United Soccer Leagues president Tim Holt assesses the USL-MLS partnership so far

Philadelphia Union academy product Cristhián Hernandez was loaned to the Harrisburg City Islanders this year as part of the affiliation deal between Major League Soccer and the United Soccer Leagues. (Photo courtesy of the USL)

When Major League Soccer and the United Soccer Leagues announced an affiliation program for player development back in January, it caused a lot of buzz around American soccer.

The relationship established a path for MLS players on the fringes of their rosters to get playing time in meaningful competition, even if it wasn’t while wearing their club’s jersey.

Four MLS teams, including the Union, established formal affiliation partnerships with USL PRO teams. Other MLS teams had their reserve teams play USL PRO teams during the summer.

Now that the USL PRO season has concluded, it’s a good time to assess the state of the partnership.

The USL provided a list of all of the MLS players who were moved between affiliated teams this year:

Philadelphia Union and Harrisburg City Islanders: Don Anding, Leo Fernandes, Cristhian Hernández, Greg Jordan, Jimmy McLaughlin, Aaron Wheeler

Sporting Kansas City and Orlando City SC: Dom Dwyer, C.J. Sapong, Christian Duke, Jon Kempin, Kevin Ellis, Yann Songo’o)

D.C. United and Richmond Kickers: Andrew Dykstra, Taylor Kemp, Collin Martin, Michael Seaton, Conor Shanosky, Casey Townsend

New England Revolution and Rochester Rhinos: Bilal Duckett, Matt Horth, Gabe Latigue, Tyler Polak

There were also eight transfers of USL Pro players to MLS teams. The Union were involved in two, acquiring Matt Kassel from the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Yann Ekra from Harrisburg. Another move involved a former Union player, La Salle product Ryan Richter, who joined Toronto FC from the Charleston Battery.

I spoke at length recently with United Soccer Leagues president Tim Holt to get his perspective on how this year has gone. The Villanova native and Radnor High product had a lot to say about his organization’s first year of working with MLS. Here’s the transcript of our conversation.

What’s your assessment of year one of the MLS-USL partnership?

Overwhelmingly positive, despite having a truncated window to ramp this up in. We got the agreement done in the later part of January, so we really had a truncated period to try to solidify these one-on-one team affiliations, and then implement the inter-league schedule that we introduced this year. Those were the two main components of year one of the affiliation.

Both of those came off exceptionally well. We had four teams that were affiliates. Philadelphia and Harrisburg have been a blueprint for how to do this – it was the first year of our affiliation agreement, but they had kind of a head start with the relationship they had built. They took it to a further level this season.

And then the interleague play, which for year one was plenty for us to undertake. On both fronts, we thought it was really successful. The players were getting a whole bunch of games in a good, positive environment and [some] had breakthrough seasons.

You look at Dom Dwyer with Kansas City, who did really well in Orlando, and when he went back to Kansas City he was ready to contribute right away.

Numerous players have been through that with Harrisburg and Philadephia, not just this year and in past years. This year [the Union] went with younger players [moving to Harrisburg] to develop those guys.

So it’s gone really well. We’ve spent a lot of time since our season ended a few weeks ago on how to make it better for 2014. As first seasons go, the experience has been very strong.

What have you heard from MLS regarding the league’s thoughts on the partnership?

They say it’s gone well. I think we were all realistic in our expectations of what year one would look like, knowing that this was always intended to be a long-term collaboration to do a couple of different things. It creates better opportunities for players throughout the professional game at different levels, and it grows the sport overall.

So the next chapter of growth for us is having MLS teams – potentially as early as 2014 – put their second team, or “B team” if you will in USL PRO, [and] in the markets where they are located. That has the potential to accelerate our growth and the footprint of our league, and add another exciting dynamic.

There would be a couple of different models. One would be a USL PRO team that isn’t affiliated with a MLS team; [another is] a USL PRO team that is affiliated with a MLS team like Philadelphia and Harrisburg; then MLS teams that field their second teams.

That’s not different from how Barcelona and Real Madrid field their “B teams” in the second division of Spain, or how it’s done in Germany as well. So there are three different models that fit within our USL PRO structure.

What we’re trying to build out is this. We believe the best, most economically sensible and sustainable model for soccer below MLS is one that embraces a regional competition.

Our country is so big that one of the challenges from a player standpoint, from a cost standpoint and even from a fan standpoint is traveling coast to coast for these games.

So the ultimate goal – and I think we’ll take an incremental step towards it in 2014, then fully realize it in 2015 – would be creating three different conferences: a Western, a Central and an Eastern Conference.

The predominance of those games would take place within the regional conferences, and then it comes together for a national playoff. We think that’s the right way to structure a lower-division pro league.

So that’s what we’re building toward. It’s been an exciting period since we announced this with MLS,. And with a lot of the changes we have made over the two or three years since we restructured the USL’s whole professional flight into USL PRO, the interest level is higher than it’s ever been before.

What can you say as of now about plans for next year? Could more MLS teams come on board with affiliate partnerships, or perhaps start putting full reserve teams in USL PRO that soon?

That’s still sorting itself out. Unfortunately I’m not at liberty to go into the teams that are probable to do it. I think I’d phrase it this way – there are at least a couple of teams that appear to be probable for launching USL PRO teams next season, and then several others that are exploring that possibility for 2015.

We will also expect to at least double the number of USL PRO-MLS affiliate situations from the four last year. When you add that together, I think even conservatively, we’d expect that half the MLS teams will either be partnered with USL PRO teams on an affiliate basis, or be owning and operating their own teams as of 2014.

And then certainly our objective – and I don’t know why we couldn’t achieve this – would be to try to encourage and find solutions so that all MLS teams are doing something by 2015. Either by direct ownership and operation of a team, or partnered with USL PRO teams.

Whether it gets to 100 percent or not I’m not sure, but the objective is to create a situation where we have that. I think it would be good for MLS and good for their teams, and also good for our league as we develop.

To what degree did you hear from MLS teams after the program started this year who said, hey, we should have been on board from the beginning with this?

Yeah, a few. I can think of a couple of those conversations very specifically where teams said, “Let’s get a head start on figuring that out” [for next year].

There are a couple of teams who will end up doing something in 2014 that didn’t in 2013 because there was literally just a 30-40 day period that teams had in which to do something. It was just a function of the timing before the season started and when we set a cutoff date by which people needed to declare.

There was player movement which occurred outside of the affiliations which, in one case, turned into something a little more formal. So I think there are other MLS teams that are probably just sitting back and observing, and figuring out which option or options might make sense for them.

The biggest thing for us isn’t just that you command that teams do this, but that you try to find the right fit. That can encompass a lot of things. Geography obviously plays a role in all of this. It’s more important to some teams than others.

When you have a situation like Philadelphia and Harrisburg, where it’s about a 90-minute drive, there are a lot of things you can do in practical terms with players, making decisions midweek, that you might not be able to do if it was a two- or three-hour flight. But mostly it’s about teams having a similar philosophy on how they want to go about the relationship and what they are looking to get out of it.

So we’ve given teams a lot of flexibility and autonomy to build those relationships, not in a one-size-fits-all way, but letting them put their signatures on it.

I think one of the really cool things about the Philadelphia-Harrisburg relationship is that it is about so much more than four or five players moving back and forth.

The support even went to the extent this year that Philadelphia sent their groundskeeper to Harrisburg on two or three separate occasions to help with their turf and make sure it was in the best condition. That speaks to how much the two teams are committed to working with one another.

I wonder about the three Canadian teams in MLS: the Montréal Impact, Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps. Especially regarding geography, as you mentioned earlier. There are border crossing issues and other extra costs of regular travel between the two countries.

And they have desires to do their own things in terms of player development, whether that’s by their academies or other ways. What do you hear from them about the directions those teams want to go in?

All three of those teams have embraced the concept of this partnership, and all three are working on ways that they can be involved, whether that happens for 2014 or 2015. They’ve actually been among the more proactive teams in trying to figure out what solution makes the most sense.

I think all the issues you mentioned there are real, but they’re resolvable. So whether it’s Canadian teams with Canadian partners, or Canadian teams with American partners, or Canadian teams starting their own teams in USL PRO, all of them would work for us.

Different clubs have different objectives and ways of how they want to structure their club development programs, and we’ve had positive conversations with all three of them.

It’s important to note that this partnership that we have is important for USL PRO. It’s exciting – I think it’s a differentiator. I think it can help make the league’s model, both on and off the field, more attractive.

By the same token, it isn’t what defines USL PRO. It’s an enhancement, but USL PRO’s primary function is not to serve as a feeder system or a reserve league or a developmental league.

That is one of the roles that it serves, but it is still a very ambitious league. We believe is the strongest professional soccer league, on and off the field, below and in support of Major League Soccer. So I don’t want anyone to get confused that USL PRO’s embracing of a way to complement MLS and its teams is in any way a lack of ambition for what this league is.

But the league has no intention or desire, at any point in time – even in the long view – to compete with MLS. They are doing such a good job of growing the sport at the top level, and that benefits everybody who’s involved with the sport. We feel that we play a real strong, complementary role to that.

We are exposing the brand in different markets, and providing some solutions for them both on the technical side and the commercial side.

So that’s the model we’ve embraced. It has certain components of affiliated baseball or hockey, and other components of leagues like Spain or Germany’s lower divisions. It’s a hybrid model that we think can be successful, and can have us be the strongest lower-division league in the country.

Some MLS teams that run their own USL PRO teams may not want to put them in the same city, but put them nearby to spread their reach. For example, the Seattle Soudners are reportedly looking at Tacoma and Everett, Wash., as possible venues. And this is just off the top of my head, but say Montréal wants to look at Québec City.*

How much would the USL office help with getting those stakes in the ground, or is that something you’d want the club to do?

* - To be clear: I’m not saying this is happening. It’s just an idea I came up with. You could come up with similar scenarios for lots of teams across MLS.

I think it’s a combination of both. Obviously, we would support that just like we would for any expansion franchise. But the team is going to take the primary lead in evaluating whether that’s a market where they can make that particular team/franchise/club work, and doing the legwork to operate it and make sure that it’s successful.

So no, it’s not one or the other. We’d be active and involved in supporting the team, and the team would take a leading role in operating and marketing.

What we can’t have happen as part of any MLS team putting a “B team” into the league is having them playing on a training field with no fans and with no atmosphere.

If a team’s going to [come into USL PRO], they need to be able to demostrate to us and to Major League Soccer that they’re at least going to do this at a minimum level of expectation that’s set forth in our league standards.

So these aren’t 2:00 in the afternoon on a Sunday at a training field. It’s owning and operating a USL PRO franchise. We don’t have any expectation that they’re going to draw the same for a satellite team that they draw for MLS, but there’s no reason to think that the performance of those teams off the field wouldn’t be comparable to your median USL PRO team.

For teams that affiliate, what rules are there about changing those partnerships over time? I think about Kansas City in particular, which isn’t all that close to Orlando, and if they wanted to find a team closer to them.

Each of these things will have a specific term. In the early stages, as people become acclimated with what works and what doesn’t, these will be shorter terms. They may be a season or two in length.

The expectation of both leagues is that as this gets more established, there will be more uniformity in the terms, and those terms will be a little longer when teams enter into them.

We didn’t want to throw up a bunch of road blocks in the early stages, so we could see how this took shape, and then put regulations and structures in as we move forward.

I think we learned a few things in year one, and mostly I think we learned it can be effective. Especially when two teams see it the same way, and the communication’s good, and players buy into it when they go down [to USL PRO] and look at it as an opportunity, rather then having been sent away.

You’ve brought up Dom Dwyer a few times today, and certainly he is one of the success stories of the partnership so far. Dwyer also sparked some controversy. Kansas City recalled him on in late June, but he returned to Orlando in September just for the USL PRO championship game.

The move was within the rules, to be sure, but it raised some eyebrows from people who thought it wasn’t quite fair for Orlando to bring a player in just for that game. Do you think we might see changes in the rules next year to prevent such a scenario from happening? Maybe a roster freeze for the playoffs?

It’s a fair question and I can understand why you’d ask it. This is a guy who played for the first two-thirds of the season with Orlando, and he was a big part of their success. The nature of the relationship is that the parent club has needs at different times. He was performing very well, and Kansas City had sold another striker [Kei Kamara].

Dwyer came back in and got an opportunity with the parent club, which is one of the benefits they get out of this. As it was for the championship game, the affiliate team [Orlando] also had some availability issues.

There is a roster freeze in the league, and he was listed on Orlando’s roster. So they actually used a slot on him, and I believe C.J. Sapong, who didn’t come back for the playoffs. They took a flier on them. Neither of them might have been available, and it gave them fewer slots than other teams would have had.

So as you said, he was there legitimately. I understand why certain fans may have said, “Well, wait a second, he just came down for the last game. Should that be allowed?” That will be something we talk about in our Board of Governors meetings.

But I don’t think there’s any team in the league that feels like Dom Dwyer wasn’t a legitimate part of Orlando City for the predominance of the season. So for him to be part of the championship game didn’t feel artificial for anyone there.

Those are the types of situations that you look at and evaluate, about whether we should have more stringent rules on player loans, or a different playoff eligibility from the regular season. It will be something we look at. But out of this office, there was no feeling that there was any sort of unfair competitive advantage gained by Orlando.