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MLS and USL: A 21st Century Odd Couple

How has the partnership between MLS and USL fared and evolved over the past four years?

Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon, pictured left to right, in “The Odd Couple,” two greats, often even greater, paired together
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The end of the 2012 season left both Major League Soccer and United Soccer League with distinct and immediate issues that were widely perceived to be retarding the growth of both professional soccer leagues. MLS with 19 total clubs was seeking to accelerate the rate of expansion, both in number of teams and in roster size, and yet was failing miserably at coming up with a feasible way to develop young North American talent and provide playing time for the bottom portions of those expanding rosters. USL, a Division 3 league with 13 clubs at the time, was seeking to quickly recover from the defections which led to the revived NASL in 2011 and eventually move up to Division 2 status in the US Soccer pyramid with all the attendant rules and regulations that would accompany such a move.

What MLS and USL Hoped to Achieve

21st century business tactics prevailed on January 23, 2013, when both of the leagues announced their intentions to outsource some of their immediate problems to the other league and allow each a chance to focus their own efforts on other parts of the their immediate challenges.

MLS would immediately discontinue their sporadic efforts to establish a functional reserve league after a 2012 season which consisted of only 10 scheduled matches per team. Instead the “reserve” players on the bottom of the MLS rosters would be organized or loaned into new USL teams with direct ties and shared ownership with their parent MLS squads or used to supplement rosters of existing USL squads. The “reserve” players on MLS squads would then be able to develop and benefit from participating in a full regular USL season schedule which would grow with the number of teams.

USL would see a quick expansion the number of clubs in the league, the quality of players on most USL squads, and infusion of front office support and skills from established MLS ownership groups. This new structure and size would allow USL to more effectively complete with, and perhaps overcome, their new rivals in the revived North American Soccer League by offering increased long-term stability and a travel friendly schedule.

Significant Benefits from the Ongoing Partnership

By the time the first real fruits of this partnership began to arrive in the 2015 season, the number of clubs in USL had more than doubled and the league was able to split into a two conference format that reduce travel and fostered local rivalries. By 2017 clubs were leaving the by now shambolic NASL to rejoin USL for the cheaper operational costs and increased digital media presence. Both NASL and USL entered the 2017 season with provisional Division 2 status with US Soccer, but still face challenges before receiving permanent sanctioning.

MLS teams are now able to easily provide actual game situations in the USL for players returning from injury and long layoffs. Periodic playing time for “reserve” players who rarely make up part the MLS team’s 18 man roster allows them to maintain a level of fitness and prove their worth. In addition, a small stream of players have “graduated” from the ranks of the USL and been “rewarded” with MLS contracts.

New Challenges Arising from the Ongoing Partnership

USL has achieved their long held desire to move up to Division 2, but at a price. Increasingly sharp divisions are emerging between the MLS owned, and to a lesser extent the MLS affiliated clubs, and the independent clubs in USL. Attendance is at an all time high for the league as a whole, but drops drastically from the independent clubs and to the MLS clubs. The independent clubs average nearly 6,000 fans per game while the MLS owned and some affiliated clubs are lucky to average 1,500 fans.

The 2016 USL Cup Final contested between the New York Red Bulls II (owned and operated by New York Red Bulls) and the Swope Park Rangers (owned and operated by Sporting Kansas City) did manage to draw an official attendance of 5,574 fans which far exceeded the Red Bulls II average home attendance of 2,096, but still left the event looking rather empty, ill attended and, worst of all, bush league.

“It’s a conversation more and more now with the business offices of those (MLS) clubs and not always completely driven by the technical staff, where it started. It’s not a much more robust conversation with the ownership levels of those clubs,” USL President Jake Edwards has said. “These players need to play in a professional environment. You can’t go on the road and play in front of 20,000 at Cincinnati and then come home and play in front of a few hundred. If that’s how the clubs want to approach it, that’s not the model for us. That scenario can’t continue because ultimately, it’s a disservice to those players and to the independent teams that are putting millions of dollars into their stadiums and their programs.” —from Sports Illustrated, 2016

Quite naturally MLS staffs and offices spend the vast majority of their time and effort marketing their MLS teams leaving little left over for the USL “reserve” or “junior” side. Fan bases in MLS markets are similarly focused leaving the fans of independent USL teams frustrated with the lack of interest and enthusiasm for the reserve and development squads put on the field by the MLS organizations.

Even more damaging many MLS front offices have struggled to field consistently competitive teams on the USL level. Due to very realistic concerns about using the USL squad as a way of overcoming the salary constraints of the parent MLS squad, competition rules have been established that make it very difficult for players on the USL squad to participate in normal MLS matches as a part of the parent MLS squad. USL players are typically limited to callups for US Open Cup matches and friendlies.

While it remains quite easy for MLS players to participate in the “reserve” USL squad’s matches, only a handful of players signed to MLS contracts have been loaned on a season long basis to USL squads and those who “play down” rarely average above 450 to 500 minutes for the USL side for a wide variety of reasons. These infrequent guests often prove to be a disruption to the normal style of the USL squad and weaken play as much as strengthen it.

Given even a potion of the attention paid to their MLS club, teams owned and managed by MLS front offices with much larger resources could logically dominate USL standings. You simply need to look at the 2016 USL Cup final between two clubs owned by MLS front offices. This focused attention would lead to teams that resemble those in areas with relegation that tend to pop back and forth between leagues. Not quite good enough for the upper league, but still too good for the lower league.

Disputes About the Level of Competition

Many USL only ownership groups increasingly see success in the USL as a stepping stone to acceptance into MLS with the increasingly open encouragement of the MLS head office. While this encouragement may overtly relate more to facilities and front office experience, it has also served to create discord about the difference in the level of play between the two leagues.

Claims go to absurd levels on both sides with MLS proponents claiming that USL squads would never see the ball in a truly competitive match between an MLS side and a USL side to comparisons of how the USL clubs have historically competed in US Open Cup matches and friendlies against each MLS and other squads.

While it is without a doubt true that the top 10 to 15 players on MLS squads are much more skilled than those starting for a USL squad, it also probably true that the bottom third of most MLS squads are on much the same level as the majority of USL squads especially when independent USL squads are considered. Those on the USL clubs however, have the benefit of regular playing time which the bottom third of MLS players can only wish for.

The bottom 10 positions on MLS squads see frequent change from season to season with notable flow between the two leagues and an influx of new players to both leagues. From the above average, but not exceptional, player emerging from college or developmental academies and seeking to go pro it is difficult to argue the benefit of joining one squad or league above another in search of a long term career. The amount of playing time available to showcase their talent is a much more compelling topic.

Proper development of young players on the bottom of MLS rosters remains a difficult and complex task that has not yet be solved by the partnership. For a concise overview of some of the problems facing MLS owned and affiliated teams in USL, let me highly recommend the a recent podcast by a team covering Real Monarchs next opponent Portland Timbers 2 linked immediately below. It will also hit close to home for RSL fans who substitute RSL for Timbers 2 during the discussion about this season.