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

2012 February 16

This is the second of 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.

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

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 teams and strengthening their brand equity through a relationship with America’s top soccer league?

Tim Holt is the president of the United Soccer Leagues and he has seen the ups and downs of America’s second and third tier of professional soccer, as he will soon start his 14th year with the organization. Holt also understands the stability issues that MLS is concerned with. The USL took a different course when the USSF set new standards for 2nd division in August of 2010. They dropped their 2nd division league USL-1 and announced a revamped 3rd division called USL PRO. The concept of the league was stability through regionalized divisions. A model that sounds very similar to what Alfonso Mondelo and MLS are looking for. Yet the first year of the league saw three teams dropped in the beginning of the season and a fourth dropped before the start of the 2012 season. USL PRO did not add any new teams this year as it looks to work on that stability.

Holt says he’s maintained regular dialogue with MLS on myriad issues related to the professional game in the United States and Canada. As a part of those conversations, the state of MLS reserve league and its teams has been discussed. He points out there already is strong representation of MLS teams using the USL player development leagues to support their own initiatives. “We are certainly advocates of further increasing this at the professional league level in the coming years and as MLS is aware we are always prepared to further explore this,” said Holt.

The USL president pointed to numerous partnerships between MLS and USL clubs at all levels of the USL pyramid. “Harrisburg City Islanders (USL PRO) and Philadelphia Union enjoy a comprehensive affiliation that could be a template for other MLS and USL PRO clubs with regular player movement in both directions. The Union also have an affiliation with Reading United AC of the PDL in which the Head Coach of Reading also serves on the Union’s coaching staff and leads their reserve team. Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, and Chicago of MLS all either own or carry their brands on PDL teams; DC, Vancouver, and Seattle all do the same in the W-League with another announcement imminent.  Numerous other MLS teams participate in the SYL and Super-20 League including the 2011 Super-20 Champion Columbus Crew Juniors.”

Holt also stated that the USL are very open to MLS teams owning and/or operating reserve teams which participate in USL PRO. Something that is not allowed at the current time under MLS rules. “It’s a common practice in other parts of the soccer world and would allow MLS teams/players to benefit from regular, meaningful matches for their reserves against established USL PRO teams. USL PRO and its teams would benefit from receiving some additional publicity and bringing some popular MLS clubs to their markets and fans.”

Another idea Holt brings to the table is competition alternatives such as inter-play between USL PRO and the MLS Reserve League with matches counting in each of the respective team’s standings.

The NASL will enter only their second season since breaking away from the USL model representing 2nd division soccer in the U.S. and Canada. The league completed a very successful first season and return 7 of 8 teams from last season. Montreal moved from the NASL to MLS and the San Antonio Scorpions, an expansion team, will kick off for the first time this April. Still, three of the 8 teams in the league are owned by Traffic Sports and a 4th team, Minnesota Stars FC, is league owned. That means there are 3 of the 8 teams that need to find new owners. Yet NASL Commissioner Downs pushes forward with MLS while still trying to grow his own league and find new owners. Downs states that he’s been engaged in discussions with MLS all last year and has presented ways that they could create a relationship with the NASL to make the reserves “more meaningful” and his league more relevant.

“I think you have to ask what exactly is the reserve league accomplishing?” asks Downs. “One thing that it is clearly doing is giving the starters a chance to rehab after injury by allowing them to regain sharpness. Another is it allows the bench player who’s maybe only getting minimal play time the chance to get some significant minutes. So in order to do that they take these trialists, assistant coaches and academy players and put them in these vacant positions [around players 23-30].”

The Carolina RailHawks of the NASL play a game in October of 2010 in front of a large home crowd at WakeMed Soccer Park. Photo by Hal Goodtree

“I feel there’s ample room for improvement with the reserve league. The league probably isn’t doing everything it was meant to do especially in the area of taking those players number 23-30 and turning them into MLS pro prospects that could contribute in a meaningful way to MLS down the road. That’s the one thing it didn’t seem to be doing. Playing 300 minutes behind closed doors clearly does not make you a better MLS pro. I think the level of play is probably pretty high, but it’s not the type of environment you are going to get by playing in front of 4,000 fans at WakeMed Soccer Park [Carolina RailHawks stadium] on a Saturday night.”

Downs says he has proposed numerous models that the MLS reserves teams or players could be incorporated into the second tier of soccer in the U.S.  One would be to have the reserve league teams play their games in the NASL with a 28-game schedule. “For instance you would have the DC United reserves against the Carolina RailHawks,” says Downs.

Another of his ideas sees MLS using their deep benches and some trialists and starters to field a B team. “Much like Barcelona B,” states Downs. “But to play them in secondary markets near their original market as different but affiliated teams. So instead of the Philadelphia Union, you have the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania Union. The players could train with their first team and drive the 60 miles to Bethlehem for home games. They would wear the jersey and have the branding but they would also have revenues. So you might sell Bethlehem tickets for $6.00 a piece and play in a 3,000 seat high school stadium. But you still market it and have efficiency of scale.”

An affiliation model with versions of that would be another possibility according to Downs. “For instance the Chicago Fire could make a deal with the Minnesota Stars FC and give them a roster and two coaches, much like Triple-A Baseball. The NASL owner would market the team, sell tickets and do community relations.”

“Yet another idea could be the NBA Development League model,” says Downs. “Some have exclusive arrangements while others have multiple arrangements. So for instance a team in Kansas might have a relationship with Celtics and the 76rs. So perhaps you might have the Fire, Toronto and some other team all placing players on Minnesota’s team.”

Like Holt, Downs feels that allowing MLS owners the chance to own teams in development leagues actually makes a lot of sense at this point in time in MLS’ maturation. “Not necessarily in or near their current team, but anywhere,” says Downs. “Currently that is not permissible under MLS rules. With recent additions to MLS with owners like Joey [Saputo-Montreal Impact] and Greg Kerfoot [Vancouver Whitecaps], I think you are getting a growing amount of people in MLS who know the division 2 model and think it has a considerable amount of merit. And they might have their eye on a market where they think they can make that work, particularly if they had some muscle and efficiency of owning an MLS team. If MLS invested in our league it would be better for our league to have the quality of owners that MLS has behind the sport at the division 2 level.”

Downs states a 6th model could be the concept of MLS owning a couple of teams in the NASL for the purpose of stocking and grooming their own players.

“We’ve analyzed all those models and most of those we’ve discussed quite seriously with MLS. Those discussions continue to percolate. Perhaps not on a boil. We were very fast tracked on this last August and September and then we realized nothing radical was going to get done for this season. So we tabled it for something of a more timely fashion so we can look at 2013,” said an optimistic Downs.

“Obviously there’s just the concept that MLS has a huge pool of players that aren’t getting meaningful minutes if they loaned them out on a more regular basis,” Downs said. “That goes on today as it is. I think there’s ways we could make that easier for MLS teams and could make it easier for our teams to have these players. But one of the things we have found over time is you can’t always guarantee that those players are going to earn minutes. For instance, Tampa had two loaned players this past year that couldn’t make the team’s starting lineup.”

Mondelo confirmed concerns about loans to lower leagues even though the pace of those loans seemed to pick up in 2011 for both NASL and USL PRO teams. “Some of our clubs are loaning players to the NASL or USL. That works out alright for players who are not in their immediate plans but not for a player that they think could be brought back and they are keeping an eye out for him day-in and day-out. That’s one of the negatives of loaning players. When you loan him out you don’t know what he’s doing. You contact a club but you are not actually seeing his performances.”

Downs points to the complicated issues of loaning players to 2nd or 3rd division teams, something that was done in the mid 2000s with MLS affiliations to division 2 teams. It’s something that had mixed results with MLS teams often calling back key players from D2 teams right before the start of their playoffs, disrupting the lower-tiered team. “If you do allow DC United reserves to play in the league, what do you do with the roster? What are the movements permitted? Can Charlie Davies rehab on 36 hours notice or is that unfair if he’s going to score 2 goals against the RailHawks on the last day of the season and knock them out of the playoffs?”

But Downs says the fundamental key is there are many good players in MLS and his league would provide a place for them to get minutes. “There has to be a way to make this work,” says Downs. “But it has to work on a business level and on a player development level for both parties.”

Will Kuhns explained that just like MLS is proud of their players graduating to European leagues, he hopes that 2nd and 3rd tier soccer leagues would take pride in the fact that they are developing talent who would then move to MLS teams.

“When you talk about the NHL or Major League Baseball model of sort of having farm teams, those relationships have been established for such a long time that the 2nd and 3rd division clubs have accepted that role and take a lot of pride in being somewhere where a future major league star could be playing. I think we are starting to see our [MLS] clubs do the same thing in taking pride in the players who they send to Europe and list them as accomplishments of the club. Because that shows that this club can identify and develop American talent, maybe even local talent. Obviously we’re trying to catch up in MLS to the rest of the world on the field. But we’re not there yet. Until we are, then I think our clubs are sort of setting that model of developing a player. Some people will say MLS is losing good young players. You don’t lose him! He becomes a feather in your cap. He becomes an example you can use to go get other really good players.”

“If we do see lower division teams develop relationships with MLS clubs in the future that’s what I would hope they would see out of it as part of the benefit – part of the gain. Saying, we have one of the better programs when it comes to producing talent.”

While producing talent that moves on to MLS may help a team attract new young talent, Downs understands that it’s not exactly something you can sell to the fans. “In the NASL it’s always going to be hard to create marketing around individual players because the bigger the star the faster they will most likely move up.”

The NASL commissioner says his league also has other reservations about how a relationship with MLS would benefit his league. “Ultimately the NASL has a certain brand identity and if we simply convert that to MLS Reserves, I’m not sure that really benefits our current owners. I think there’s a delicate balance. I don’t think you want your league to feel like it was dominated by MLS reserve players and that we sold our brand to be a subsidiary of MLS. I don’t think that would be beneficial for us in the long run. But I think there are ways of using MLS brand equity and players to enhance the quality of our league and therefore the quality of the experience for our fans in our league. The bottom line of our business is we have to make it easier for our owners to draw fans.”

MLS officials have also made it clear that it’s not just reserve league players who could someday be integrated into lower tiered soccer in the US. According to Rodriguez, he and Durbin are looking at the whole scope of personnel used in the league as well. In regard to the 2022 timeline he stated, “We’re working backwards from that vision. How we’re going to achieve those markers in the ensuing time frame that we have. We want to be a league of choice for fans. We want to be a league of choice for players, for coaches, administrators, for broadcasters, for groundskeepers, for stadium developers.”

Mondelo echoed Durbin’s remarks. “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. And that doesn’t only go for players. It goes for coaches and referees. If we have a truly meaningful second division that would help to increase and improve all the number of people we have for all of those positions.”

For years not only players have worked through the pyramid of soccer in the US but front office personnel and coaches have as well. A look at MLS teams’ personnel will find employees who started in the USL ranks. The referee equation as brought up by Mondelo has already started to become a reality. Last year the NASL [who pay for officials to travel] used 13 MLS 4th officials to referee their second division matches. Those 13 officials are the next to move into assistant referee positions with MLS. That same plan is on track for the 2012 season.

“We’re not a year away from having that sort of relationship with our reserve teams, but it is something that I think U.S. Soccer would be in favor of as would MLS,” said Kuhns. “Ultimately, D2 and D3 clubs would be in favor of it too if it was structured in the right way. It might take some getting used to and there might be some growing pains, but having an integrated pyramid? Well, that’s the ideal, isn’t it?”

21 Responses
  1. Bart permalink
    February 17, 2012

    BQ, you had indicated that MLS had a higher fan attendance than NBA and NHL. Can you elaborate on that? Is this a singular fan number count, or is this a calculation of the percentage of possible seats that could be sold in each venue?

  2. drebin permalink
    February 17, 2012

    With Montreal coming into the fold, I can imagine the league surpassing the other sports leagues again. The Impact already have over 30,000 tickets sold for opening match, but Garber and Saputo seem to be confident that number can easily rise over 55,000 by kick off. Season ticket holders, however, seem rather low with I think 7,000 sold but Saputo expects that number to climb once the whole city take notice of the team’s presence.

  3. BrazilYinzer permalink
    February 17, 2012

    I really think those attendance comments are being blown out of proportion. The improvement by MLS is great, but the gap is still huge. AAA baseball still outdraws the MLS. To hear the Eric Wynalda’s of the world tell the story, soccer is hands down serving more fans, which is nonsense.

    The NBA has 32 teams playing 82 games in arenas limited to <20k people because they're indoors. MLS has 18 teams 34 games with a few stadiums that can support up to 60,000 for a few big matches. Even if the average attendances are the same, the NBA is still bringing in 4.2x more fans, at appreciably higher ticket prices, and those numbers are even more skewed if you count playoffs (and obviously TV revenue).

    MLS has established a foothold in this country and is here to stay, which is something to be proud of. But it bugs me to hear people try to make it out to be something it's not.

  4. Tom permalink
    February 17, 2012

    I believe we can all read into attendance figures however we want. Auto racing and horse racing could also make a we’re #1 claim if they picked the appropriate criteria. What about college football or college basketball?
    Is a sport “more popular” just because it has more games and attendance opportunities?
    Virtually all polls will tell you that the NFL is the “most popular” sport in the US, but their total attendance figures aren’t up at the top since there are only 500+ total games played.

  5. February 17, 2012

    Wow! Lots of discussion topics with these options for incorporating MLS reserves into either USL or MLS and we are totally hung up on a minor part of the article, MLS attendance and whether it’s average attendance should be considered larger?

  6. Jim (aka MLSinSTL) permalink
    February 17, 2012

    BQ, great article again. I enjoyed both pieces very much! I like how you have included all perspectives from MLS, NASL & USL in your article. Very balanced.

    I find it interesting that Holt seemed to be a bit more focused on the options for MLS reserves working with the USL while Downs seemed to be a bit all over the place with 6 options.

    If you had to place your bet – where do you see that this partnership between MLS & D2/D3 leagues will go? If you will what’s the part 3 – your crystal ball?

  7. Jspech permalink
    February 17, 2012

    BQ maybe because Div. 2 & 3 has done a wonderful job of dividing the fan base. This whole thing will become about where best to develop this affiliation. It is si important that D2 D3 need to stop the crap.

  8. bullsear permalink
    February 17, 2012

    I’m extremely disappointed to hear some of Downs’ comments. I had hoped he might have an innovative vision for the future of D2. As it turns out, he’s primarily out to turn D2 into a typical farm system for MLS. As a long-time supporter of a D2 team (and, incidentally, a big fan of farm club baseball), I don’t want to see my team become the Rochester Red Wings to some larger club. I want my D2 team to have its own autonomous identity.
    I’m glad, though, that he has entertained the NBA model, which I think is probably the best option of those mentioned in this article.

  9. Amerisnob permalink
    February 17, 2012

    I like the idea of MLS reserve teams participating in a league against NASL or USL Pro opposition (preferably the two leagues could just kiss and make up, but I doubt it). The more teams in a league, the more regional the leagues can become. Lower travel costs = better financial picture = more stability, which only begets more teams joining. One only needs to look at the A-League in its heyday (as many as 20+ teams) to see what I’m talking about.

  10. Rob permalink
    February 17, 2012

    While I like the idea of relationships with MLS clubs for D2 and D3 clubs, I think at least 50-75% of ownership and players rights should remain with the regional club so the name recognition exists with players and the team is not at the complete mercy of MLS for reasons of competitiveness. I also think D2 and D3 get some good players of their own because players don’t want to sign the restrictive 5 year contract MLS offers and are looking to avoid this system while continuing to develop. It does seem to me that Downs is weary of the potential negative effects this could have based on his comment about not wanting NASL to be seen as a subsidiary of MLS for branding purposes.

  11. BrazilYinzer permalink
    February 17, 2012

    Ha! I realize now I got distracted and forgot to mention how much I appreciated these articles. To summarize my thoughts:

    attendance – I can do basic math and am easily distracted

    MLS reserves/ lower divisions – I have basically nothing intelligent to add (which I will now prove)… I’m of the opinion MLS has abandoned Minnesota and so don’t really look to them to do anything to keep a healthy club here (unless they recognize the success the Arena Football League had before they overexpanded and decide to run a 20-team MLS2 out second-tier markets). Some of the ideas in these articles are nice but I’ve no idea how to rate them in terms of feasibility or promise. My suspicion is that within a few years pending lawsuits and public trends will demolish the existing NCAA; thereby throwing a lot of the basic premises which have led to this current condition into complete turmoil; thereby rendering the speculations coming from MLS/USL/NASL leads moot. And just so you don’t think those ideas are stupid enough – I’m wondering if it would be a winning situation for everybody (except for MLS) to just cede 2nd division soccer in all of north america to be run by the FMF.

  12. Soccer Boy permalink
    February 17, 2012

    Great job covering this from the viewpoints of the NASL and USL. To me this is further prooof IMS is not a mouthpiece for the NASL.

  13. Fotbalist permalink
    February 18, 2012

    I like this 2nd part as well. Thanks for the article BQ. I sincerely hope that MLS, NASL, USL will take a close look at this report. Hopefully it makes them realize that a nice dinner and wine meeting among the three just might be useful.

    I second “BrazilYinzer” in his comments on the attendance, but also in the approach that it’d be wise to stay away from the trap of making soccer be more than it is. I find that when I attempt to like better than I am, I actually end up being less than I am.

    One of the challenges with reserve leagues/reserve teams is that you loose team and club identity. I really support Downs’ comment in this regard. The only way a market will have a prominent and positive image is if it can develop a unique identity. Holt pointed out to a unique relationship of the Philadelphia/Harrisburg/Reading but we need to realize that 3-way relationship is precisely that ‘unique’ and it wasn’t a systematic top-down mandate.

    I know I’m bringing up something quite unachievable, but if we had Pro/Rel we would have a completely different level of interest in D2, D3, D4 etc. In fact, we would experience much more interest in regular season matches, because every match, goal, goal differential would count.

    Lastly, I hope that every D2 and D3 team will begin to develop and sign young players themselves, thus being able to make some money from selling those players to higher division teams who have interest in money to pay for talent.

  14. Fotbalist permalink
    February 18, 2012


    paragraph 2, line 3 should be: …when I attempt to “LOOK” better than…

  15. February 18, 2012

    Great article.

    I think there is ample room for more closely integrating the 3 levels, when it comes to reserve teams/players.

    I think the NBA D-League model would work the best. Have the option for an MLS team to outright own the D2 or D3 club(like the LA D-Fenders, Austin Toros, Tulsa 66ers etc. being owned by their NBA parent teams), independently owned but have a single affiliation, or independently owned with multiple affiliations.

    That would allow teams that want to own their own D2 team do it, or others who simply want to loan out players go that route. And I like Commissioner Downs idea of having the MLS owned clubs in outlying markets near the main MLS location with similar branding. Make the D2 team a true extension of the MLS brand, giving fans in the region, but not necessarily within easy traveling distance of the MLS team, a chance to experience live soccer associated with the team.

    I don’t think having an affiliation would take away independence from the D2 teams, players move in and out all the time anyway at this level, might as well make it official. And I also don’t think it would hinder the chances of promotion/relegation long term. Simply put in a stipulation that a MLS-owned “B” team cannot be promoted(like Barça B).

    All in all it’s an interesting discussion, with lots of exciting possibilities.

  16. Fotty76 permalink
    February 18, 2012

    Ok my first thoughts when I saw some of your post was you all must be attending college at TCU because it sounding likes your smoking that stuff. But I put my thoughts aside and thought about it and you bring up some good points. NASL should have its own teams and not be a complete feeder league. Cities like Orlando, Minnesota, Tampa, and other city deserve a shot at becoming a MLS team and then there are Cities like City Pittsburg, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Memphis which may never get a MLS team but will make a perfect place for D2 team. If the reserves team played at the first teams stadium and you set the schedule to regional play this would fit best that way the reserve can practice with the first team and MLS teams have control of the player at the same time keeping the reserves teams separate from the NASL team. Not only that but you would be playing on MLS off days and MLS fans might watch a game or two it’s a small price to pay. You are going to have Face facts if you are going to mix the two leagues you are going to have to give something and take something. MLS give you the stability and credibility and NASL give MLS the player. The question is do you love your league enough to jump on board and make that sacrifice.

  17. Bart permalink
    February 19, 2012

    I think both USL Pro and NASL should stabilize their own businesses before either attempts to work on any integration with MLS on a reserve team concept. Otherwise, MLS could simply absorb one or the other, and there would be no real D2 or D3, which serves a real purpose for player growth and serving non-MLS submarkets.

    There is not going to be any relegation, the monies needed by MLS to allow for that process is simply not there. It is not about breaking even, the teams need to be making a lot of money for the true pain of not remaining at D1 is felt, and with those that are paying $40,000,000 for a D1 team, the owners are not about to risk losing their goodwill value over one bad season.

  18. CoconutMonkey permalink
    February 20, 2012

    Interesting stuff. Nice to see what some of the decision makers are thinking.

  19. 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.

  20. mt whe permalink
    February 21, 2012

    Interesting article….. I wonder if a special roster designation for the MLS teams would potentially be considered… say MLS allots for 5 players to be given a “D2/D3 loan tag” where they are loaned out for the duration of a lower division’s season and their salaries do not count against the MLS Cap. They would be able to return to their respective teams at the end of the season and also could be called back in “emergency” circumstances, or for competitions requiring more depth.

    This could be used in conjunction with a reserve league that focuses more on rehabbing injured players and academy type players.

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