There has been a lot of talk lately about the big-name signings coming to Major League Soccer this season, but one of the biggest developments within the league has been the introduction of a sort of second-division affiliation with another established league, USL PRO.
MLS and USL PRO formed a partnership agreement whereby teams could send players from MLS down to USL in order to give those players meaningful minutes in a competitive environment, rather than stagnating on the bench of in the training grounds.
That initiative was seen in a limited capacity last year but it has taken off in 2015.
There are a number of new teams joining USL PRO this season, but they are B-teams, feeder rosters of senior MLS sides: FC Montréal, New York Red Bulls 2, Portland Timbers 2, Real Monarchs (Real Salt Lake), Seattle Sounders FC 2, Toronto FC II, and Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 all join the league, associated directly and run by the parent organizations of their MLS counterparts.
But the associations between these two leagues don’t end there, as a number of MLS sides have partnered with already-established teams using an affiliate program in order to feed their younger, developing players into this reserve-like system as well. FC Dallas has partnered with Arizona United, the Columbus Crew, with the Austin Aztex. The Houston Dynamo have linked up with the Charleston Battery, one of the better teams in USL PRO. The Colorado Rapids have struggled as of late and are hoping a partnership with Charlotte Independence might provide a pipeline for some fresh talent, too.
Both Orlando City SC and New York City FC have affiliate teams, with the former getting hitched to Louisville City FC and the latter, with the Wilmington Hammerheads, last with Toronto FC. Philadelphia, Kansas City, D.C. United, New England, Chicago and San Jose have also forged partnerships with teams in Harrisburg, Oklahoma, Richmond, Rochester, St. Louis and Sacramento, respectively.
These USL teams are managed by a number of recognizable names as well: former Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen is at the helm at Oklahoma City Energy. Curt Onolfo is managing the LA Galaxy II. Former MLS player and coach Preki, last with Toronto FC and Chivas USA, is the head coach of the current USL champions, Sacramento Republic, who might be making a jump up to MLS sometime in the future, too.
So the connections between North America’s premier first division and USL PRO, considered to be the third division in the U.S. soccer pyramid, are now well entrenched. What the head coaches in MLS will now be looking for are standout players in USL to add to their respective first teams.
Toronto FC saw the effects of this affiliation in 2014, sending second round draft pick Dan Lovitz to their then affiliate side, the Wilmington Hammerheads. Lovitz impressed early, enough to warrant a call back to the senior team. Now, with meaningful games under his belt, Lovitz is a full member of Toronto FC’s first team and is fighting for a starting spot out wide in Toronto’s starting line up.
But, in Toronto’s case, and for many of the teams in MLS, having a more direct connection was advantageous, and the creation of these B-teams allows these MLS clubs to not only keep their players close by, but allows them to stock up on plenty of young players at once and have them play in one cohesive system.
For example, the LA Galaxy has found plenty of success in MLS using a combination of its playing style and philosophy to game management. Young players coming through the LA Galaxy’s Academy ranks are taught some of these factors but with the LA Galaxy II, those same players can put method into practice in a controlled environment. There isn’t much, if any clash in philosophies, even when it comes down to day-to-day routine, expectations and training sessions. This connection allows for a more cohesive implementation of methodology from the top of the organization all the way to the bottom.
And, it also provides players with an opportunity during the most crucial years of a player’s development, the 17-21 age range. For many players, a future in soccer means going to college through the NCAA route, and then hoping to be drafted in the MLS SuperDraft. The introduction of homegrown players has seen the birth of many new academy teams for MLS sides but the gap between a graduating Academy player or a lower-end draft pick often meant that certain players fell through the cracks, good enough to be given a look but not good enough for the first team just yet.
Now, young prospects have a more direct path to the top. The value of the lower rounds of the draft increases, too, as teams can draft players out of college with their B-teams in mind. At those B-teams, those players can impress over a longer period of time and move upward, giving them a chance they might not have gotten if thrown into a senior roster and forced to adapt or risk being cut.
Ultimately, this MLS-USL PRO partnership will provide young, developing players a much better chance at growing into top quality players. So, while MLS celebrates the signings of international stars, these new teams might just be uncovering hidden gems of their own, as the sport of soccer continues to grow in North America.