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What is this new league the Sounders are part of?

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MLS Next Pro aims to better fill the gap between the academy and first team.

Players like Reed Baker-Whiting are exactly what MLS Next Pro is designed for.
Charis Wilson courtesy of Seattle Sounders and Tacoma Defiance

Since the Seattle Sounders launched their lower-division team in 2015, change has been a constant. Not only has the roster undergone pretty dramatic turnover virtually every year, but they’ve altered the profile of the type of player they’ve aimed to stock it with, moved from Tukwila to Tacoma and changed the name.

This next change has the potential to be even bigger. In 2022, the Tacoma Defiance will leave the USL Championship and become one of the charter members of MLS Next Pro. While there will be a lot of familiar faces both on the coaching staff and roster, there are a lot of understandable questions about this new venture. Let’s see if I can’t answer most of them:

Tacoma Defiance are still a thing then?

Absolutely. The team is still going to be called the Defiance, they’re still going to play primarily in Tacoma at Cheney Stadium and there’s still a partnership with the Rainiers. In that way, the average person watching games in person or online probably won’t notice a difference.

If it’s the same, why change?

A fair question, to be sure, but one that seems to have a variety of answers. Do you have more specific questions that I could answer in a way that allows me to craft a coherent narrative?

Did the USL kick out MLS?

Not in such an overt way. But it does seem like this is a reaction to a growing sense from some circles of the USL that MLS was starting to wear out its welcome. While MLS was undeniably an important part of stabilizing the league back when the partnership began in 2013, the USL has now grown significantly. In 2021, there were 21 teams operating independently of an MLS parent in the USL Championship alone and expansion teams were selling for like $10 million. The MLS owned and operated teams — none of whom had to pay expansion fees — were at best a drag on attendance, and most of the teams with MLS affiliates weren’t very competitive. The last-place teams in all four divisions were MLS affiliates and only 2 of the 10 MLS affiliates made the 16-team playoff field. Best case, the USL was probably going to force MLS teams to play in the third-division USL League One, where several of their teams had already self-relegated previously.

Weren’t the Defiance pretty good, though?

The Defiance finished just two points outside the playoffs this year and even went 3-0-1 against Orange County SC, who ended up winning the USL Championship. This was the Defiance’s most competitive season since they made the playoffs in their inaugural season, and they were positioned well for a playoff run this year before suffering a seven-game losing streak toward the end of the season.

Did the Sounders want to stay in the USL?

It doesn’t look that way. GM and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey has been one of the more outspoken supporters of this new league. As it is, most of the MLS teams who fielded USL squads in 2021 are waiting until 2023 to move leagues. It’s notable that the Sounders are making the move immediately.

What are the benefits of the move?

Aside from making the move on their own terms, people like Lagerwey seem very bullish on the ability to focus more clearly on talent development. Winning will still be important — and everyone is going to great lengths to say this won’t just be another Reserve League — but the goal of this league is very clearly to prepare players for the first team or to be sold abroad. By controlling it entirely, MLS teams aren’t beholden to another organization’s schedule-making, for instance, and can do things like send their teams abroad to play in showcase tournaments.

How is it different than the Reserve League?

Time will tell, but they are definitely doing things to guard against this becoming another Reserve League. The biggest thing is that teams will be required to have at least 13 signed players and will be limited to no more than three 23-and-over players on the gameday roster. In other words, unlike the old Reserve League, the rosters won’t simply be made up of academy kids and back-of-the-bench MLS players on loan. I suspect a lot of games will still FEEL like Reserve League games — I’m guessing a lot of nearly empty stadiums — but the level of competitiveness will still be reasonably high and these games should all be streamed, also unlike the Reserve League.

But it IS all MLS reserve teams, right?

Not quite. Rochester New York FC — formerly the Rochester Rhinos — are joining the league in Year 1 as the only independent team. The plan is for other independent teams to join in the coming years. For now, the other 20 inaugural season teams are all run by MLS clubs, as are the eight currently scheduled to join in 2023. One imagines some of the independently run academy teams in MLS Next and maybe some of the teams in USL League One will join sooner or later.

What are the drawbacks?

I think playing in front of hostile crowds and against grown-ass men who are trying to make a living is probably really good for development. Sure, there were some bruises — both figurative and literal — but steel sharpens steel and I’m not convinced we’ll get nearly as much of that in the new league.

Is this a cost-cutting move?

If the Sounders save money on this, it’ll be a marginal amount. The player costs are probably going to be very similar and they’ll still need to do a fair amount of travel. Those were and will remain the biggest expenses. I suppose they won’t have to pay an operating fee to the USL, but they’re still incurring costs of operating the league as part of MLS. Maybe MLS thinks they can turn this into a money-making operation through expansion fees or streaming rights, but I suspect they’ve got a long way to go before they even catch the USL in those areas. I think this is mainly about controlling the ecosystem, not reducing costs.

How badly does this hurt USL or other lower leagues?

I think it may actually help USL in a roundabout way by letting them do their own thing without being tied to MLS in the short term. Longer term, I’m skeptical of MLS putting the weight behind this venture that would be required to overtake even League One in a serious way, especially if USL sets up some sort of closed pyramid pro-rel as they’ve discussed. Maybe this hurts NISA, but that always struck me as somewhere fiercely independent teams went and drew the same sort of fans. This endeavor seems like the antithesis to that. I could see how this league attracts owners who want to sort of try things out before pushing for MLS, but I don’t know that USL wanted those groups anyway.

What’s the Defiance roster going to look like?

I think it’s going to look a lot like this year’s squad. The bulk of the roster will be young players who are just out of the Academy, the roster will be filled out with some relatively young players with previous professional experience and there will probably be a couple veterans just to give it a bit more balance. They’ll all be supplemented by the most promising Academy players and some guys loaned from the first team.

Was “MLS Next Pro” really the best name they could come up with?

Hey, it beats Lower Division League (LDL), which was the working name until this was unveiled. But seriously, I don’t necessarily love the name but it does make sense with the academy league going by “MLS Next.” Adding “Pro” just sort of makes it clear that it’s the next step in the pipeline.

Why is that logo?

MLS Communications

I have no defense for this. It’s a crime against graphic design. I guess the odd lines are supposed to say “differing paths to pro” but that also makes no sense narratively since THIS is supposed to be the path. I really hope this is a placeholder. The killer is that the MLS Next logo works fine if you just tag a little “pro” onto it. From a purely practical perspective, I don’t even see how this works as part of the larger MLS design aesthetic. It’s truly bizarre.

Is there a chance an independent Division 2 team takes the Defiance’s place?

I know there’s talk of Spokane joining USL League One, and I suppose it’s possible that they see this as an opening to move up a division, but that seems unlikely. If you’re really itching for professional soccer that falls between Division 3 and MLS, I would suggest taking a trip to Vancouver Island to see the Canadian Premier League’s Pacific FC. They just won the league title too!

What’s the legacy of MLS’s involvement with USL?

Even if I am willing to believe that USL outgrew the partnership, the partnership still deserves a lot of credit for USL being where it is today. Let’s remember for much of the 1990s and early 2000s lower-division soccer was constantly on the verge of collapse. Things got so bad that in 2010, USSF had to step in and govern the second division as neither of two rival factions were capable of fielding a six-team league. In 2012 — the year before the USL-MLS partnership began — USL Pro had just 11 teams, and that was only after consolidating with USL Second Division. By 2015 — the year most MLS teams launched their USL outfits — the league had grown to 24 teams. It eventually ballooned to 36 teams in 2019, the same year they launched League One with 11 more teams.

There are currently 32 fully professional, independently owned and operated teams in the USL Championship and League One and there are eight more teams scheduled to join between now and 2024. The NISA has another 13 active teams who are independently owned and operated. I don’t think it’s at all a stretch to suggest that state of lower-division soccer in the United States has never been stronger. At the very least, MLS leaves the USL in MUCH better shape than when they found it.