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Integrating MLS Reserve League into America’s Lower Divisions – Part 1

2012 February 16

This is the first in a two-part series examining the current state of the MLS Reserve League and the need for improvement in the next 10 years. The series looks at the league as it stands today, the improvements that must be made to help MLS nurture talent from within the borders of the U.S and Canada and looks at the complicated but exciting ideas for integrating the league into 2nd or 3rd division pro soccer in America – a task that could also help lower division leagues as well with branding and stability.

Part 1 – Examining the current state of the MLS Reserve League and identifying the issues.

In the late summer of 2011, Major League Soccer’s executive vice president Nelson Rodriguez made known to the public that the league’s board of governors had made an audacious goal: that MLS would be one of the top leagues in the world by 2022.

“We’re operating now with a clear vision in mind. The vision that has been articulated by our board is that by 2022 soccer is to be a preeminent sport in North America and MLS is to be among the best leagues,” said Rodriguez, who is in charge of competition and game operations.

“We really are primed now to take the next step in terms of our growth and our development,” said the league’s other executive vice president Todd Durbin, whose charge is competition and player relations. “What we have been tasked with, both Nelson and I from the ownership group, take a step back, look at where we are as a business and help the owners take us to the next level, and to be a bit bold in terms of our thinking and the way in which we approach it.”

The new “task” for Durbin and Rodriguez will not be an easy one. Yes, MLS seems like a league finally coming into their own with most teams now playing in soccer-specific stadiums and attendance in 2011 surpassing the NBA and NHL. We are also told of MLS teams finally starting to break even financially with a few actually turning a profit. But in order to make that next step, MLS certainly needs to look at its player development in order to boost the quality of American players. That young talent could potentially raise the level of play in the league from within its own borders at a cost much cheaper than purchasing outside foreign players. The question is, how can MLS help that equation with the short time frame of ten years?

Like all issues surrounding soccer in North America, the answers are often complicated and cannot simply be solved by looking to the rest of the world as a road map. With the U.S. coming to the pro game late and with such an expansive landscape to cover, the equation becomes difficult at best. Still, there are things that can be learned from the rest of the world. Other issues, MLS, the CSA and USSF must forge on their own. They all leave unique problems to solve for soccer development in the U.S. and Canada.

So it was no surprise that, just a few months after the late August announcement by Durbin and Rodriguez, they were talking about the subject again at the MLS Cup’s Supporters Summit held in Los Angeles. Standing next to Rodriguez under a light drizzling rain at Home Depot Center, Durbin spoke about short term player development by focusing in on the reserve league which was resurrected after the collective bargaining agreement which was signed before the start of the 2011 season. He explained the league would stay static for 2012 with “minor modifications.” Much like 2011, the reserves would play a 10-game schedule but would finish by September 30th. He also stated they were looking at more “stand alone games” which he said the league’s technical staffs feel “will create a better development environment.” As well they would ask the teams “to take a close look to see if they can schedule some of those games in their home stadium, perhaps even do them as double headers.”

However, it was Durbin’s remarks on the long-term focus of the reserve league that seemed to catch the attendees’ interest.

“At the same time we will be having a parallel conversation in regard with what we’re doing with the reserve league long term,” explained Durbin. “We are absolutely committed to having the best environment to transition our players from youth soccer to full professional soccer. That will happen in one of two ways. Either we are going to expand our current reserve league which would involve us expanding our rosters and playing perhaps 20 or 24 games and ramping that up over the course of two or three years. The other thing we are going to be examining very closely in 2012 is a possible deep relationship with the second division here in this country, to see if maybe there’s a way we can form a partnership with the second division that could fulfill our needs as well.”

Alfonso Mondelo and Jeff Agoos are technical directors at MLS in charge of player development and scouting. Mondelo, a native of Spain, the country that arguably has the best youth player development in the world at the current time, also spent time coaching the MetroStars, Tampa Bay Mutiny and the Puerto Rican national team. In a recent interview with IMS, Mondelo explained some of the unique challenges of incorporating a reserve league into an existing 2nd or 3rd tier pro soccer league in the U.S. and Canada. However, one thing was clear to Mondelo, the current reserve league system is not good enough.

“I think in an ideal world in MLS, we would like to have two separate teams, a first team and a reserve team,” Modelo said. “There are budget constrictions that are preventing us from doing that right now. Without having that, how do we give the players the minutes, the games and quality of games to help them to develop?”

“We know there’s a void when our players are going to college and only playing a 2- to 3-month season. They are basically getting the amount of games in 4 years that they should be getting in a year. That is not helping these players to come in and make an immediate impact. So how do we achieve this result? The reserve league is a way to give them some games. In this current status, with 10 games a year, it’s not sufficient. We all think, ideally, having a 2nd division where those players are competing on a week-to-week basis, where there are actually points at stake and where the competition is really meaningful, we hope to expedite that.”

Mondelo states that at the current time and with NCAA rules not allowing college players to stand alongside paid professionals on a soccer pitch, it might be the MLS Development Academy players who have the best opportunities.

“The way it is right now those players who are from numbers 19-28 in the rosters are getting the benefit of playing in this league,” said Mondelo. “But the ones who I personally feel are benefiting the most are those academy kids. The 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds, that are getting the experience of playing next to all these veterans, that’s going to expedite their development more.”

In fact recent reports seem to prove Mondelo’s point. Since 2008, 47 youth club players either from affiliated clubs or Development Academy teams have now been signed by MLS to contracts under the “home grown” rule, and the league expects that pattern to continue. However, MLS cannot ignore the college players who come through the system or the home grown players signed to contracts but who are not quite ready for the first team.

North American Soccer League commissioner David Downs has spent a great deal of time pondering these same issues while looking at ways of incorporating the reserves into his second division league to make both MLS and the NASL stronger. “What does the MLS Reserve league actually accomplish?” asked Downs. In order to research that question he picked three representative MLS reserve teams and used published box scores to collect some data. He admits that the sampling size is not large enough to have concrete results but it does start to paint a clear picture of what happened in the MLS reserve league in 2011. The three random teams were DC United, Real Salt Lake and the Chicago Fire. Here’s what he found.

•Each team used an average of 35 different players in those reserve games.
•Of those 35 players, 7 were starters (meaning they made appearances in at least 3/4 of the first teams matches).
•16 were MLS bench players.
•12 were either academy players, trialists, coaches or guest players.

“In fairness, 75% of the minutes in those reserve games went to what I would call MLS bench players. The average amount of minutes played by those 16 bench players was approximately 400 per season,” said Downs who compares that to NASL starters who often log in more than 2,000 minutes per season.

Downs states that when MLS reinstituted the reserve league and expanded from 24 to 30 players, the CBA stated the minimum salary was $32,600.00. “That’s a pretty significant investment [$195,600} in those 6 players," says Downs. "The interesting thing is, those 6 players get virtually no minutes in MLS. Yet having those extra 6 players clearly didn't give you a deep enough bench to play an MLS game on Saturday and play a reserve league game on Sunday. They literally scrambled to pull in some assistant coaches and some players from around the area who they knew to be good players or trialists. It's sort of one size fits all - works in a number of manners - sort of - but doesn't work well for any one function."

Mondelo says he understands that financial commitment and it's one the league is now willing to make. "For our clubs this is a major investment to sign all these extra players who are not getting playing time. So in order to develop 2 or 3 good players, you have to sign 11-14. So it is an investment and something that has to be looked at for the long term improvement of players in MLS."

DC United play the Columbus Crew in a reserve game with a sprinkling of fans in attendance. Photo courtesy of MLS Soccer.com

Another issue MLS is dealing with is conflicting views between teams’ coaching and development staffs in the best way to advance their reserve players. Mondelo states that even his team sometimes butts heads with the teams’ technical staffs. “Where we [MLS] differ from some of the clubs is, we would love to have the reserve team play right after the first team or the day after. Some of the clubs prefer to have the reserve teams play midweek. So there is conflict there as to what is the best way to run this reserve league and how we are going to get the maximum out of it.”

He also explained that there is a difference in opinion between clubs in how much competition young players should be facing which often goes hand-in-hand with how much control they have on their reserve players. He says it’s tricky allowing coaching staff to observe them in games yet have them available for training to help compete against the first team. “On the positive side they are going to be playing more competitive games – more meaningful games – and that’s going to bring out the best in them. On the negative side the players might not be available to them [first team] day-in and day-out. So figuring out a system where we could have those players participate in the 2nd division as needed but able to be called back into the first team, which is where we really want to see them, is important,” Mondelo said.

“For some teams they feel it’s too much to have guys who are sitting on the bench turning right around and having to play a match,” continued Mondelo. “They feel the mentality, it just isn’t right. Some teams feel that the midweek games are more beneficial to the development. Others still feel it’s too disruptive to the training because many players are getting pulled out for the reserve game and you can’t have a meaningful training session for the first team. These are just some of the things we are dealing with in trying to figure out since the league increased the number of players that are in each roster. Clearly we have not found the correct model yet.”

Ultimately, any decision that will be made concerning the Reserve League will have to go through the MLS Technical Committee and that too may prove challenging in itself. Will Kuhns, Director of Communications for MLS, explains that Nelson Rodriguez oversees the committee, but all members of the competition department at MLS participate, including Todd Durbin, as do two representatives from each of the 19 clubs, and a representative from the Players Union.

“Generally speaking, each team’s technical director and one other person, sometimes the manager/coach, sometimes an ownership type person are on the committee,” explained Kuhns. “The Technical Committee makes its recommendations and proposals to the Competition Committee, which consists of a smaller group that includes members of the MLS Board of Governors [the owners]. Once the Competition Committee recommends a plan to the Board of Governors, it is usually adopted.”

Evan though Mondelo talks about partnering with a lower division league, he is still careful in stating if or when it will happen, pointing out stability of those leagues as a major stumbling block. “Ideally, could there be an affiliation with the NASL? Maybe?” Mondelo said. “Maybe that is a way of increasing the number of teams that are participating in the reserve league and making the competition more meaningful. But I don’t believe that’s something that’s going to happen in the next year or two. Right now MLS is acting like the top league in America, yet it’s still a developmental league. I think when we are able to separate those two is when we will be able to increase that association.”

“I thank stability is the key to everything,” Mondelo continued. “Being able to have clubs that we know are going to be around for a number of years. That are going to be content with having a business model that means being a good 2nd division team and league. That they are in markets that can support a second division team that will never be a 1st division team – they don’t have enough numbers [population]- but that they can still be good for the sport. When we find enough of those as well as the MLS reserve league, then I think we could have a formidable second division that will become more regionalized. You would limit the travel and yet make those game more meaningful.”

Kuhns agrees, citing the USSF and the new standards they set in 2010 for 2nd division. “U.S. Soccer has taken a much more hands-on approach to D2 in the last couple of years. That’s the beginning of that effort in terms of soccer in this country. It’s like, let’s really make sure we are meeting certain standards and that we are moving forward with a long term vision, not just a short term one. Making a sustainable business model. But all those things take time. We’re not a year away from having that sort of relationship.”

So how could lower professional leagues and their teams in the U.S. and Canada work with MLS in helping them get the competition those reserve players need to improve, yet strengthening their own leagues by: adding players, possibly adding teams and strengthening their brand equity through a relationship with America’s top soccer league? That is the question explored in part 2.

Part 2 – Integrating MLS Reserve League into America’s Lower Divisions.

23 Responses
  1. February 16, 2012

    This sounds very encouraging. I look forward to reading part 2.

  2. Rob permalink
    February 16, 2012

    If promotion/relegation is off the table, MLS should push for a system similar to MLB with “minor league” affiliates in the 2nd/3rd division and a limited number of options on each player to send back and forth. Rather than spend the extra money to subsidize a reserve league, the money could help to subsidize lower division clubs who are growing and don’t have the attendance to be profitable with a payroll adequate to support a competitive team. It’s not ideal, but I think it’s the best chance for younger players to get the number of games/competition to develop adequately.

  3. Rob permalink
    February 16, 2012

    PS Great article Brian! Looking forward to the second half.

  4. WSW permalink
    February 16, 2012

    Great article, but no way in hell will I support NASL becoming a feeder for MLS. If they want to trade players I agree, but having a MLB system will kill the independency aspect of D2 teams and how will it look in USOC when MLS will win every game because their D2 affiliate is just that a “reserve’ team.

    We should strive for stability in D2 and for every team to be able to compete against MLS teams in USOC.

  5. bullsear permalink
    February 16, 2012

    I’m with WSW. In addition, I’d emphasize that we don’t have to have pro/rel to have a meaningful and vital D2.

  6. February 16, 2012

    Great article, BQ ! This is a subject that has been on my mind for the last two years — how can MLS and the lower professional divisions work together in a manner that is mutually beneficial to everyone, help grow the sport in the CONCACAF region and help our young players develop more quickly.

    Promotion/relegation is light years away, if ever — I think we’d have to have 40-60 stable professional franchises to even consider it. And with all due respect, to make D2 and/or D3 teams “minor league” affiliates of MLS clubs is suicide — many of the lower division clubs are in major league markets in other sports, and to promote a Minnesota team as a “feeder” club of the Chicago Fire, for example, would make marketing that club in a city that has NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL clubs a nightmare.

    What would work best? Maybe a scenario something like this…. currently the MLS season kicks off a month before the NASL season does. (Let’s just make this MLS/NASL for the sake of simplicity). After the second week of MLS play, each MLS team makes 4-6 players available to be drafted by NASL teams for a 90 day loan period. The NASL teams draft in order of worst-best from the previous season. MLS teams have had their training and played a couple of regular season games in, so their coaching staffs have an idea of what players would benefit from playing 3 -6 months of D2 professional soccer. NASL teams still are training, and would have a couple weeks to integrate the 4-6 players coming into their clubs, where they have already signed 20 or so players for the upcoming season. A draft would make things fun — it would allow the NASL teams to choose players based on positions where they are weakest, or simply the best player available, or even based on locale (would San Antonio perhaps draw some hard-core roadtrip fans from Houston or Dallas if they had an exciting young player from the Dynamo or FC Dallas on their roster)? After the three month period, either the MLS team owning the player’s contract or the NASL club can cancel the loan — if the MLS decides to take the player back they can provide a list of a few players to take his place at the NASL club for the remainder of the season.

    I realize I may be daydreaming and that they would have to be agreement between the league entities and the players association. But this would be mutually beneficial — more young MLS players would see more competitive minutes and develop faster while saving MLS the costs of administrating a reserve league while the NASL would get a break on having to pay salaries on 4-6 roster spots (MLS would pay the player salaries, NASL would pay the costs such as meal money, travel, etc), which would be a helpful savings in the budget of a D2 team ($100,000 -$200,000). It would also increase awareness and interest in MLS fans in D2 soccer.

    One last point — I think the concern that MLS coaches/staffs having less control over players loaned out to lower divisions is frankly ridiculous. Players who earn a great deal more money (and thus represent a greater financial investment by clubs ovcerseas) than MLS players are loaned out to other clubs in Europe and South America all the time. With all the social/technology tools available today, MLS clubs can pretty easily monitor their players from afar. If there is a thought by an MLS staff that a particular young player isn’t ready physically/mentally to play against older D2 players, then don’t subject him to the loan draft. Also, most coaches at the NASL, USL PRO and PDL levels are experienced pros nowdays.

  7. Strikers Return permalink
    February 16, 2012

    Great article BQ with a lot of interesting questions and ideas raised. Looking forward to Part 2!

  8. February 16, 2012

    Superb piece, Brian

  9. Chris permalink
    February 16, 2012

    I think having MLS d2 affiliates like baseball would be perfect for the league and US Soccer as a whole. Im not advocating affiliates in other major markets (Miami, Atlanta, Minneapolis, etc) because I feel they deserve an MLS team but in smaller markets it would work. Minor league affilates in NASL would greatly improve the league and add stable teams to an only 8 team league. Pro/Rel will never and should never be implemented in the US so it doesnt matter about that. I think the US open cup is a waste of games and MLS teams should be exempt but for the arguement you dont have to let the affilates play in the Open Cup if you are worried about that

  10. DOOPday permalink
    February 16, 2012

    Great article. I think that the reserve league should exist on its own and not be integrated into the NASL and/or USL PRO leagues. NASL and USL PRO are both professional leagues and should exist in a separate universe than the MLS to preserve the integrity of each respective league. I think that the Union have the right idea by setting up a “partnership” with a lower division club. The partnership between the Union and Harrisburg of the USL PRO has allowed them to find extremely talented players like Sheanon Williams who is now a favorite to represent the US in Olympic qualifiers and undoubtedly in London since we all know the US will qualify!

    The Union also have a partnership with the Reading of the PDL. Every MLS team should have a similar partnership with a NASL, USL PRO, and/or PDL team to create a more direct avenue for players to be seen by MLS clubs. However, I don’t think this should go as far as to label them as feeder teams or to put them directly under the club. Having that separation will allow other MLS teams to pull players from the affiliated lower division side. Having the partnership with PDL clubs is very important since it will allow college players that are signed with an MLS team to play in a competitive league since they are not allowed to play in NASL/USL PRO due to NCAA regulations.

    As for the reserve league. It needs to be beefed up. The salary cap needs to increase for MLS teams to expand their roster. The reserve league should play a full schedule of 34 games to mirror the first team. They would earn points just like the first team. Maybe the MLS could kick out a bonus to the winning reserve team whether its money or maybe an extra international slot. Something that would make the games have some meaning. This would be a very expensive endeavor so I don’t see it happening anytime soon. You would see a reduction of first team players in reserve games, but the league would become more important.

    I also would like to see more loan deals done between the different leagues. MLS teams should loan their players to NASL/USL PRO teams. This would generate money for the MLS and get players some priceless time on the pitch in a competitive environment.

  11. ERic permalink
    February 16, 2012

    I don’t see any problem with the reserve teams playing in the Open Cup. I’m pretty sure they do that in Spain and Germany with their equivalent tournaments. The rules would just be the same. Once a player has played in the Cup for one team, he’s cup-tied to that team. Which means any player that played for the Houston Reserves (for example) couldn’t play for the Dynamo MLS team for their Cup games.

    I love the idea of MLS Reserve teams filling out the NASL. It would take the league from shaky and uncertain to probably stable. It would allow a split East/West league, taking the NASL from just eight teams to 27. Add in one more, and you can have two 14-team divisions. Playing only against each other you’d get a 26-game season. A little short, maybe, but probably long enough with Open Cup games and playoffs.

    The only real difficulty that MLS will have to solve is the Reserve team logistics of flying on their own. That is, not piggy-backing their travel on the first team’s trips. And that’s not necessarily an easy one. Portland is about the only team that can afford this. Their reserve games are drawing very solid attendance, and can probably fund them, but none of the other MLS teams are drawing anywhere near those numbers. And until they do, the Reserve teams are a big loss financially. Combining travel with the first team is one way to save money.

    Now, I haven’t examined last year’s schedule. And if there’s a minimum of grouping first team and reserve games, then I really don’t see what the barriers are. Other than not having enough players.

  12. Travis permalink
    February 16, 2012

    Alot of European Clubs have there 2nd team or Reserve team in lower divisions in there countries football Tiers. Some Bundesliga clubs have Their reserve teams in the 3. Liga. Barcelona’s Reserve team plays in the 2nd Division in Spain. So I can see MLS teams being in the NASL or USL with there Reserve squads makes perfect sense and the concept is not new in the world. Besides some teams already have their U-23 sides in the USL Premier Development League. Chicago, DC, Vancouver, Seattle and Portland all have U-23 teams.
    Toronto FC Academy plays in the CSL.

    If Barca can use there reserves against “future” opponents and gain match experience then why cant DC United B team play against Charleston Battery or Orlando City. They are getting match experience against 1st team players I think its a Win/Win. If Timbers U-23 can get 1500 fans a game or more. Why cant Timbers Reserves get 2-3000 fans to watch them play against old USL/NASL foes.

  13. Bob L permalink
    February 16, 2012

    Gerry, very interesting proposal from both a technical and marketing perspective.

  14. February 16, 2012

    Travis, those scenarios as well as some of the others expressed here will be explored in the second part of the article.

    @DOOPday. MLS will not be making money on loaning players to D2 or D3. Most of the time MLS pays these players salaries when they are loaned out. With most D2 teams losing between .5 and 1.5 mil a year and with owners now where near the financially well-to-do MLS owners, that just isn’t a reality.

    Also, I just don’t see MLS raising minimum salaries on players 24-30. In fact with the new CBA, it has put those player earning far more than most D2 and for sure more than most D3 players. Which in a sense throws things out of balance. Hey, I’d love for every player to be making a good living, even if he is a reserve player. But average salaries have actually gone down in D2 and D3 over the last 3 or 4 years. Until D2 and D3 can start doing better financially, don’t expect to see that change anytime soon.

    Lets not fool ourselves. We love this sport but it’s still a very difficult nut to crack here in the U.S. and Canada. Especially at the lower levels.

  15. ButlerBob permalink
    February 16, 2012

    Brian,

    Nice article and it was well researched. Looking forward to second part.

  16. Kenneth Newman permalink
    February 16, 2012

    All of the NASL /USL teams who have their sights on being financially strong and being able to compete in the US and/or Canadian Open Cups tournaments will need to have big increases in their fans numbers per game, or this idea would never work. At least 4-5,000 fans per game attendance increase would have to happen to give each club a slight financial cushion.
    There is NO doubt that keeping the traveling down by playing in two divisions would help keep any reserve league more competitive and would give the clubs’ players the games they need so desperately now. Its especially important for the developing 16-18 year olds who are coming out of the SDA. Future professional soccer players will more than likely be getting games in an reserve league rather than any college summer league, although because some players develop faster than others. Those who are left to play in the PDL will eventually also benefit, if they understand the situation.

  17. Kartik permalink
    February 16, 2012

    This could turn out to be a very good idea. It allows for immediate improvement for the reserve MLS player by actually playing, and it adds something extra to the lower leagues in terms of MLS fans actually caring about the lower leagues. Potentially, it could end up like the German or Spanish ladder with the “B” teams competing with independent clubs. Very very long term, if soccer becomes accepted in enough communities, it could also allow for pro/rel.

  18. Travis permalink
    February 16, 2012

    Thanks Brain I will be looking forward for Part 2.

    One thing I love about American and Canadian Soccer is that compared to the world we are new kids and we can look at other leagues and pick out the good and bad. We can Look at the way Europe has their Reserves and pick out the good and take out the bad and come up with something unique here in the States/Canada. We dont just fall in line and follow the Standard Doctrine of European Leagues but we take good points from it and modify it into our own.

  19. drebin permalink
    February 16, 2012

    There should be a league that mixes the reserve teams from both MLS and minor divisions instead.

    I don’t agree with a farm system. The ideal that my local minor league team exists only for the sole purpose of developing talents so that MLS can reap the rewards of our hard work is quite disturbing. I encourage more upward mobility for the players, as long as minor league teams are allowed to retain a core group of players that wants to play for the club and represent the community, most importantly the fans.

    So there needs to be some level of sovereignty and identity among all professional clubs regardless of division. This thought stems from the concept of territorial pride. Something that’s very primal among football fans around the world. And meaningful competition like the Open Cup is what drives that. Where my team is not just there to showcase young prospects, it is there to crush any MLS opposition that comes into my town.

  20. BrazilYinzer permalink
    February 16, 2012

    Great article BQ.

    Just another example of an idea that might be borrowed for whatever solution eventually works in the US over long term, is how lower leagues and talent flow work in Brazil. There are 4 national leagues (A – D), and many developing players are loaned and aquired within national leagues. But the majority of develpment and scouting doesn’t occur at the national level, it’s the state level tournament, which run from Jan to April. So a top tier club will get a chance to play against teams from A, B, C, D, and below; which is where most of the scouting and transfers occur. That’s how team at all levels continually develop and refresh talent, even during the harried years ago when 400+ player net emmigrated.

    I have no idea how any of those concepts would fit into the US soccer structure, due to the many obvious differences. Just a thought.

  21. Fotbalist permalink
    February 16, 2012

    I love this article. Very timely!

  22. WSW permalink
    February 16, 2012

    @drebin

    I agree

  23. February 20, 2012

    In case anyone is interested, The Straight Red Card Podcast devoted one of their segments to this topic inspired by this two part article.

    http://www.bigsoccer.com/soccer/dwreck1971/2012/02/20/integrating-mls-reserves-with-usl-or-nasl-part-1/

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