After boost from MLS, USL looking at what's next in evolving relationship

USL president Jake Edwards on expansion, realignment, the potential for USL in both D-II and D-III, and the hybrid MLS model of the future

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The trajectory of the United Soccer League changed drastically four years ago.

That’s when the league entered into a partnership with Major League Soccer to be the home of the first-division’s reserve squads and independent affiliates, a more official stepping stone in the pyramid.

It has been a mutually beneficial relationship thus far. MLS teams have used the USL as a place to groom players in need of experience. USL has over doubled in size in that period, to 30 teams in 2017, and on Saturday kicks off its new season as a provisional Division II league along with the rival North American Soccer League.

"We are evolving this partnership and we’re doing something that other leagues are trying to emulate."

- Jake Edwards

All of that – expansion, D-II status, and commercial growth – was part of a long-term strategic plan put into place in 2013 with eyes toward 2020. And USL president Jake Edwards is confident that a few minor requirements, mostly centered around team-specific facility upgrades, will soon be met to achieve full Division-II status.

“We were focused on putting the strongest application forward that U.S. Soccer had seen,” Edwards tells FourFourTwo of the eventful offseason. “We got the sanctioning in January, and for us it was a validation, really, of all the hard work that the clubs have gone through over the last number of years – the investment they’ve made. The commitment they’ve made to grow the game. And, I think, a recognition of where we’ve come from as a league, and where we’re going, and what we’re investing in and the infrastructure that we’ve put together.”

These past few months have been a turning point for the USL, and with the league’s rise so closely tied to the agreement with MLS, that relationship also finds itself at a pivotal moment.

MLS: Casting shadows, or shining lights?

Ten MLS teams currently own their reserve teams in USL under the same name and likeness. They represent the most obvious synergy between the leagues and have clear places carved out in club pyramids. LA Galaxy II, New York Red Bulls II, Portland Timbers 2, Orlando City B – these are all examples of the type of traditional reserve-team setups one might find around the world.

But while proximity and brand synergy have obvious advantages, there are more nuanced complications that directly impact the future of the USL. There is currently a noticeable split between independently owned clubs, for whom USL is the top level of the business , and MLS clubs, who value the USL but don’t prioritize its primary business.

The aforementioned MLS reserve teams not only carry the same names as their senior teams, but play in the same market; in some cases, they even play in the same stadiums. That’s a particular challenge on the business side. How can teams like the LA Galaxy or New York Red Bulls, who aren’t selling out every first-team games, convince any large mass of people in the same market to spend money on a secondary product? MLS reserve teams mostly sit in the bottom half of the league for average attendance; Orlando and New York bring in fewer than 1,000 fans per game, each. 

And how does a league prove it is more than just a place for MLS to field reserve teams?

Texas, it turns out, may hold the answers.

Photo: Rio Grande Valley FC

Rio Grande Valley FC Toros is the USL affiliate and reserve team for Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo. RGVFC dons the same loud orange color scheme and plays about five hours south; or, an hour by plane, which is how players and staff shuttle between. The Dynamo don’t own RGVFC, but the team has complete control over player personnel.

“The best way to describe it is like a minor-league baseball setup,” says Dynamo president Chris Canetti, whose business career started in that field some 25 years ago.

RGVFC operates like most other reserve teams, with regular movement of players to and from the senior team for training, as well as the same technical vision and belief. There is overtly tangible evidence of the relationship, too. New Dynamo coach Wilmer Cabrera started as RGVFC coach in 2016 before moving up to become Dynamo head coach. A handful of current Dynamo players moved up from RGVFC, and promising Homegrown Player Christian Lucatero is beginning the 2017 season on loan with the Toros, who just opened a 9,700-seat stadium that might be the best soccer facility in the U.S. outside of MLS.

“It takes a lot to run a USL team. It’s a big-time thing now. We all have the same intentions and goal from our USL teams which is basically player development.”

- Chris Canetti

The San Jose Earthquakes have entered two-year agreement for a similar relationship with USL expansion team Reno 1868 FC which will see the Quakes manage the technical direction of a team. Edwards thinks more MLS teams will go this direction, with perhaps those currently operating USL teams changing over to the structure.

He emphasizes, though, that every market is different.

“It’s not a one size fits all,” Edwards said. “For MLS, those clubs are huge fans and believers in the USL and the benefits they are having in the USL. But, for some, it doesn’t fit in their player development strategy and so maybe the affiliation is the way to go. As we sort of look down a lens, I think what’s going to be more attractive to some of them, is looking at that RGV model, where we’ve got an independent ownership group, in a separate market, building stadiums, building a fanbase for a local team, but has that technical influence from an MLS club.

“The challenge you have is the internal challenge of an MLS club, from the technical department who would like to have their technical team near so they can train with their first team, so they can move them about, they can look at them. And the business side to say, ‘hey it is a challenge to sell tickets to a second team in the market of a first team.’”

Houston’s relationship with Rio Grande Valley FC works in large part, too, because the owner of the Toros, Alonzo Cantu, already knows how such a relationship should work. He owns the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the NBA D-League team which serves as the affiliate to the NBA’s Houston Rockets.

Canetti, though, sees the model as one that can work in many markets, and he says he has already heard from colleagues across MLS who have inquired about the setup. So many MLS markets have greater metro areas where other relatively large cities are both distinctly their own market and not that far removed from the major city. Think of what Tacoma is to Seattle, or Worcester is to Boston. These are ideal places for minor-league teams to quench the thirst of sports fans who don’t have major-league teams in market.

“It takes a lot to run a USL team. It’s a big-time thing now,” Canetti said. “We all have the same intentions and goal from our USL teams which is basically player development. Knowing we can check that box but not have the other challenge is huge.”

Attracting the attention of others

USL’s model has caught the attention of foreign leagues, including the Premier League and Football League, Edwards said.

“They are trying to see: How is this working from a player movement point of view, a player development point of view, and from a business and a competition integrity point of view,” he said. “So, we are evolving this partnership and we’re doing something that other leagues are trying to emulate.”

The model is likely to expand as the USL does. Edwards says the league is in discussion with eight groups regarding expansion, describing all of them as having “strong applications.” A couple of teams will be announced by mid-summer, he said, with a few more announced later in the year to begin play for 2018 or 2019. He sees USL’s total number of teams growing into the “mid- to high-thirties” with a three-conference structure, but won’t put a cap on the number of teams.  

As the total number of teams grows, and MLS-USL partnerships evolve, there’s a very real danger of creating a league of haves and have-nots based on those first-division relationships. In the absence of promotion and relegation, that has the USL thinking about a future which could include a Division III branch.

“We’re modeling all of that at the moment,” Edwards said. “As we push up [in teams], we’re looking at the third-division space and there are a number of smaller markets that wouldn’t meet Division II standards that have already put applications in to us. So, we’re looking at maybe a new structure for 2019 and beyond.

“It might be a situation where not enough teams will meet the standards, or there won’t be enough spaces – because you’d have kind of a 50-team league – so we are looking at maybe launching another division and seeing how we might populate that with some of these new, smaller markets and potentially some markets in our league already. There might be a restructure of that as we continue to expand, probably in 2019 and beyond.”

In a word, the USL’s biggest challenge is balance. The league’s growth has been remarkable. Now, it must figure out what it wants to be.

Jeff Kassouf is the editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @JeffKassouf.