The future of the second tier of the sport is not settled, but at least our Cascadia neighbors will be able to have a season. For 2010, and 2010 only they say, the run the Second Division. It will be set-up in two Conferences with the names of USL and NASL, and though the names have no relationship to the individual teams' affiliation with either of the aspiring to be sanctioned leagues.
Austin (Central Time)
Puerto Rico (Atlantic)
Tampa Bay (Eastern)
St. Louis (Central)
Yes, that's 6 in the East, 3 in the Central, 2 in the Pacific and 1 in the Atlantic. No, it doesn't make any sense.
There are some intriguing nuggets though about the future of non-MLS pro soccer in the conference call and the statements from Railhawks owner Selby Wellman. There are 12 pro-teams at the 2nd Division level, 6 at the 3rd Division level and a handful in the PDL and NPSL to include the Kitsap Pumas. But the future of the lower levels of pro soccer remain in question.
As we look at the future of these leagues it is first notable that the NASL is intent to continue its rapid expansion. They expect to add one team for 2011 and up to four more are at their first ever annual meeting. This does not include Atlanta's return to the pro-game as well.
We have nine team that will play in 2010. Atlanta will rejoin the league in 2011. They’re number 10. We’ll have an announcement of another franchise within the next two weeks that will start in 2011. That will be 11. Then we have four others here who are talking with us and will be meeting with us about 2011.
The USL also intends to expand with FC New York starting to play, likely in 2011 as well. With Portland and Vancouver and possibly Montreal leaving for MLS how would the second tier deal with these losses? Vancouver and Montreal have both inidicated that they desire to keep a team in a lower division.
But there's a little problem with that - MLS currently does not allow farm or reserve teams at this time. It is obviously something that Vancouver wants, and so should any team that has any profits what-so-ever. But again, at this time, MLS has not told the Whitecaps that they will be allowed to do so.
I don’t know if we’ve ever announced that (we would be partnering with Edmonton) I think what we said is that we are having a healthy dialogue with our friends in Edmonton and that was an option for us to have a farm team in Edmonton, in USL at the time. We are still hopeful that we can run a NASL team, but that is something that has not been confirmed by MLS.
Here's where things get a bit intriguing. As there some interesting statements from the conference call linked earlier.
On the role U.S. Soccer will have beyond the next year, or whether MLS will ever step in to partner with Division 2 soccer:
SG:"On the first part the answer is no, I don’t see U.S. Soccer continuing to be involved at the level we’re going to be this year. We’re involved in all of our professional leagues up to a point, most clearly in the regulatory area and in the case of officials and referees. But I don’t see us going beyond those and maybe a couple of other roles with Division 2 or anyone else beyond this year. We’ve had discussions with MLS, some of the teams and some of the leadership of the groups we’ve been talking about had their own independent discussions prior to all these processes starting with MLS. They talked about working together and potentially partnering, having MLS handle some of the functions and developmental relationships. There was a longstanding relationship early on between MLS and the USL on player development and players moving up and down. All of that is possible, and we certainly encourage everyone to try and do things in an efficient way financially. If there is an economy to be had, or a player development scheme that makes sense, then terrific. We’ve already seen some of that integration happen where you’ve got teams for example that play in the U.S. Development Academy that have affiliations either indirectly or are owned by a second division team, or an MLS team, or are sponsored by those teams. As we continue to develop this model and look for further stability, you’re going to see natural synergies come into place that make sense financially to try and get everyone on sound footing both on and off the field."
Read that twice, because you'll find those hidden nuggets for the future. The following selection says even a bit more.
On any plans to integrate a reserve league with Division 2 and MLS:
SG:"In the short term, the answer is no because this is just the 2010 situation. I think in the long term, you are going to see some things happen, whether it’s between youth structures in our professional teams or between the national leagues themselves. When the U.S. Soccer Federation introduced the Development Academy, it produced some ripples throughout the system. Whether it was for the PDL or whether for players participating in other leagues, MLS started then to field their own Development Academy teams. We’ll see some cooperation that makes a lot of sense and MLS, right now, doesn’t have reserve teams. So is there going to be a model where a Division 2 or Division 3 has a direct relationship a la the baseball model? Sure, that’s quite possible. Obviously in the baseball model where the teams are paying the contracts of the AAA or AA players, it’s a bit different. But all of that is possible and it’s all really up to the participants. The most critical part of this will be the investors in these teams. We are happy to play a continual role given our mandate and our charge and we are critically interested in player development. On that note, I should mention that there will be a developmental element to this Division 2 structure. There are a number of countries around the world where teams agree to an association mandate that they are going to have X amount of young players on their rosters. And without us needing to say that we are going to mandate that, we’ve had a great reaction from the leadership of the two leagues. So we think we will have a bit of that, especially in our developmental model. So in a Division 2 or Division 3 we may have a rule that says you need to have four Under-23 players on the roster or something to that effect. In principal though, the teams have agreed to it and we think that’s a huge positive."
I bolded that section. It seems very clear that the Development will be a key component of sanctioned pro leagues. It is notable that there are currently four U-25/Developmental Players per MLS side and that USSF is looking at requirements for the lower divisions as well.
With the lack of a Reserve League or MLB style Farm system, at the very least we must see a formalized loan system between the leagues. Sure this should not have a priorty over the CBA, but by 2011 and with the support of organizations like Vancouver, Portland and Montreal that already run both Youth (U-23) and Academy sides it is imperative that MLS find a way to take their best practices and implement those. I would prefer full sides run by MLS operating and competing against independent sides.
For those that think that the USA/Can/PR aren't big enough for that it is notable that there are already more than two dozen pro-teams operating in tiers 2 through 4, with several more looking to join in as well.