Rumors are flying about the sort-of-announced partnership between MLS and USL that will integrate the MLS Reserves into the third division. This dovetails neatly with MLS commissioner Don Garber’s statements recently about MLS not getting enough value out of the Academy structure and the Reserve League, and their failure to properly develop the talent the league can access. Benefits abound on both side of the potential agreement: MLS gains an established outlet for developing their youth talent beyond a pathetic 10 game reserve schedule; USL-Pro gets free talented youth players and the ability to establish a regional format due to an increased west coast footprint, both features which increase financial stability for a notoriously unstable league.
It has become clear that a few main points have been agreed upon informally between the leagues, with some integration to begin in 2013 and full integration in 2014.
First, that MLS teams will have a USL-Pro affiliate (with the likely exception of Antigua Barracudas FC, who develop players for their own national team). MLS teams will provide up to five players to their third tier affiliate, at their discretion, with salaries paid by their home team.
Second, that MLS teams will be scheduling reserve games against USL-Pro teams in the coming season, with a formal schedule integration coming in following year. MLS teams without a local counterpart may field full division-three teams in 2014, in order to establish regional divisions in USL-Pro.
Given that there are more MLS teams than USL teams, it is unclear exactly how the west coast teams will be affiliated in 2013. It’s likely that initially west coast teams will be sending players to the southeast where there are four USL teams but zero MLS teams. USL covers the entire east coast but has only one team west of the Mississippi, with Phoenix and Sacramento set to debut in ’13 and ’14 respectively.
An interactive map of Div 2 and 3 attendances from 1996 to 2012
This isn’t ideal, of course, but it is likely that this partnership will induce many of the 70+ USL-PDL (fourth division – semi-pro) to make the jump up to the third tier. If making the jump includes 5 free youth stars, it is very doubtful may fourth division teams would resist. There are many clubs in the fourth tier on the west coast that could make the leap to the third with some marginal support. Cascadia teams not directly associated with MLS U-23 teams in the PDL include Victoria Highlanders, Kitsap Pumas, Washington Crossfire, North Sound SeaWolves FC, and Fraser Valley Mariners FC. Any three of these D-4 teams could step up and become D-3 MLS affiliates to Cascadian MLS partners.
One interesting note about this deal is the leapfrogging of the NASL (second division) in the arrangement with USL. It’s been made clear by NASL owners that they see themselves in a complementary position rather than a support structure relationship with MLS. This is quite an interesting but ambitious position to take given their recent instability, having been refused sanctioning as D-2 by the USSF as recently as 2011. It seems likely the NASL will remain an outlet for more permanent loan-type situations, but won’t be included in a the more fluid reserve league setup with USL.
There are clearly many variables that need to be worked out still, but it’s a promising future for the development of youth talent in MLS. Timbers fans will very likely see many more developmental players sent out to third division sides, like Bright Dike and Andrew Jean-Baptiste were sent to LA Blues in 2012. More games => more experience => increased development. Any arrangement that gets more real game time for developmental MLS players, while promoting and stabilizing a lower division, cannot be a negative for the league. We are sure to hear more concrete details about this arrangement in the future; I’ll be sure to keep you up to date.