The current iteration of the United Soccer League, now in its seventh season, has come a long way from the fractured, acrimonious circumstances that hastened its 2011 launch. Major League Soccer, by way of the 2013 partnership that still exists today, has been a big part of the growth. But how big?
Back in the bad old days when the agreement was signed, the USL boasted only 13 teams, two (2!!) of which were west of the Mississippi. Today the league has 30, with at least three more slated to join next season. The evolution is monumental, but some pains are certainly growing.
Is the USL willing to let go, at least in part, of the so-called MLS2 teams? That’s a question raised by The Oklahoman today, where in an apparently exclusive interview with USL President Jake Edwards, it seems that league meetings now underway in Chicago may be touching on the topic.
For the uninitiated, there are four basic types of clubs in the USL. First (and most likely to draw attention at the gate and on social media), is the independent club. The independent club agrees to abide by USL structural mandates and rules, but is otherwise not affiliated with any outside organization. Current examples are FC Cincinnati, Sacramento Republic FC, and Phoenix Rising FC.
Second, is the independent club with affiliation. This was once very common, but has dropped off in use as both the USL and its relationship with MLS has grown. This club operates independently of MLS, but has an agreement in place with a particular MLS team to loan players back and forth with increasingly vague requirements. USL clubs currently in this category include OKC Energy FC (FC Dallas) and Charlotte Independence (Colorado Rapids).
A recent development is the introduction of a hybrid model, put forth first by Rio Grande Valley FC (Houston Dynamo) and now used by Reno 1868 FC (San Jose Earthquakes). In this model, familiar to baseball fans, the lower division club is owned and operated by independent local stakeholders, but the coaches, players on the field, and the overall soccer strategy is managed by its partner MLS club.
The fourth and final (and much maligned throughout their short history) type of USL team is that which is wholly owned and operated by an MLS club. These teams practice in and, with the exception of Bethlehem Steel FC (Philadelphia Union), play in the same metro area as the MLS club. The branding of the USL team is usually similar to, if not just a simplification of, the MLS club. These teams have put up almost universally poor attendance numbers when compared to the league average, and produce mixed success on the pitch.
There has been a rumble from some fans (myself included) from the beginning of this arrangement that the fourth type (let’s call them “2” teams) were better off adopting the hybrid model, or exiting the league altogether. The rumble has recently become a drumming with the announcement and ramp-up of USL’s forthcoming Division 3 league.
“Here, finally, is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for,” you may say. “Send those 2 teams, with their empty seats and their roster carousels, down to D3 and let the ‘real’ teams treat the fans to ‘real’ soccer, from sea to shining sea!”
It is simply not that easy, however. One gets the idea from Edwards’ comments in today’s interview that MLS and its investors are happy with the current setup, and aren’t really interested in moving “down”. Many of the 2 teams have made considerable effort to continue to participate at a Division 2 level, and have taken strides to meet various requirements, especially pertaining to stadium capacity, in order to earn it.
Portland Timbers 2 and Orlando City B have moved into the MLS stadium of their respective clubs. Real Monarchs SLC did so as well, but only until construction of their own venue at the new Real Salt Lake training complex is complete.
It hasn’t happened yet, for all teams. Toronto FC II and others still play in venues that do not seat the D2 minimum of 5,000. FC Montreal met the minimum when it moved to Complexe sportif Claude-Robillard, but shuttered operations altogether after the 2016 season, with parent Montreal Impact electing instead to partner with Ottawa Fury.
As to the hybrid model, there is a vast divergence in opinion, driven by difference of business styles, among MLS club owners about whether a hybrid system makes sense.
Consider the following example. The Houston Dynamo have decided that their best option for participating in the league mandated USL partnership is to allow their fringe roster to live, train, and play in Edinburg, Texas, a five-hour drive to the south. Those players don’t see first team training on a daily basis, and run a risk of falling off the coaching staff’s radar to a degree. However, the Dynamo do not have to worry about nuances like marketing, matchday operations, or other considerations that could bleed the organization of precious development funds. It’s the best of both worlds for them.
In Carson, Calif., the Los Angeles Galaxy pioneered the 2 team back in 2014, and they seem to like it, thank you very much. “Los Dos” play their home games next door to the main stadium at StubHub Center, on a field that was installed for discus, not soccer. The roster cycles between the first and second team like the teacups at Disneyland, but every player is accounted for. Until recently, the team struggled to attract a thousand fans to any given match, and thanks to the view of the main camera at the field, it’s difficult to know if anyone is there at all. Expensive? You betcha. But it works for LA.
Other 2 teams in in the New York Red Bulls, Toronto FC, and Vancouver Whitecaps organizations, among others, draw the ire of ardent, independently-minded fans who argue, rightly in many cases, that paltry attendance and teams bent more on development than playoff hunger is not befitting of a league such as the USL. The league has the ambition of becoming one of the world’s best second divisions, and why not?
Can they get there in the current format? Time will tell. I would love it if every 2 team would pack its bags and move into a nearby city where a local, committed ownership group could turn them into a hot Saturday night ticket. The widely reviled brand “S2”, owned by Seattle Sounders FC, are on the verge of completing such a move to Tacoma, and it looks like a great situation.
Unfortunately, it’s not the only situation, and my prediction is that we have a long wait before every team in MLS is ready to make a change. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s only been four years. Look how far we’ve come.