Maybe the new Ottawa club switches from the NASL to USL for the opportunity to partner with nearby Montreal, or FC Edmonton does the same to partner with Vancouver. Or maybe the NASL comes into the picture too so it doesn’t lose teams to USL, or it collapses after its teams head to USL.

The possibilities are myriad.

And they are largely better in the short-term for American soccer than promotion and relegation, which isn’t yet financially sustainable in the U.S. and Canada.

North America’s minor league sports model has been successful in baseball and hockey for a century. By combining it with the European models, MLS won’t just ensure better development of its players. It might just help minor league soccer thrive in more places than ever before.

 

11 Comments

  1. The mixed system has some history in AHL hockey that I’m aware of. Hershey still contracts quite a few players directly while serving as the Caps minor league affiliate and providing a structure for their prospects to develop in.

    Not sure how I feel about a required number of players under contract playing down a division. MLS rosters might have to get larger again to make this work.

  2. I agree that this could be a big deal – I’d like to see it as a step toward promotion/relegation – and hopefully it will develop the USL into more, stronger, independent teams to compete against current MLS teams. If it is only subsidizing USL clubs, empowering MLS clubs to freely poach USL players, and pushing the young US soccer fanbase into habits of a ‘minor league’ system, then it seems like a useful short-term catalyst with minimal long-term advantages in comparison to an extrapolation of the current system.

    It seems like the primary effect of this affiliate system could be in providing a link between the youth-development structure and the MLS. Currently, a weak intermediate (USL) drives potentially MLS-bound, US youth players either into the seasonal college system which ends or limits US-based careers, or to Europe which drains the US of top competitors at the intermediate and possibly the top levels. Aligning the three stages by funnelling (1) the strong youth system (as well as the growing MLS-based youth leagues), into (2) a bolstered USL with direct access to affiliate MLS teams, into (3) the robust MLS, will create a single path through the US to top soccer.

    Assuming more top US youth players start looking to develop domestically: either players can avoid the detour to college, or the NCAA can drop its seasonal restrictions.

  3. T. A. Simeria says:

    I’m not sure this is such a good idea. This forces MLS clubs to expand their payrolls. The MLS owners are clearly happy to do it because it assures them that pro/rel doesn’t gain any ground.

    • Not necessarily. In all likelihood, it would not increase rosters. Rosters were expanded to 30 under the last collective bargaining agreement, though teams aren’t required to have that many players. The Union had about 28 for most of the season, and two spent extended time on loan.

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  4. FC Edmonton will not move down to Division 3 USL Pro, don’t think Ottawa would either. The Division 2 NASL and its clubs see themselves as more than just a minor/reserve league for MLS.

    One possible option you didn’t mention would be the stronger USL Pro teams like Orlando or Rochester moving up to D2 NASL and not wanting a part of being reserve/minor teams to MLS.

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  7. MLS-USL deal is huge for American pro soccer

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