The 2015 United Soccer League season wrapped up on Friday night in Rochester, New York, with former Whitecaps coach Bob Lilley guiding the hometown Rhinos to a 2-1 extra time win over Los Angeles Galaxy II in the Championship game, adding to the 2006 title he won with Vancouver.
It was the end of another successful season for the USL, the third one since the league signed a multi-year partnership agreement with Major League Soccer to enable MLS clubs to run second teams in the system or affiliate with existing clubs.
The partnership was to see an end of the MLS Reserve League, which frankly was not fit for purpose. Too few matches and some bizarre scheduling saw that endeavour become more of a pain to clubs than a serious benefit.
Baby steps were what MLS clubs used to tread the initial path of the partnership. Affiliations were the way to go, but again, they proved of little benefit to most sides due to distance and the lack of control on development, training and team selection.
Only four MLS clubs went with official affiliations for the 2013 season. Some, including Vancouver with Charleston Battery had looser, unofficial arrangements. Last season, that number rose to 11 last year, before LA Galaxy changed the sporting landscape of the league completely by launching and operating their own USL side.
Seven other MLS clubs followed suit in 2015 – Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Toronto, Montreal, Real Salt Lake and New York Red Bulls. Orlando will add to those numbers next season.
The Galaxy blazed the trail, so it was perhaps then fitting that they became the first MLS2 side to make it to the USL Championship game. Other MLS teams will now aspire to follow the Galaxy’s second year success. Achieving it may not be so easy.
The entry of all of these MLS2 teams into the league set-up hasn’t been completely smooth sailing, more on that later, but the partnership is still in it’s infancy and USL President Jake Edwards is happy with how things have been progressing and excited by what the future holds in store.
“The partnership between the two leagues is an evolving one,” Edwards told reporters in a conference call last week. “It’s organic in terms of what that model started of as, what it is now, what it could be in the future.
“I would say there’s not one single model that works between the golden objectives both from a business point of view and the technical point of view from the MLS teams and the independent USL clubs.”
Which brings us back to that decision facing MLS clubs as to whether to go it alone with their own USL side or affiliate with one, many miles away, that already has an infrastructure in place. To us, it’s a no brainer after Vancouver’s experience with Charleston.
Owning your own USL side is the only way to ensure complete control over your club philosophy and playing style from first team to academy, providing an outlet for whatever first team and developmental players they see fit to sign and play.
But Edwards says it’s not anywhere near as simple as that.
“There are a number of factors that go into the decision making of whether it’s right for an affiliation or whether it’s right not to have one or whether it’s right to pursue a standalone club in the USL, as long as you can meet all of the league and Federations requirements in terms of the minimum standards,” Edwards added.
“That’s for each team in the MLS to consider what makes sense for them, both on the playing side and on the financial side. So I would say there’s not one model that makes sense. Teams are going to pursue different avenues and you can see for example in south Texas with Houston and the Rio Grande Valley [who are coming into the league in 2016].
“They’re pursuing a different ownership and a different relationship model, where it’s independently owned and operated by a very experienced group and the technical side is managed by the Houston Dynamo. So that won’t be the case for many of those teams in MLS. It will evolve and not one size fits all.”
But is the model working? It’s fair to say that this year was a testing one for the MLS2 sides, both on and off the pitch.
It depends of course on how you measure success. Do you measure in on development time given to younger players or do you measure it in success on the pitch and crowds drawn to games?
Whereas MLS fans will argue for the former, the stark reality is that they all matter from a development, future success and business aspect.
Only three of the MLS2 clubs made the postseason, with four of them (including the three Canadian sides) occupying four of the bottom five places in the entire league.
The other 12 MLS clubs went with affiliates this season, and only half of them made the playoffs. New England being the most successful as they are Rochester’s affiliates.
Attendance-wise, the non MLS2 sides led the way, filling the top five spots and with Sacramento Republic’s 11,323 average home crowd continuing to impress. RSL side Real Monarchs were sixth amongst the MLS clubs with an average of 4,698 and the highest crowd of the entire season of 13,979 against Seattle Sounders 2 in August.
The other seven drag woefully behind, with Montreal (313), Toronto (445), New York (595) and LA (900) filling the bottom four places and not even cracking the four figure mark with their average.
As we reported last week, the USL has plans in place to add more MLS/USL double headers for Cascadia derby games next season in an attempt to get some crowd numbers up.
Of course, LA are drawing low numbers but made the Championship game. So again, just how do you measure what is a successful season for these MLS2 sides? The league’s take is simple, for now.
“As it relates to the MLS teams and how they’re doing, it’s first year for most of those teams in the USL, so there’s a learning curve,” Edwards said. “They’re not an independent club, they’ve all got a first team to deal with as well as themselves, so they’re finding different levels of success in those markets.
“Our highest attendance this season, well over 13,000, was at Real Monarchs, a MLS second team’s game, so some of those teams are doing very well actually. They’re able to not just meet technical objectives but leading on the business front as well, which is very important to us that they have the opportunity to do that.
“One of the biggest metrics we look at is franchise values. We like to see how the franchise values are tracking over time and we’ve got valuations from teams now stretching from $3 million to $20 million. That’s great. That’s important that we can build that sort of value.”
All that said, Edwards knows that there are challenges with the new MLS2 sides. Those are not crowd levels that makes the USL look good and professional. Especially damaging for a league looking to have D2 sanctioning by the 2017 season.
“From our point of view, we treat the MLS teams that come into our league in the same way we treat all the teams that enter the USL that meet the Federation standards and our standards,” Edwards admitted. “We review them every year to see how people are doing. We have a robust club services department now, that we’ve built up over the last year, to really help our teams on the business side and on the technical side in every way to get them all up to a certain standard.
“With any club, and more so with the MLS2 teams, there’s a learning curve. It takes time to fill those fanbases, it takes time to educate the market about what that club’s all about, about the new league that they’re in. We’re asking those questions on the back of the first season for seven out of eight teams.
“LA Galaxy, their crowds are up from last season. They will be doing more to build an identity brand around that second team and putting more resources behind selling those. It’s a tough market. LA is a tough market, as is New York. It’s a crowded market place but you can still survive and do well.”
It may be a learning curve and there may be initial teething problems, but it surely can’t be a scenario that the league will let play out long-term.
“The unique challenge for those teams is that there’s a first team to deal with as well,” Edwards continued. “We require all of those MLS teams to have a standalone business unit, a separate front office, dedicated staff selling and promoting. It is very important the partnership to us and we are working hard with those clubs because we want them to succeed on and off the field and they certainly do too.
“We spend far more time with the CBO’s of those clubs than we do with the technical guys. The technical guys know the benefits to them. The business guys are really seeing the possibility here. I referenced the success that RSL are having, and we’re seeing it in some of the other clubs as well. Some of the other clubs have a bit of work to do quite frankly. They know that and it’s for us as a league to work hard with those clubs.”
And if things don’t pick up, then Edwards says that those teams will not get more favourable treatment than sides which the USL have shut down in recent years for failing on the same principles.
“We’ve had some independent clubs that haven’t been able to keep up with the growth and the expectation of the league over the years and they’ve moved out. We’re focused on having great clubs, good ownership groups and taking professional soccer and the USL into those markets at a high level and those teams have a big responsibility to meet those standards and we work hard with them to get there.
“Long term, if we have to make decisions, we’ll make decisions, as any league will, but this is at the back of one season. I’m very optimistic speaking with those clubs, the plans they’ve got to support those second teams on and off the field are exciting. I think we’ll see some big increases in those numbers after next season.”
Time will tell. There’s certainly a lot of work to do in Canada.
Attendances and on-field success aside, as we said, the whole point of these second teams for the MLS sides is to have a development outlet. A place to play their fringe and young players. To that extent, it’s been a very successful year for the eight clubs.
But you could then argue that allowing MLS clubs to put second teams into the USL, waters down the quality of the league, making it just a glorified reserve league in part. That’s an allegation Edwards strongly refutes.
“No, we absolutely don’t believe there’s been any watering down of talent with having MLS teams, quite the opposite actually,” Edwards told AFTN. “We think it’s raising the level. We’re seeing some of the next best players for the MLS first teams, some of the next best players in the international level for the US and Canada. They’re playing in our league and they’re developing into top class professionals by playing in our league.
“Playing against the likes of Sacramento, playing in front of 12,000 people, playing in those kind of environments and great stadiums. This is the highest level of competition outside of MLS. That’s what we’re building here and for those players to get the kind of opportunity to play in that environment is rapidly accelerating their development and building great careers.”
Edwards points to this year’s Championship game and the success of the Western Conference Champions LA as proof.
“We have to look at the final [this year],” he added. “We have Rochester and LA Galaxy II, who have been able to produce fantastic young players, who would hold their own against any team in this country at any level and they’re in our final now.
“They’re going to be some of the players that you’re going to see in the first teams and in the national teams over the next few years. What we’re doing with the MLS team is critically important if this country and Canada are going to have a strong national team and a strong first division, then they need to be able to compete at the highest level until they’re ready to be in those first team squads.”
There’s no doubting that the USL environment is an excellent breeding ground for young talent and as the partnership moves forward it will allow MLS clubs to take a closer look at some of their draft picks and academy products to see just how much more time and effort should be invested in them.
Bluntly, if they can’t make it in the USL, then there’s not much point or hope of them making the MLS roster. On the flip side, it’s the perfect opportunity for players to show the MLS manager just what they can offer the first team. Fish or cut bait.
We saw it here in Vancouver this past season with WFC2. Some, like Marco Bustos and Ben McKendry showed what we all hoped for – they are the real deal and will do well in MLS. Others, like draft picks Mackenzie Pridham and Jovan Blagojevic, struggled to find any sort of groove at the lower level and are unlikely to be back for 2016. The jury is still out for some of the academy products and another season and another look is the order of the day.
But Edwards doesn’t simply see the USL as a stepping stone to the highest level for the players. He’s very aware that the league can be viewed as such for those markets that have aspirations of having MLS teams of their own one day.
Five teams have already built their club in USL and made the jump to Major League Soccer already, with Orlando being the latest club to do just that this season.
“[It’s] a great thing,” Edwards feels. “We support that 100%. The USL is an aspirational league. That is the case for players, players should always want to play at the highest level, the national team. We’ve got ambitious players in our league that do that. We’ve got executives in our league that are the same and owners. And also league markets.”
Sacramento are the club leading the charge to be next, but even new clubs like FC Cincinnati, who comes into the league for 2016, have hopes of making the jump to the first tier of the North American game sooner rather than later.
For Edwards, that’s just a sign of the strong markets and ownership groups that the USL is attracting.
“If the ambitions weren’t high enough, we’d be worried,” he said. “It’s not everybody’s ambition to be in the MLS. If somebody has that ambition and it’s a logical ambition given the size of a market, like Cincinnati, then so be it, we support it, because if that helps them build a great team and fanbase, that’s fine.”
Losing your top teams to another league is not ideal, especially the highest crowd drawers like Sacramento, but in the North American soccer environment, if you’re not the top tier league, and there’s no promotion and relegation through the pyramid, it’s an inevitable occurrence.
And there’s no point fretting over it Edwards feels. With the size of the continent and the clamour of cities to get a professional soccer team, the league President has no doubts that the USL will be just fine.
“There are many markets in the US that don’t have professional soccer, that will have professional soccer in the next few years that would be perfect markets for the USL,” Edwards said. “So we’ve expanded aggressively and deliberately into markets we know will succeed like Sacramento, like Oklahoma City, like St Louis, like Phoenix, like Charlotte. All of these clubs would not have professional soccer without the USL.
“It’s important that we continue to expand. Numbers will fluctuate. Teams may move up [to MLS] if they do it correctly. If a team is on the radar for MLS, it’s because they’re doing everything at the highest level [with us]. We want teams, we want ownership groups and executives, we want clubs and we want markets that are prepared to do things at that kind of level, however long they’re with the USL.
“So, should Sacramento move on one day, that would be fantastic for them and we’d be very proud to have had them in our league, and like Orlando, we may see them back in one day. We’re not concerned about losing markets. There are other markets on our radar that we know would be equally as successful as Sacramento.”
If 2015 was a key growth year for the USL, then 2016 is perhaps more vital with even more clubs coming on board and the MLS2 sides in their second year.
What will the future hold in store? Well we’ll have some more thoughts from USL President Jake Edwards from his “state of the league” conference call, later in the week on AFTN, so check back for that.