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The New MLS: USL, and the future of the top flight

The reason the US has lagged behind in soccer is because it hasn't been developing its players properly. That's about to change.

Chris Coulter/SoundersPhotos.com

Our own Mike D’Onofrio just did a terrific piece on player development, notably how preparation of players in other countries around the world make the Statue of Liberty shed one ginormous metal tear. It’s true: player development in the great United States of America has been the funniest joke at the party since before MLS got its start in 1996. Young players were on their own until they got picked in the MLS SuperDraft, then had to be excellent right away to get meaningful playing time. Who knows how many dozens of little Christiano Ronaldos went undiscovered due to the broken US Soccer development system. Seriously, IMAGINE an ENTIRE TEAM made entirely of Ronaldo (much like Portugal, ey-oh!)

MLS has made significant improvements over the last decade, including Generation Adidas, the Homegrown Player Rule, and even the Young Designated Player rule to a certain extent. But by far the most meaningful move MLS has made for both the league’s future and that of the US Men’s National Team has been the USL Affiliation deal.

The agreement, made in 2013, merged the MLS Reserve League with the former USL PRO, giving players who weren’t finding much time with the starting XI in MLS a chance to get some real game time. It is an arrangement not entirely unlike Major League Baseball’s farm system, where young players get work against players of their skill level until they’re ready to join the big time. But in this situation, no one will be throwing the ball, catching the ball, or hitting the ball.

Even the bum who lives on the Fremont Troll’s shoulder could tell you how important playing competitive minutes is for improving young players, and in his muffled snores he’d add that the Reserve League wasn't doing the trick. For reference, the 2014 iteration of the Sounders reserves played all of seven games. SEVEN GAMES. EMPHASIS! Time that got split between fringe starters like Kenny Cooper and up-and-comers such as Sean Okoli supplied a grand total of 630 game minutes. You want to develop a young player into a young star, they’re gonna need more time than that.

In comes the USL. Last year brought on 28 games for each of the league’s participants, which according to Math, is four times as much gaming as the 2014 Sounders Reserve action. And the level of play isn’t exactly Easy Mode: just this week, USL applied for the second-division American soccer status and cut the PRO off of their title just to show they were serious. That is in direct competition with the current second-division league, the NASL.

MLS-USL Map

The new Sounders USL side is called Sounders FC 2, and will play at Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, Wash., the same place the first team trains most every day. This runs counter to the setups of some other MLS affiliates, like the Columbus Crew partners in Austin, Texas. It allows for promising youngsters to train with guys like Obafemi Martins and Chad Marshall, and for "almost starters" like Andy Rose to work on their craft in a competitive environment, without having to fly to Orange County or Atlanta (as others went on loan in 2014) and back for action. It also allows management to keep a close eye on the talent they’re cultivating, and creates a natural pipeline from the Sounders Academy teams. Some of the best talent in Cascadia will learn everything they know about the game in Rave Green, from cradle to… let’s say MVP recipients.

For all the money teams like the Sounders will spend on these budding players, it should reap dividends over the long term when done right. As teams continue to compete against the salary cap, Homegrown Players will continue to be a competitive advantage. And while MLS continues to push for a top-league status, teams in the league can improve their infrastructure and signing power even further by transferring their best HGPs to Europe for that sweet, sexy infusion of cash.

Not every young player is a DeAndre Yedlin, ready to step in right off the yacht and become a starter. In fact, he is in an incredible anomaly, a miracle bestowed upon Sounders Nation for being supporters of the right team. For every Yedlin, there’s a Lamar Neagle who toils away for years before their talent comes out. With the debut of Sounders 2 and the USL era, those players will be given every opportunity to become great soccer players, and hopefully with time, great Sounders.