By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 24, 2021) US Soccer Players – Major League Soccer announced on Monday that it will kick off a new competition. In its words, the new lower division league is “designed to complete the player pathway” from academies to first teams, “while also bringing the excitement and passion of professional soccer to cities that currently do not have a professional soccer team.” Twenty MLS second teams will take part in the first season, slated for 2022.
The Athletic, which first broke the outlines of this story months ago, reports that MLS has filed for third-tier sanctioning with US Soccer. That would place this new venture on par with USL League One in terms of operating standards and the like.
There’s still a lot we don’t know for sure. Speaking of USL, though, one thing we can reckon with confidence is that this effectively marks the end of the USL-MLS partnership birthed in 2013. That arrangement, perhaps just a marriage of convenience all along, helped the USL place itself on a more solid footing. It also provided MLS with a dramatic upgrade on its modest and long-since-defunct reserve league in terms of player development.
It made a significant impact. Both leagues mushroomed in size and relevance over the ensuing eight years. The homegrown player concept that was then a fledgling idea took root dramatically. That’s now a driving force for both USL and MLS in economic as well as philosophical terms.
USL isn’t going anywhere. At least a few of its MLS affiliate teams aren’t even really in any hurry to leave. Still, it will now surely find itself in direct competition, at least in places, with its bigger, richer counterpart. This reality is fueling the perception of those who see this as yet another power move by the unquestioned big dog on the North American soccer landscape to gobble up more money, control, and market share.
Those of us who follow all these arenas closely tend to get all too familiar with MLS’s tendencies and blemishes, and frame things accordingly. While some see MLS as a monopoly run amok, a giant swallowing everything within reach, others see a stable, competently run entity. It’s one overseeing steady growth on soil previously considered hostile to the sport. Maybe the league is truly committed to replacing its reliance on expansion fees with profits from outbound transfers of young players to quality clubs abroad. Maybe this new not-exactly-a-reserve-league helps that process along to the mutual benefit of clubs, players, and even the USMNT.
It’s natural to ask why this needs to happen under MLS’s umbrella, why it can’t unfold in sync with USL and the upstart NISA instead of in competition. Plunking yet another new venture into the bubbling alphabet soup of soccer entities draws further parallels to the exhaustingly chaotic environs of American youth soccer.
There, rebels and dissenters don’t take their ball and go home so much as take their ball and go start yet another league, yet another club, yet another competition. For proof, just glance at the dizzying array of new startups cropping up in the wake of the US Soccer Development Academy’s sudden demise. They might be helping in revenue terms, but it’s highly debatable whether they’re nurturing more talented prospects.
Some MLS teams have fared better with the USL linkup than others. Two “MLS 2” teams, New York Red Bulls II and Real Salt Lake’s Real Monarchs SLC, have won the USL Championship title over the second-tier league’s decade in its current incarnation. Second teams from Sporting KC and the LA Galaxy have finished runners-up on three occasions, and two-time champs Orlando City used USL success to speed their path into MLS itself. All of those examples can point to positive player development stories in addition to that competitiveness.
Even those who have lost more than they’ve won aren’t necessarily unhappy. At least a few MLS 2 teams will remain USL members for next year and possibly beyond. A few months ago, I spoke with a veteran coach at one of those clubs about the prospects of this new MLS second tier. He wryly cited the dim view that one of his former European colleagues took of reserve league matches across the pond when it comes to growing young players.
“He calls it the pillow fight. And I really do fear that it would become that,” said the coach, underlining the value of kids competing against grown professionals in meaningful matches. “Tthe experiences of my 15, 16, 17-year-olds getting their [expletives] handed to them every couple of weeks, and then going ‘Holy moly, I’ve got to improve, I’ve got to do better, I’ve got to take that opportunity, the clock is ticking.'”
MLS implicitly acknowledged that in its announcement, vaguely alluding to “the potential for independently owned teams” to join up. That might reduce the perception of this being a mere reserve league. Why would a well-run indie with its own business model want to jump ship from familiar USL to take part? That’s the question.
As a centrally managed single-entity, MLS has a track record of preferring to keep things in-house. Its leadership has a well-established love for its own branding. This is a chance to extend that. It’s also counting down to the end of its current broadcasting deal and is surely keen to present this new league as a value-added property for the media companies it’s courting. It’s already reserving the right to bundle in local television and streaming rights alongside its national offerings. That said, the path to actually reaping profits directly from this new league looks quite uncertain.
Does a bigger MLS ecosystem really make for a better MLS, or a stronger North American soccer scene? Right now that’s anyone’s guess.
More from Charles Boehm:
- The Concacaf Octagonal adds two interesting teams
- Taking stock of the USMNT’s tactical identity after Concacaf Nations League
- What we learned, and didn’t, from the USMNT’s win over Honduras
- USMNT start massive summer with Switzerland – Nations League two-step
Logo courtesy of MLS