by Neil Morris
Interestingly, the four rumored USL Pro affiliates for 2013—Rochester, Orlando City, Richmond and Harrisburg—will not play a home-and-home series against their reported MLS parent club—New England, Sporting K.C., D.C. United and Philadelphia, respectively. According to a USL Pro league official, this was done so that loaned MLS players would not have to play their MLS clubs. However, during a media conference call this morning, MLS EVP of Competition and Player Relations Todd Durbin indicated that loaned players would be cup-tied to their USL Pro club should it face their MLS affiliate in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and available to face their MLS parent club in the tournament. It is unclear what competitive difference there is between facing a MLS parent club during the regular season as opposed to the U.S. Open Cup. It appears this might also be a way to incorporate as many MLS clubs as possible into the restructured Reserve League arrangement in 2013, since MLS has 19 clubs and USL Pro currently has 13.
Many descriptions have already been breathlessly applied to today’s long-rumored announcement about a restructured Reserve League collaboration between Major League Soccer and third divison USL Pro: “groundbreaking,” “milestone,” "unprecedented," “...one of the biggest announcements” in the 18-year history of MLS.
The precise details of the partnership—many of which are still unknown or being formulated—are far less exalted. In 2013, each of the 13 existing USL Pro clubs will play an interleague home-and-home series against one designated MLS Reserve team. Oddly, these two interleague games will count toward each team’s official USL Pro standings or MLS Reserve League standings.
The second prong of the arrangement is that affiliations will be forged between certain MLS and USL Pro clubs. The terms of this affiliation include at least four players from each parent MLS club going on long-term loan to their USL Pro affiliate. Each of the 19 total MLS clubs will either field a Reserve League team or establish an affiliation with a USL Pro club. MLS clubs who enter into a USL Pro affiliation will not compete in the MLS Reserve League. However, MLS clubs are not currently required to enter into a USL affiliation.
A few affiliations have already been announced or leaked, including the New England Revolution and Rochester Rhinos, Sporting Kansas City and Orlando City, D.C. United and the Richmond Kickers, and the Philadelphia Union and Harrisburg City Islanders. However, it appears that this year, the vast majority of MLS clubs will continue to field a Reserve team.
So, in essence, this “groundbreaking” arrangement currently comprises two extra games for each MLS Reserve League and USL Pro team, plus at least four MLS players going out on loan to each of about four USL Pro clubs. Still, the basic benefits for each league are both simple and potentially fruitful. MLS opens an avenue to outsource the cost of operating their Reserve League in a way that also affords more competitive experience for developing players. USL Pro gains an indirect subsidy toward player salaries, as well as the cache of brand association with MLS. This latter benefit will undoubtedly figure highly in NuRock’s most imperative goal: recruiting and enlisting investors willing to pay the franchise fee for a new USL Pro outpost.
In truth, the full breadth of the arrangement won’t be known until 2014 and beyond, when the parameters and possibilities of the partnership have an opportunity to evolve. Part of that includes the promise of future "technical and commercial initiatives" related to the partnership. However, a number of questions already spring to mind:
• Will individual MLS clubs embrace the wholesale offloading of developing players to third division clubs and their training staff? Every year, and well before this arrangement was struck, MLS clubs loan a smattering of players to D2/D3 teams, often for an entire season. However, MLS clubs are notoriously territorial when it comes to developing their talent, and they are sometimes reticent to allow their investments to be trained by coaches and at facilities they view—often erroneously—as inferior to their own.
• Where will reservists for MLS clubs that forge a USL Pro affiliation compete? Those MLS clubs will apparently not field a separate Reserve League team. Does that mean parent MLS clubs will loan most of their reservists out to a USL Pro affiliate for training and competition? Or, if the parent MLS club only loans out four or five players to their affiliate, where will the rest of the unloaned reservists get competitive experience?
• Will MLS clubs without an official USL Pro affiliate be prohibited or discouraged from loaning players to other leagues, chiefly the NASL?
• Although the MLS-to-USL Pro loans at issue are being referred to as “long-term,” what will be the call-back provisions of each loan? One can’t imagine MLS would enter into a formal arrangement that doesn’t include a provision allowing a parent MLS club to call back any loanee at their discretion from a USL Pro affiliate. If that happens, must the MLS club replace the recalled player?
• Will the arrangement affect competition in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, celebrating its 100th edition this year? Some have suggested bracketing allowances to avoid pitting MLS clubs against their USL Pro affiliate beginning in the 3rd Round of Open Cup competition. A better solution, in my opinion, would be to simply Cup-bar any loaned player from competing against his parent MLS club.
The other big question, of course, is what effect this modified Reserve League will have on the NASL. MLS and USL Pro backers already predict a death blow to the still-nascent D2 league, with MLS and USL Pro squeezing out the NASL by poaching swathes of potential talent and markets.
Whether that broad assessment has merit won’t be known for several years—it certainly isn’t the case under the present, rather modest terms of this arrangement. However, lower division player talent will always gravitate to the team or league where they can earn the most money. U.S. Soccer’s guidelines regarding the minimum net worth of D2 club owners—at least $20 million—dictate that this usually be the NASL. Moreover, for every MLS loanee to a USL Pro affiliate, that’s one fewer roster spot for lower division talent, space that the NASL will be more than happy to provide.
There are a couple of still-unknowns that could alter this paradigm, however. The first is whether the allure of MLS brand affiliation proves so strong that potential owners and investors will opt for franchising with USL Pro over the NASL, fostering a glut of USL Pro markets that will subsume the lower division landscape. Second, will this MLS-USL Pro arrangement develop into a two-way street and not just a pipeline for MLS reservists to get their reps? In other words, will exposure to MLS Reserve teams and their scouts truly become the best gateway to MLS for top USL Pro talent? If USL Pro becomes seen as the most viable jumping off point for lower division players hoping for their shot at MLS, those players may choose that opportunity over any negligible compensation considerations.