By Jimmy LaRoue
It’s not as if USL Pro and MLS have been complete strangers, but the new agreement between the two leagues signifies a closer and evolutionary relationship while bypassing the current second division, the NASL.
While the words “player development” didn’t come up as much as the logistics of how the partnership would work during a conference call with reporters, player development is at the heart of the new deal.
With the rejuvenation of the MLS Reserve League has come a sporadic, and limited, schedule that often saw games cancelled and hindered the development of seldom-played reserves and younger players. It left MLS teams looking to find ways to give their reserves more experience and playing time.
For example, D.C. United loaned a couple of players out to USL Pro’s Richmond Kickers last year, something United has done for many years, and the Philadelphia Union and Harrisburg City Islanders forged a working arrangement that showed the two leagues a “model that can work” for a partnership between the two leagues–on and off the field.
For the 2013 season, teams between the two leagues will be on their own in deciding whether to affiliate with one another, and four from each league have signaled their intentions to do so:
Those MLS clubs affiliating directly with a USL Pro club will not field a reserve team, while the remaining reserve teams, with the exception of Chivas USA, will play twice against USL Pro teams, a home-and-home series, that will count in the standings of the MLS Reserve league and USL Pro.
“We tried to create a model that would give our teams not only a bit of flexibility in the way they wanted to accomplish this [partnership], it also gave us the best chance of building this lower division over the next five, 10, 20 years,” said MLS executive vice president of player relations and competition Todd Durbin.
Said USL president Tim Holt: “It’s important to emphasize here that this initial partnership and the associated that we’re introducing for the 2013 season are merely the first phase in setting the foundation for further integration, collaboration between USL Pro, MLS and the teams in the years ahead in ways that are positive for professional soccer domestically.”
The flexibility includes fielding a reserve team, forming affiliations with existing USL Pro teams or join USL Pro as a standalone team.
“I think what you will see over the next 12 to 24 months is an evolution in this area,” Durbin said. “It will give us the ability to not only help build the lower division in this country, but also give our teams the ability to be innovative entrepreneurs to give us the best model long-term.”
Durbin said that rather than waiting until each league is in an ideal spot, through numbers or geography, to forge a partnership–as they have been doing up until this point–it was more prudent to forge the partnership now and iron out the details on the fly.
“It’s our belief that by forming this partnership and moving forward, that in very short order all of our teams will either have affiliates or be participating in interleague play with USL Pro,” Durbin said.
He said the budget outlay for MLS teams with affiliates versus those without are exactly the same, operating with 30-player rosters.
“It’s our belief that hopefully over time what you’ll see is a fully-integrated model where our teams,” Durbin said, “are participating either through affiliations as stand-alone teams or their existing reserve team will be playing a 24 [to] 26 game schedule, fully interleague with USL Pro.”
The 12 to 24 month phase in is precisely for that reason, Durbin said, to allow teams to evaluate which model works best for them.
Notwithstanding that it’s an odd arrangement that teams in each league are going to play games essentially outside of its own league that will count in the standings, there are other notables to the new arrangements.
Each of the affiliated MLS clubs will send four players on long-term loan to the USL Pro teams with whom they’re reached agreements, and can designate others for short-term assignments.
What it means for the rest of the reserves on MLS rosters with USL Pro affiliations is unclear. What it means for the structure of USL Pro rosters is also unclear, though it would appear to have some salary savings for the USL Pro clubs. That was something hinted at in the initial press release announcing the agreement.
“This new partnership will elevate and strengthen the level of competition for domestic professional soccer while simultaneously creating a more sustainable financial model for team owners,” said USL CEO Alec Papadakis in the press release.
Some of those savings, however, could be offset by increased travel. For instance, the Richmond Kickers’ MLS Reserve League opponent will be the Vancouver Whitecaps. That match will be an add-on to a west coast swing the club will make over the summer.
The agreement would also not preclude MLS from sending Development Academy players, the under-18 set who would otherwise likely appear in MLS Reserve League matches, to their USL Pro affiliated teams without jeopardizing their future NCAA eligibility.
“It’s our expectation that those players will continue to participate and have real development opportunities either through participation in the reserve league or through participation with the affiliates,” Durbin said.
MLS players on loan to USL Pro teams would also be U.S. Open Cup-tied to the USL Pro club, even if the affiliated clubs were to meet at some point in the cup competition.
While a number of unanswered questions remain with regard to how the new affiliation between the third division USL Pro and first division MLS will work, and no current plans or discussions to pull NASL into the fold, both sides say the agreement will evolve over the next one to two years, and beyond.
“What I would envision is that that would be a combination of players that are both participating as USL Pro players under the auspices of that club, and loaned players from the MLS 30-man roster,” Durbin said.