From the moment that it was announced MLS teams would begin fielding reserve squads in the USL, there have been grumblings about the unfairness of it all. At first, there seemed to be a belief that those teams would have built-in advantages, that they could stock their rosters with MLS-caliber players and simply outclass their opponents.
Over time, though, that evolved into a different concern somewhat on the other side of the spectrum. Now, the rumblings are that MLS-backed teams aren’t competitive enough, that they are filling their rosters with academy products and young prospects who are outclassed by their grown-ass man opponents. Coupled with this concern is that these teams aren’t putting the necessary business resources into their teams to put them on the level with the increasingly professionalized independent teams who are paying millions in expansion fees.
When the USL re-launched its second-tier league this year, many had assumed that’s where the MLS squads would eventually gravitate. So far, just three teams — FC Dallas and Toronto FC or Orlando City — have opted to play exclusively in League One.
This apparently hasn’t sat well with various folks in the USL. A recent story in The Athletic even suggest that plans may be afoot to force all MLS-owned teams to move into the lower of the two professional divisions. The issues with the MLS-owned teams are apparently two-fold: that they are dragging down the perception of the league both from a competitive and business standpoint.
To be fair, there’s some merit to these concerns. Just looking at the how the Seattle Sounders are using their USL team, it’s hard to argue that they are competitive when they have a league-worst -34 goal-difference and have won just 3 of 19 games even after last week’s 4-1 win over the Las Vegas Lights. Their average attendance of about 2,200 is the best of any MLS-owned team in either USL division, but it’s also down nearly 35 percent from last year and better than only a few of the independent teams in either division.
Still, I feel pretty confident in saying that the Sounders would fight to stay in the USL Championship and that I think they have a reasonably strong case to make in their favor.
Sure, the product on the field has been mostly bad. But from an organizational standpoint, the Defiance are doing a pretty good job of fulfilling their primary goal of producing talent for the first team. The current roster has five players who first joined the organization through the Sounders’ USL affiliate. Among those players are three who signed this year and two who came up through the academy. Beyond those five players, the Sounders have four more on the first team roster who have received the majority of their playing time this year with the Defiance, three others who have made at least two USL appearances and another three who have played at least one game there. That’s a total of 15 current first-team players who have some direct tie to the USL team.
Whether it was just one game or several seasons, I know the Sounders feel much more confident in assessing player performances at the Championship level than they would in League One. It’s hard to quantify, for instance, how much Danny Leyva’s development was sped up by having to play against grown men as opposed to players closer to his own age.
Beyond their current roster, the Sounders clearly see value in testing their best academy players against bonafide professionals than they would if they were going against other MLS teams who might be fielding what amounts to their own academy-plus team.
Just because the Sounders want to do it, though, doesn’t mean the other USL owners have to like it. The argument that teams like the Sounders have to do more to field a competitive USL outfit has merit and maybe this is simply meant as a shot across their bow as a warning that they’re taking this experiment a bit too far. The competitive part should be able to be addressed easily enough, and I’m skeptical it’s even the meat of the USL owners’ complaints.
I suspect the bigger concern is about the business metrics. USL owners don’t like the look of traveling to road games where the stands are basically empty and their players are using facilities that probably aren’t even up to collegiate standards.
This is one area where I think the Sounders can potentially excel. By all accounts, Cheney Stadium is already a pretty decent facility by USL standards. The grass is usually in good shape, the training rooms are fine and, while the stands might not be full, there’s usually a decent enough crowd. The Tacoma Rainiers, who are taking charge of all the off-the-field stuff, are a highly professional outfit and seem committed to making soccer a significant part of their business.
As if that weren’t good enough, all indications are that plans are moving forward on Tacoma getting its own soccer-specific stadium right next door to Cheney. It’s being designed to fit USL Championship standards and will almost certainly be among the top stadiums in the league once it’s open (likely in 2021).
Being forced to move to USL League One could jeopardize a lot of what the Sounders are trying to do, both on and off the field. While it’s likely the Sounders would be more competitive at League One with their current roster-building strategy, they’ll also have less useful data on which to judge players as the quality of competition will be lower. It’s also possible that the city of Tacoma may be less inclined to support a soccer stadium if one of their two main tenants — Reign FC are also planning to play there — gets demoted.
Even if some MLS teams are inclined to move to League One, I think the Sounders will have some company in resisting any sort of forced move. The New York Red Bulls, for instance, are perpetually one of the top performing teams in the USL’s top flight and have done a better job of grooming players for their MLS team. In general, though, I don’t think MLS has any interest in simply returning to a slightly improved version of the Reserve League, which had several iterations and never worked particularly well.
I suspect these teams will happily point out to their fellow USL owners that before MLS started investing, the league was in dire straits. In 2013, the year before the LA Galaxy launched the first MLS-owned team in the league, USL had just 12 teams was averaging about 2,000 fans per game. There are now 36 teams in the USL Championship alone and they’ve nearly doubled average attendance. Among the 27 independently owned teams, attendance is well over 5,000. It’s nearly impossible to argue that MLS involvement in USL has not been a net positive.
What strikes me as a more likely outcome is that the USL will possibly tighten rules around using amateur players, urge MLS teams to field more consistently competitive squads and even more strongly enforce business standards on their teams. This will likely weed out a few more MLS teams, but still allow room for teams who want to remain in the organization’s top flight.