Another year, another loophole: How MLS teams exploit their USL rosters

MLS' latest roster-mechanism fad rewards teams with USL reserve teams, and shows how far MLS has come in scouting and roster management.

When Orlando City announced the signing of midfielder Pierre da Silva earlier this year, he was lauded as the first player to move from the academy to the club’s USL side, Orlando City B, to the first team.

While da Silva climbed the organizational ladder in exactly the way every MLS team hopes for its homegrown players, the 18-year-old does not have the homegrown designation. Instead, he is an example of a loophole benefit to operating a USL team.

One of the keys to success in Major League Soccer is finding gaps in the many roster rules and regulations. Several teams have started to take advantage of one rule to mine prospects they can eventually bring to the first team.

The rule is a sign of how far MLS front offices have come in the last few years, both in roster management and scouting. Just a few years ago, many teams barely had the resources to scout for depth on the first team.

According to the roster rules, every MLS team can designate up to three players from its USL affiliate as a “USL Priority Player,” which gives that club the player’s MLS rights. It’s an ancillary benefit to the USL partnership, which is mainly considered a stepping stone for young players trying to reach MLS from the academy system. Clubs are taking advantage of the rule by essentially increasing their discovery list by three slots.

Some young American players are being brought through to MLS teams via the loophole, like da Silva and potentially recent Orlando City B signing and U.S. U-19 prospect Ryley Kraft. But the priority rule has become an easy avenue for teams to find and sign young international prospects under the age of 24.

Examples are littered across both MLS and USL rosters.

The LA Galaxy inked Bradley Diallo, who started his career in France before coming to the USL side LA Galaxy II. On the USL side, Los Dos recently signed Andre Ulrich Zanga and Jean Jospin Engola, two 19-year-old products brought in from an academy in Cameroon. Sporting Kansas City signed Kevin Oliveira from the Portuguese second division to its USL side, Swope Park Rangers. Nansel Selbol was signed by Swope Park after being brought over from an academy in Nigeria. Real Salt Lake recently signed 20-year-old Ghanaian forward Emmanuel Ocran to its USL side, Real Monarchs. Seattle added defender Nouhou Tolo and midfielder Jordy Delem.

The Portland Timbers have had great success with the mechanism. Victor Arboleda, a 19-year-old Colombian, and Rennico Clark, a 21-year-old Jamaican, are both examples of players signed to an MLS roster using USL priority. Both are young international players who were initially brought through Timbers 2. Several more prospects were signed to Portland’s USL side this offseason.

In addition to Kraft, a top U.S. prospect, Orlando City also added international players from nearby Montverde Academy, Jules Youmeni and Albert Dikwa, both Cameroon natives.

“It depends on how every club uses it,” Real Salt Lake general manager Craig Waibel told FourFourTwo. “In our club we look at it as an opportunity to take a look at some guys. We primarily focus our [spots] positionally based on where we feel we will need in the future, because we are signing them to our USL team, so they’re not meant for today. We’re kind of speculating, like anyone. A little bit of mining, as it goes.”

While this rule may be incredibly helpful for teams in smaller markets with fewer prospects in their academies, it is by no means a replacement for the homegrown rule. Homegrown Players, and even draft picks, hold major benefits in comparison to the USL priority rule.

For one, Homegrown Players are subject to a greater amount of funding, including the $125,000 homegrown subsidy and up to $200,000 in Targeted Allocation Money. Homegrown players can also be used in roster spots 29 and 30, which increases the size of your first-team roster. In addition, homegrown players do not take up international roster spots, a massive bonus for MLS teams.

Most USL Priority Players ideally fit in the reserve and supplemental rosters, but that means they would have to agree to league minimum contracts of $53,000 or $65,000, respectively. It’s not easy to find players willing to take those fees, at least not top prospects from Europe and South and Central America.

In all, 20 players were signed this year using the USL priority designation across MLS. Some of those players are former draftees taken in later rounds and groomed as USL signings. Some started their careers in those teams’ academies, but may not qualify as homegrowns. Many are international players brought over with an eye towards development at the USL level.

Several general managers said the spots are best used on that last option – scouting and finding young international players who can be closely scouted and developed at the USL level. The rule is a sign of how far MLS front offices have come in the last few years, both in roster management and scouting. Just a few years ago, many teams barely had the resources to scout for depth on the first team, let alone for three USL spots that could potentially help down the road.

Teams that do not own their USL teams can also sign players to their affiliate, however it could complicate matters if the relationship between the two teams deteriorates.

Victor Arboleda

LA Galaxy coach Curt Onalfo was tasked with starting the league’s first USL affiliate, LA Galaxy II. He said his focus was almost entirely on bridging the large gap from the academy to the first team, yet the function has also been successful in bringing players like Ariel Lassiter and Diallo into the Galaxy’s first team.

“It’s a great way to develop players and have another avenue to make sure you have quality depth in your team,” Onalfo said. “… Whatever mechanism you can, you should utilize. But then you can also do it in your style. A guy like Bradley Diallo came from Ligue 1, where they play very direct. We play a different style, so it took him a while to adapt. All the players you can adapt them to how you want to play, so they fit into your system and how you want to do things. So, it helps.”

Several interviews with MLS team officials left the impression that the rule was very much still in a wait-and-see phase in regards to how the league office may react. In the past, the league has adjusted rules if it believes a loophole is being exploited beyond its intention.   

With a wave of signings this year, however, it’s clear that the USL priority lists have become yet another useful tool for MLS teams in roster building.

Arena has a tough task

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

You know it’s bad when you have to rewrite a story about your preferred lineup for the U.S. men’s national team World Cup qualifier on Friday due to injury … and then it’s useless less than 24 hours later.

This is the much more serious dilemma facing U.S. men’s national team coach Bruce Arena ahead of Friday’s qualifier against Honduras as he goes back to the drawing board with his starting lineup. Injuries to Fabian Johnson, DeAndre Yedlin and now Bobby Wood will force Arena to shuffle not just his team, but potentially the formation and plan for how to face the Catrachos.

Wood’s injury, especially, creates a scenario where Arena may opt to abandon a 4-4-2 formation and play a 4-2-3-1. His decision to add Sacha Kljestan to the lineup at least indicates that it’s a real possibility. Arena may look to start Jozy Altidore alone up top with a midfield line of Christian Pulisic, Kljestan and either Darlington Nagbe or Alejandro Bedoya behind him. Michael Bradley and either Kellyn Acosta or Sebastian Lletget would complete the midfield, while Graham Zusi looks like a likely starter at right back. Michael Orozco may still hold on to that spot, depending on whether Arena wants an overlapping presence on that side of the field.

Arena could also stick with a 4-4-2 and simply slot Clint Dempsey or Jordan Morris into the starting lineup for Wood.

Whichever way you now draw up the lineup, it’s not what Arena would have sketched out just two weeks ago when it looked like he had all healthy options. The Americans are going to have to play two incredibly important games without three starters and with a lineup that could be considered patchwork. It will also be the first major test in Arena’s second go-round as U.S. coach.

It certainly adds another dose of intrigue.

Bryan Rochez no-risk, high-reward for Atlanta

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s amazing what a bit of patience can do with a player like Carlos Rivas, huh? One of the few projects on which Orlando City didn’t hit the panic button, Rivas is starting to look more like the player that tore up the Colombian league with Deportivo Cali and prompted the initial Lions’ front office to sign him in 2015.

It wasn’t such a fate for Bryan Rochéz, who had plenty of self-inflicted issues in Orlando, but was waived and signed by Atlanta United this week. It’s a smart move by Atlanta, which inherits absolutely no risk for a player who looked plenty capable in front of net when fit and given minutes. Atlanta might even benefit without Rochéz playing for its first team. The right loan could increase the Honduran’s value, and even splitting a transfer fee would mean pure profit for the expansion side. Not so for Orlando City, which put up the transfer fee for a player who torched the Honduran league just a few years ago (and scored six goals in 493 minutes on loan last season.)

Orlando, by the way, has six points in two games and should be very pleased with how Rivas and Cyle Larin have combined up top. There are still areas to work on in the midfield and backline, as Jason Kreis said after the game, but early in the season it’s all about the results and the Lions have done just that.

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.