Competition between MLS, independent clubs fueling USL's rise

MLS affiliates have helped grow the USL and attract new owners. As Paul Tenorio notes, that has led to more competition, on and off the field.

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Anthony Pulis signed for Orlando City’s USL team in 2012 and said he remembered well the attitude in the locker room when the Lions faced MLS reserve teams.

“It was almost like we were going to show them we were as good or better,” Pulis told FourFourTwo. “Our group felt like we could be playing in MLS.”

There’s a change in ambition. The league is getting better and it’s created urgency. We have to ask: Where do we fit in the puzzle? Can we stay at the top or are these MLS teams going to overtake us?

- Rochester coach Bob Lilley

Pulis is on the other side of the equation now as head coach of Orlando City’s USL team, Orlando City B. OCB qualified for the playoffs in its first season this year, and as one of the many MLS reserve teams in the rapidly-expanding league, Pulis warned his team how opposing teams might approach the games. They were out to make an impression and prove a point, he said.

“It helped our younger players understand what it takes to be a pro,” Pulis said. “To adapt and understand these guys are fighting for something. Their families, wives, fighting to put food on the table. This is their job. It’s not a pastime anymore like they were used to in college and growing up.”

The USL playoffs continue on Friday night with an MLS side that won the Supporters’ Shield, New York Red Bulls II, up against an independent team, the defending USL champion Rochester Rhinos, a team steeped in history.

Of the eight remaining teams in the USL playoffs, three are MLS-operated sides, while five are independent clubs.  That showdown – MLS vs. independent – has become the newest dynamic in the USL. Eleven MLS teams have second teams in the USL, and their presence has undoubtedly changed the league.

Several USL coaches stopped short of saying there is a rivalry between the two factions of teams, but they all acknowledged it has added to the competition within the league at multiple levels.

For players on independent teams, coaches said, facing MLS secondary squads provided extra motivation. It was a chance to prove themselves with more eyeballs on the league. On the team level, it pushed each franchise to invest more.

Ultimately several USL coaches and administrators said the balance of MLS-2 sides and independent franchises was good for the league and good for soccer in North America.

“There’s a change in ambition,” Rochester coach Bob Lilley said. “The league is getting better and it’s created urgency. We have to ask: Where do we fit in the puzzle? Can we stay at the top or are these MLS teams going to overtake us?”

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Lilley's Rhinos have had to adapt. (Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)

The growth of the league was evident to John Harkes in his first game as coach of FC Cincinnati.

Harkes stepped back and looked at the crowd of 14,000-plus after kickoff. He turned to his coaches.

“Where are we?” he asked. “Are we in the USL? Are we in Cincinnati?”

FC Cincinnati, of course, has become one of the league’s greatest success stories, smashing attendance records and advancing to the playoffs before falling in the first round to the Charleston Battery. Harkes said the off- and on-field success of Cincinnati’s first year was a direct result of the dedication of the front office and ownership.

It’s a commitment that was fostered, indirectly, by the partnership between USL and MLS. That relationship helped the USL grow from 14 teams in 2014, including just one MLS reserve side, the LA Galaxy II, to 29 teams in 2016, including 11 MLS-run sides. It’s also an affiliation that has seen teams move successfully from one league into the other, with Orlando City the most recent example.

That growth and success encouraged more ambitious ownership groups to launch teams in cities like Cincinnati. And Harkes said he saw first-hand how the sport has benefited.

“It’s a competitive level of play,” Harkes said. “It’s tough. That to me is showing the strength of the sport in this country. On all levels of the pyramid, from the ground up, we’re getting stronger and competition is getting harder. From that perspective, [USL] is a healthy situation.”

The USL has also profited from the spotlight.

The presence of MLS reserve teams has made USL the stage to introduce some of the country’s top young players, like the Red Bulls’ Derrick Etienne Jr. and Tyler Adams, or Vancouver’s Alphonso Davies, who has recently burst on to the scene with the first team.

It’s a selling point for fans: Come see the future, right now.

Pulis also pointed out that with the success of a team like the Red Bulls, it’s difficult for critics to say the USL is a “reserve league” or a “developmental league.” The commitment is clearly there to win games, Pulis said.

The increased MLS presence in the league also provides a chance for some veterans to catch the eye of MLS squads. Rob Vincent impressed D.C. United in a U.S. Open Cup game and earned a contract with the MLS team. Orlando City added Mikey Ambrose and Tony Rocha from its USL side this season. Pulis said the team was in the process of putting together a report on USL players it faced this season who might be worth a look for the MLS team.

Lilley pointed to how the presence of MLS teams could continue to increase the level of competition in other, subtler ways. MLS teams open training camp in late January, while most USL sides don’t open camp until March. Lilley said he has spoken to ownership about potentially starting camp sooner to stay competitive with the MLS second teams, which get an extra six weeks of practice together.

Lilley also said the team has made more of an effort to find younger players.

“There’s a higher standard,” Lilley said. “We have to look at a player now and say, ‘This is an experienced player, but even though he’s solid, does he bring enough quality? Is he going to get better?’ Because the league is getting younger, and you’re looking more at players with upside so you can continue to move forward.”

That spells out the effect.

There may not be a direct rivalry between the MLS and independent teams in MLS, but there has been a direct benefit of the competition. Expectations have increased, and it has also upped the ambition and standard of every team in the league.

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