leagues Major League Soccer (MLS) North America USL

MLS to create new reserve league starting in 2021

League twice previously had reserve circuits
Move represents a shift away from USL
New league to seek Division III sanctioning in closed US soccer pyramid

MIAMI  (October 14, 2020) Major League Soccer’s last attempt to have a league made up of reserve teams was terminated six years ago. Now, in a year of unpredictable events, the league is once again resuscitating its reserve league.

MLS plans to begin play in 2021, but details on competition format and which teams will participate are not yet finalized. The new league will function mainly as a U-23 league to provide a continous link from the MLS Next Academy to the first team, while also offering an option for over-age players rehabbing from injuries.

The move represents a further distancing of the United Soccer League and Major League Soccer. For sure, many MLS teams will elect to remove their second teams from the USL Championship and USL League One competitions. However, sources indicate that this will not be an absolute requirement, at least not right away. The sources added that this would be an attractive option for clubs who think the USL would offer a higher level of competition, particularly in the second-division USL Championship. Multiple sources said that the teams most likely to continue to have reserve teams in the USL are the Red Bulls, Real Salt Lake (pending new ownership’s vision), D.C. United and FC Dallas.

This effort marks the third time MLS has tried to create a viable reserve team league. The first attempt was in 2005, but teams struggled to utilize the competition effectively. Matchday rosters were limited to a maximum of 20 players, with teams playing only 12 games, making it a losing investment for MLS owners. With that few games, players did not have sufficient game time to develop. The league was ended in 2009; however a second reserve league was begun in 2011. 

In 2013, MLS changed direction and the league placed its reserve teams into the then-third-division USL. After the 2014 season, the MLS Reserve League once again folded. Those reserve teams who were now competing in USL were referred to by MLS as “affiliates” or “MLS2” teams. 

The USL at the time, welcomed the MLS reserve teams into the league. Beyond the economic benefit of receiving entry fees, it was thought that the MLS reserve teams would help to create some stability. One of the hallmarks of lower division football in the United States has been its cronic instability. While it does not have to be this way, it is a natural byproduct of the closed US football pyramid, which has hindered investment in the lower divisions and seen teams jump around from one league to the next. Furthermore, many of USL’s strongest clubs left to form the reincarnation of the NASL which kicked off in the spring of 2011. Over the past few years, however, the USL has continued an aggressive growth strategy and has added clubs in markets with a lot of potential. For the most part, the USL’s independently owned clubs vastly outperform MLS II clubs in both on the pitch performance and attendance.

If the numbers are any indication, MLS teams are seeing less value in fielding USL affiliates. In 2020, seven MLS teams did not field an affiliate in either the second-division Championship or third-division League One: Cincinnati, Columbus, Los Angeles FC, Minnesota, Impact de Montréal, Nashville and Vancouver. Three teams have already pulled their affiliates from the USL ahead of 2021 (as reported by both The Beautiful Game Network and The Athletic on Tuesday): Orlando, Philadelphia and Portland. Overall, just 14 MLS teams operated their own affiliates in the USL in 2020. A few others, including the Seattle Sounders and San Jose Earthquakes, partner with independent sides.

MLS owner/operators clearly see more than one benefit to bringing back the reserve league, and the plan ties in to its revamped total approach to youth development. Those perceived benefits are both ecenomic and control-oriented.

If you recall, back in April 2020, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy (DA) ceased its business operations, leaving many MLS youth programs without a league to play in when the academy season arrived in September. Within a few weeks of that announcement came word the MLS would create its own academy league, to be known as MLS Next. All 30 MLS clubs — the 26 current and four incoming expansion teams — will participate in the league, which will also include five USL Championship teams and 60 non-professional clubs, for a first season total of 95 teams. Precise details on what MLS Next will actually look like are scarce, but it will have six age groups, ranging from U-13 to U-19. The league has promised to significantly reduce travel and lodging costs from DA levels and host neutral-site regional competitions more frequently.

Will the perceived benefits be attained?

On the economic front, it is questionable whether participating in the new reserve league will reduce costs for the league and its clubs. Looking at things from an expense angle, as the USL Championship and League One continue to grow, travel costs increase. There are also the annual dues: USL Championship participants paid $225,000 in yearly fees in 2020 while League One clubs paid “just under $100,000” to USL headquarters. In total, MLS-operated affiliates in the Championship gave the USL $2.03 million in 2020. While saving on those annual dues, having its own reserve league will require MLS clubs to cover payroll for staffers, coaches and trainers. For teams that did not field an MLS II club in USL, that means an increase in costs.

The stronger argument that weighs in favour of an MLS reserve league is that a functional one gives players a pathway from the academy level to the first team, while remaining in the MLS system. The league obviously wants to have players in their system as an aid to the overall growth plan, which includes the league becoming more of a selling league.

Both MLS teams without affiliates as well as those which have formed partnerships with independent clubs may see a benefit. Some MLS teams had an affiliation with a USL Championship team, yet didn’t send players to that affiliate. A case in point is New York City FC, which had a nominal partnership with San Antonio FC but in 2020 did not send a single player on loan to the Alamo City. Having a reserve team training in-house should only be a benefit.

Division III Sanctioning

Some MLS club executives think that their reserve league can be as competitive as the USL Championship and attract more fans than the USL. To do that, MLS will have to invest a lot into its reserve league. The MLS II teams that compete in the USL Championship have the lowest attendance figures of all the teams, and their on-field performance is far below that of the independently operated teams. Some MLS executives base their belief on the fact that few USL players transfer to MLS teams. However, this is a weak argument. While there certainly is a drop off in talent from MLS to lower leagues, given the number of teams in lower divisions one gets the feeling some talented players are slipping through the cracks.

There is word that MLS will look to secure a third-division sanctioning from U.S. Soccer. To do that, it would need to meet USSF’s professional guidelines. There is no requirement for a reserve league to be sanctioned by the USSF and if this plays out, it likely signals that the MLS reserve league intends to pit itself against USL League One and NISA. If granted third-division status, the new MLS reserve league would be the third competition with that designation, joining USL League One and the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA). The effect of that would be to continue the fragmented state of soccer in the United States instead of working with the lower divisions to create a more unified system.

By Ken Russo

While my background is in the legal industry, the skills acquired and fine-tuned in law practice are now applied to focus on the sport of football. Russo Soccer aims to inform, educate and engage on news and relevant issues in the game.

Um advogado por formação, concentro meu trabalho nos negócios, comunicações e operações de equipes no futebol mundial. | Abogado con fundación avanzada en comunicaciones, enfocado en los negocios del fútbol y las comunicaciones. | Je suis un avocat experimenté dans les affaires de football.