Major League Soccer executive vice president of player relations Todd Durbin joined United Soccer Leagues president Tim Holt on a press conference Thursday morning to discuss the new MLS-USL reserve league partnership.
"We believe that this relationship and the potential for this relationship have the ability to profoundly and aggressively change soccer in this country," Durbin said. "It's our believe that having a vibrant and robust lower division is crucial."
Durbin explained that MLS teams will now have three paths to choose from in operating their reserve squads:
- MLS teams can form an affiliation with an existing USL PRO team. As I detailed yesterday, we know of four such partnerships so far – including the Philadelphia Union and Harrisburg City Islanders. Those MLS teams will send a minimum of four players to their affiliates.
Holt noted that the Union-Harrisburg relationship is a good example for other affiliate partners to follow.
"It's been significantly important in demonstrating that there is a model that can work here," Holt said. "They have been pioneers in doing that and it's led to others taking notice."
Affiliations won't just happen randomly. Durbin made it clear that proximity of teams is a "significant factor" in the process of setting up partnerships.
"You never want to say never, but I think it would be highly unlikely that you would have a team in the Pacific Northwest affiliated with a team in the Southeast," Durbin said. Having teams that are close not only benefits development in that you can move resources back and forth quickly, but it also gives [those] USL and MLS teams the ability to build out their local or regional markets."
- MLS teams can enter their reserve teams as standalone USL PRO clubs. This could make sense for MLS teams that don't have a USL team in reasonable geographic proximity. I'm thinking of Seattle and Portland in particular here.
This option could be more expensive, considering that MLS teams with affiliates would only be responsible for the salaries of four players on the USL team.
But it would give MLS teams more control over how their USL PRO teams are run - though you'd think it wouldn't be too hard for an affiliate partnership to include conversations about technical direction and philosophy at the USL level.
There's also something to be said about having everybody under one roof, especially if your alternative is to affiliate with a USL team a few states away. Even if it costs more, some teams will want to operate that way.
"We would never have had a neat and tidy matchup between MLS and USL in terms of numbers or geography," Durbin said.
Durbin was asked whether players on the roster of a USL team that is run by a MLS club will count towards the MLS club's 30-player roster limit.
He answered that by saying that players with USL teams will be classified as being on USL rosters, so roster limits will not be affected.
"Everything from the MLS standpoint is managed centrally, so roster sizes for teams haven't changed," Durbin said. "The budget outlay for a team that has an affiliation vs. a team that doesn't have an affiliation is the same."
Durbin also said that USL PRO team rosters will have 30 players, as MLS rosters do.
"You couldn't have a standalone USL team and a MLS team with a combined roster size of 30," Durbin said. "To the extent that MLS team is going to start a standalone team in the USL, that would be a combination of players that are both participating as USL PRO players under the auspices of that club and loaned players on the MLS 30-man roster."
Translation: MLS clubs that don't affiliate with USL PRO teams will be paying the salaries of all of the players on their proprietary USL squads.
The MLS-USL affiliation will have a direct affect on the U.S. Open Cup. There have been questions about integrity of the competition whenever MLS teams have faced affiliated USL or PDL teams, and those questions are likely to arise again under this new deal.
But it's my understanding that the U.S. Open Cup administrators will try as best they can to keep those teams apart in the draw for as long as possible.
In addition, "players are going to be cup-tied" to the affiliate where they are under contract when they play their first Open Cup game of a given year.
So the Union wouldn't be able to call up a player from Harrisburg and play him in an Open Cup game if that player took the field for the City Islanders in a previous round.
- It will remain possible for MLS teams to just put their reserve teams in a MLS reserve league. Of course, this leads to the possibility of a "reserve league" of one team. Durbin called that scenario "not optimal," and it's easy to see why.
"Hopefully over time, what you'll see is a fully integrated model," Durbin said, "where our teams are participating as [affiliates] or our existing reserve teams will be playing a 24-game schedule in USL PRO."
That goal won't be achieved until 2014 at the earliest. Since the deal was made so close to the start of the 2013 season, there will be something of a hybrid arrangement for the coming season.
As I said above, four MLS teams have set up USL affiliations so far. They are the Philadelphia Union, D.C. United, the New England Revolution and Sporting Kansas City.
The 15 MLS teams which don't affiliate this year will have their reserve games play a home-and-home series against a USL PRO club. Those results will count in the MLS reserve league and USL PRO standings for the respective clubs.
Those pairings are as follows:
Harrisburg City Islanders vs. Colorado Rapids*
Pittsburgh Riverhounds vs. Toronto FC
Richmond Kickers vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
Rochester Rhinos vs. Montreal Impact
Dayton Dutch Lions vs. Columbus Crew
Wilmington Hammerheads vs. New York Red Bulls
Charlotte Eagles vs. Chicago Fire
Charleston Battery vs. Houston Dynamo
Orlando City vs. Seattle Sounders
Phoenix FC vs. Real Salt Lake
Los Angeles Blues vs. Los Angeles Galaxy
VSI Tampa Bay FC vs. Portland Timbers
Antigua Barracuda vs. FC Dallas & San Jose Earthquakes (Antigua will play both games at the MLS teams)
* - Harrisburg will visit the Rapids on April 20 and host the return game on June 8. The City Islanders' full schedule for the year is here.
All USL PRO league games and interleague games at USL PRO venues will be streamed live free of charge at USLNation.com, which will make them easy to follow.
One MLS team will not either make an affiliation or have its reserve team play USL PRO teams this year: Chivas USA. Given that club's potential to link its player development system to Chivas Guadalajara, it will be interesting to see what path they take in future years.
I want to call attention now to a few other interesting quotes that came up in the conference call.
First, I couldn't help noticing a key word in a remark by Durbin about some wider benefits of the MLS-USL deal.
"This is not just about [player] development," he said. "Our goal in all of this is to help build a league that is competitive, that is compelling and if we achieve that ... the end result will be better players, better front office staffs, better administrators, better coaches [and] better referees."
I asked Holt how his league's teams will be affected by increased travel costs from a larger competition, and by traveling to new cities.
Holt answered that the USL clubs "have a big picture viewpoint on this."
"For some teams during pairings of interleague play there will be some additional travel and flights," he said. "We're trying to build that into existing flights to mitigate that."
But Holt has no doubt that the investment his clubs are making now will pay dividends in the future.
"The benefit of affiliation and association with Major League Soccer, and the growth opportunities that result from that, will help the league have growth that will [eventually] decrease travel [and] lead to a regional competition."
The USL has a track record of success running leagues and lower-division clubs in the United States. Indeed, the organization has existed in some form or another since before MLS launched in 1996.
There have been recent successes as well. As Holt noted, four of the last five MLS expansion cities – Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Montréal – had USL teams first.
Now Holt's goal is to run "the best league on the field and off the field below and in support of Major League Soccer, [with] realistic and sustainable operating budgets."
Given the scale of the MLS-USL deal, it wasn't surprising to hear a question to Durbin and Holt about how the partnership will affect the North American Soccer League.
The NASL is currently sanctioned as the second division in the United States, but would like to be viewed as something more glamorous. Some of its teams – most notably the New York Cosmos – have aspirations well beyond what a "second division" label would imply.
Durbin was asked whether there have been any conversations about including the NASL in the wider renovation of the American soccer pyramid.
"Not at this point," he answered politely. "I think I would leave that to conversations with the NASL."
Holt was asked whether the USL might try to apply for the Division 2 sanction at some point.
"We're not consumed by what our divisional designation is," he said.
That seems like a good quote on which to wrap this post up.