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Academies, Reserves and an integrated soccer system

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In all the drama around the USL mess (NuRock v the TOA - sounds WWE) much of the speculation is about how and sometimes why MLS is involved. Let's address the why first. Major League Soccer and Soccer United Marketing control 99% of all revenue generating soccer in the country. From the Gold Cup, the Mexican National team and the US National Team, to club tours by Chivas Guadalajara and FC Barcelona and a variety of other club tournaments like Superliga, Interliga, the Pan Pacific Championship and even the CONCACAF Champions League. What does this have to do with the USL? Nothing, and then you realize that even WPS fits under the marketing and TV umbrella of MLS through SUM. Their Summer of Soccer drew over 27,000 fans on average (that includes MLS league matches) and had actual TV ratings.

The reason that the USL (both TOA and NuRock) and the USSF want MLS/SUM there is because better than any other entity in soccer's history they understand how to market and profit off of the game. So the 2nd, 3rd, 4th tiers of soccer in the USA, Canada, Puerto Rico and Bermuda (never forget the Hogges) must be interested in discovering if there is an opportunity for better marketing, and just maybe they'd have to give up a bit of independence for it.

What would MLS want though? I mean besides the best soccer markets without MLS (Portland, Vancouver, Montreal, PR, etc).

For me it comes down to a few stories and actions by Seattle Sounders FC. This might seem odd, but this week the Rave Green took the pitch vs the Whitecaps and Timbers due to the off week. While the first team faced the Timbers with only the Keeper and Left Back being non-starter/rotationals the second team faced the Whitecaps during their training for the USL-1 Final. In the match v the Timbers it is notable that Jaqua played a right mid with the Freddyain up top and assisted a Ljungberg goal. In the second game the French Connection was on the top with Fucito at Left Mid. Both Le Toux and Fucito scored, Mike Fucito continues his trend of scoring in basically every training/scrimmage match. While yes, both the Timbers and Whitecaps used primarily non-starters and youth players, the fact is that the Sounders had to get their local historical opponents to put together a team for the Sounders "reserves" to get time. You see, the Developmental Players and oft-unused on the Senior Roster that faced the Whitecaps averaged barely over 23 years old. By barely, you can really just point your finger at Roger Levesque.

What do these scrimmages have to do with the USL Mess? Well, it turns out that Adrian talked about the state of the Sounders Academy and the lack of a Reserve League with Matt Gaschk. The Sounders will not be using a "residency system" (Vancouver does) but instead a regional training system that feeds into an academy. Hanauer though points out the distinct lack of a Reserve league as a problem.

"There’s probably one piece missing right now in development since the Reserve League was dropped. But our league is talking about it and working on it and hopefully someday we’ll figure that out as well."

Maybe it is just due to timing, but this could be connected to the USL Mess. Because some version of MLS Reserves playing within a competitive league would seem to fit. My vision and hope is that the MLS Reserve teams compete in leagues with independent teams so that the league isn't purely a farm system. This would be similar to both Spain and Germany where Reserve teams compete in the lower levels of the pyramid rather than completely separate from it as in England. This would provide competitive matches, and allow each ownership group at the lower tiers decide if they think that there city would be more excited for a farm relationship, or if they would be best as an independent team competing within the second tier. St Louis would likely stay independent. While places like Victoria, BC would be more likely to accept and support a farm relationship.

Another model, which would require fewer teams to play at a second/third tier level would be to follow the NBADL system. This would have the lower tier teams with a small number of players loaned to the lower division, and each team in the lower tier would support 1 or more MLS clubs. This would mean that learning the Sounders Way, or any other team, would be more difficult as there might be 2 Sounders, 1 Timber and 1 Whitecap all playing with a dozen non-affiliate players. The coaches aren't beholden to a specific system and so while a player may be very good at that level, they may not fit into the higher league. This model though in many ways would be much closer to the way that the European Loan system is used to develop younger players.

Currently the USL-1/2 have 23 teams in four nations. While 2 are certain to be joining MLS in 2 two years, and Montreal seemingly certain as well that number goes down a touch, but Ottawa is jumping up to the USL-1 level soon, and both Atlanta and St Louis join this would put the league right back at 23 in size, but we also know that there are certain Pro-PDL teams that would like to be in a higher level of competition, with 1 almost certain to be a team affiliated with Vancouver. My vision would see a merger of these two tiers with probably about 32 teams in 2 16-team conferences to control travel costs. Each MLS team would have an affiliated Reserve team and there would be more than a dozen unaffiliated teams as well. Basically all semi-pro and developmental but paid players would operate in the 2nd tier while the PDL and CSL would be the top tier of amateur sports hosting MLS Academy teams.

This would be a reinvention of the US and Canadian systems, but it is one that would generate more revenue through partnerships with the top division, while also further developing American talent in a professional environment.