Photo courtesy of Bethlehem Steel FC
Devotees of professional soccer in the Lehigh Valley have noticed “hybrid” as a new term describing United Soccer League-Major League Soccer affiliations.
The term does NOT describe the relationship between Bethlehem Steel FC and the Philadelphia Union.
“Wholly-owned” would be more appropriate.
The Union have full control of both the soccer and business operations of the Steel. They also have full responsibility for the income and expenditures.
Control and responsibility allows the Union to place player development at the apex of the pyramid of goals for the Steel project. We firmly learned the fact last July and September, when key veterans were sold off to clear opportunities for evaluation of Philadelphia Union Academy prospects.
The first of those sales triggered the playoff-killing swoon that saw Bethlehem go winless the rest of the season.
But those sales also laid the groundwork for an Academy senior invited to Clearwater to play the first ever significant minutes by an academy boy in multiple preseason events.
Anthony Fontana played 30 minutes in a closed scrimmage against Chicago on Feb. 9. And he played 30 minutes against Tampa Bay and 17 against Montreal in two official exhibition games of the Suncoast Invitational Tournament on Feb. 18 and Feb 22.
Player development affiliates can also win. New York Red Bulls 2 won the USL double last season.
The USL hybrid affiliate concept is borrowed directly from the National Basketball Association’s D-League. The basketball version began between the NBA’s Houston Rockets and the D-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
The Rockets controlled and were responsible for the Vipers basketball operations, but Lone Star LLC, a sports entertainment company based just north of the Rio Grande whose controlling owner is Alonzo Cantu, controlled and benefited from the business operation.Vipers’ basketball has been a business success.
A major difference between the sports entertainment market in south Texas and the Lehigh valley is that, before the Vipers, south Texas had nothing professional. The Lehigh Valley had professional ice hockey and baseball before it got soccer.
Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo asked Cantu to partner in the expansion Rio Grande Valley FC Toros of the United Soccer League precisely because of the success of his business model with the Vipers, according to ScratchthePitch.com.
Lone Star made the divided responsibilities model work in professional basketball. The idea was to transfer it to soccer.
Who provides the dollars to pay for the player signings made by the USL team? The MLS team could pay the entire cost of the technical program, or the minor league ownership might do so. But there is a balance, and it has to be right.
Upon the devil of those dollar details hung both profitability and the cost effectiveness of player development for the Dynamo.
- The MLS side wanted to unload responsibility for running the business and making it profitable, while getting exactly what it desired from player development.
- The USL side hoped to make money.
In south Texas, balls in nets have resulted in butts in seats and dollars in banks, whether the net hangs on a hoop or a goal.
Rio Grande Valley FC will open its own new 9,400-seat H-E-B Park on Mar. 22 against CF Monterrey “Rayados” from Liga MX.
The San Jose Earthquakes have ended their independent affiliation with Sacramento Republic FC and substituted a hybrid one with expansion team Reno 1868 for the 2017 season.
Montreal Impact owner Joey Saputo negotiated a hybrid affiliation with new USL entrant Ottawa Fury and has closed down his former wholly-owned affiliate, FC Montreal.
Ottawa has commented that it no longer has to scout players and negotiate contracts.
And Saputo does not have to develop and sell to a second market. In his case, his USL sales were direct competition for his MLS ones, a problem still faced by the nine other MLS wholly-owned affiliates located in the same markets as their first teams.
… may become the sincerest form of flattery
Baseball fans may also notice that, while professional soccer reinvents its wheel and learns from doing it, it is evolving toward the structure of America’s original national sport.
Agreements between the Philadelphia Phillies, Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, Reading Fightin’ Phils, Clearwater Threshers, and Lakewood Blue Claws address exactly the same division of control and responsibility, whatever their details.
Someday, might an MLS club’s soccer roster of, say, 35 allow 28 or 31 to be eligible for only MLS games, while the other four to seven move between the USL and MLS as needed? Baseball players shuttle between the Iron Pigs and Phillies on options all the time.
Some bridges would have to be crossed by MLS, USL and the U.S. Soccer Federation for Union-Steel players to truly drive the baseball commute.