MLS is set to partner with USL Pro in a revamp of the reserve league system, American soccer journalist Jason Davis has reported. MLS clubs will either partner with an existing USL side, providing them with five salary-paid players, or a new USL club will be created from the MLS club's reserves.
How exactly that functions has yet to be reported or revealed in any official sense, but it raises some interesting questions for Real Salt Lake. Jason Kreis and Garth Lagerwey have, at times, been vocally critical of the MLS Reserves setup, and rightly so. It doesn't allow for much genuine player development, and though it's been improved, there's still some way to go.
There are only a smattering of USL Pro clubs — 13, to be exact — with another (in Sacramento) set to join in 2014. The closest of those is Phoenix FC, which is some distance away. This leaves Real Salt Lake in an interesting spot: If, indeed, reports are correct — and there's not been much forthcoming in the way of confirmation, though Mr. Davis is certainly a safe source and does his homework — then they'll have to make a big decision about how the reserves and the Arizona-based academy would interact.
The big thing, really, is that it would enable a greater development environment for young players, and would allow for greater fitness of players who are less likely to find minutes. You know — reserves. As a method for getting a look in, reserves are invaluable, too: Long-term, a proper reserves setup benefits more than young players and fringe players, but supports an entire national mindset.
Let's take a look at some of the options, supposing this is all true.
Arizona: It would certainly seem appealing to get these academy kids more playing time at a higher level, as it would allow for better scouting against higher quality opponents — but there's already some of that going on, even with the reserves based in Salt Lake City. Still, without further details on the arrangement, it's hard to say whether unpaid academy players would be able to take part — or if, say, trial players would be allowed in a more sanctioned competition than the extant reserves league. It would also be a bit tough for the coaching staff to get there to check up on the first-team players involved, and that could also be limiting.
Northern Utah: This is the other obvious option, and it's likely the most appealing. Basing operations where the team could easily oversee things (the organizational structure of this MLS-USL setup is yet to be announced, so really, it's tough to say definitively if that would be necessary or not) could be a tipping point, and it wouldn't necessitate much travel and special coordination should matches be organized with MLS first-team matches in mind. Again, the questions vastly outnumber the answers we have at this point.
Salt Lake City: It would be, I suspect, quite excellent to be able to regularly attend reserves games in the form of USL Pro competition — basing the team in Salt Lake City would open that up to the existing RSL fan base. This would be my choice, but I'm selfish. Besides, something like this would allow the occasional game at Rio Tinto Stadium, and that's always a treat.
Utah County: Utah County has shown a commitment to soccer — though I'm not sure if that's a commitment to BYU sports that filters through or if its a genuine interest — and there are certainly plenty of fans from our southern county-neighbors that travel for RSL matches now. With roughly half the residents of Salt Lake County, it might be a fitting market for a lower league side, and I'd bet good money that a fair few fans from the greater Salt Lake area would travel with great frequency.
Ogden: This seems the least likely of the three, but it's worth talking about. Weber County has about a quarter of Salt Lake County's population, and that's probably a limiting factor. Still, it might help to expand RSL's fan base a bit, and that's good, right?