Clubs approach to its USL Championship club seen as a model
MIAMI, Fla. (December 18, 2019) —
Real Monarchs SLC, the second team of MLS club Real Salt Lake, recently won the USL Championship with an impressive 3-1 away victory over Louisville City FC. That result was unexpected, both because of Louisville’s impressive record at home and the fact that they were the two-time defending champions of the USL Championship. They are also one of the most successful independent teams in the USL Championship, with highly engaged fans, active community involvement and a metro government that fully supports the club. In all respects, Louisville has been a model market and team for USL.
By way of a little further background, the USL is comprised both of independent clubs and clubs owned by or affiliated with MLS clubs. The future of the so-called “MLS2” sides in the USL Championship, which constitutes the second division of US Soccer, is currently very much unclear.
The Monarchs’ title took place just a few months after a report circulated that the USL was looking into repositioning all of the MLS-affiliated clubs (colloquially known as “2” teams) out of the Championship and into USL League One, the third division of US Soccer, as soon as 2021. Indeed, the two newest MLS2 teams for next season, New England Revolution 2 and Inter Miami CF 2, will be starting play in USL One.
One of the biggest factors where the disparity between MLS2 teams and independent clubs is on full display is match attendance. Nine of the 10 lowest-drawing sides are MLS-owned. When New York Red Bulls II hosted fellow playoff contender Saint Louis FC in early August, the announced attendance was just 756 fans, which was not far off their season average of 852. The Monarchs’ relatively low 1,983 fans per game made them the second-highest drawing affiliate club (28th in the USL Championship).
Putting attendance aside, naturally, independent clubs organise themselves somewhat differently from MLS owned clubs. But even within the category of MLS2 clubs, there are different philosophies. The Real Salt Lake approach its MLS2 team exhibits more of a hybrid approach. What follows is a discussion of their approach.
The Real Salt Lake Approach To The MLS2 Team
The approach Real Salt Lake takes with its MLS2 side, Real Monarchs could be considered a model of how to organise an MLS2 side, and a “best case” scenario for other MLS2 clubs to borrow from.
The main differentiator is that the first and second teams work in tandem with one another, with plenty of cohesion in training and in style. At other clubs, the MLS and USL sides often train at separate times. Not so in Salt Lake City. By working together every day and having greater movement of players between the two sides, the club ensures that its players have a more cohesive understanding of Real Salt Lake’s philosophy on the pitch at all levels. Midfielder Justin Portillo was a prime example of this, making the RSL matchday roster for 19 matches and the Monarchs’ squad on 16 occasions during the 2019 season.
The results on the pitch suggest that this type of approach to training and having players who can rotate between the MLS and USL sides benefits both squads. Case in point: In MLS, Real Salt Lake finished third in the Western Conference despite firing their coach and their general manager midseason, and they won their first playoff match, against Portland. One rung below in the USL Championship, the Monarchs finished fourth in the conference, then beat top-seed Phoenix Rising, El Paso and then Louisville City to take the title.
While most affiliates have underwhelmed by second-division standards, the Monarchs are among the league’s best clubs — 2 team or otherwise.
“We’re a fully professional second division team,” RSL assistant GM Dan Egner said in an interview before the USL Championship match. Egner serves as the general manager of the USL side. “We have 30 guys on our MLS roster and we have 20 guys on our USL roster. We view that as having one roster of 50 guys — I think that’s a little different than how a lot of people look at it. When that report came out, it was concerning because we think being in the Championship is of the utmost importance for what we’re trying to do. It’s not to say that League One can’t get there; we just don’t feel that it’s there right now. We’re extremely happy with what the Championship provides us.”
Secondly, Real Salt Lake sees Real Monarchs as being a place to develop promising players and to obtain a benefit if or when those players are later transferred. An example of this also happened this last season. Stanley Okumu, a 21-year old centre back who had signed with the Monarchs midway through the 2018 season, was really finding his form in 2019 and was gaining key minutes in the starting eleven for the Monarchs.
Okumu’s good form caught the attention of the selectors of his national team, and he was called up to the Kenya roster for the 2019 African Cup of Nations. He started all three group-stage matches in a group that featured eventual champions Algeria and tournament favourites Senegal. His performance did not go unnoticed. In late August, Okumu secured a transfer to Swedish Allsvenskan side IF Elfsborg. Real Monarchs collected a $200,000 fee as part of the transaction, which was a nice profit — Real Salt Lake had signed him in 2018 on a free transfer from NPSL club AFC Ann Arbor. The club saw the deal as a validation of their ability to develop promising players — even those who do not come through the RSL Academy.
Real Salt Lake could have just moved Okumu up to the first team, since it was clear he was capable of playing at a higher level than the USL Championship. But RSL was already strong at the centre back position, with four capable players on the senior team: Homegrown former U.S. youth international Justen Glad, former Queens Park Rangers anchor Nedum Onuoha, Marcelo Silva and homegrown Erik Holt.
It was at this point that the closeness of the MLS and USL technical staffs resulted in a decision that benefitted both Okumu as well as Real Salt Lake. “After AFCON, we talked to the first-team coaching staff about where we saw Stanley falling in the next six months, even 18 months,” Egner said. “Realistically, his best-case scenario had him as the MLS team’s third centre back. Is that good for Stanley financially? Obviously, an MLS deal is better than his Monarchs’ (deal). But the playing time doesn’t really change because, inevitably, you’re playing the same USL games (on loan from the MLS side). If we could move him somewhere else, that’s going to benefit him and us. He performed very well at AFCON — he was arguably Kenya’s best player, and they were in the toughest group. When the Sweden move became tangible, we acted on it. For us, that move and the news that it made, and the (club) record (transfer fee), the history that it made was more significant for us than him becoming our third centre back.”
A third different way of managing is that the USL Monarchs deploy academy graduates alongside more experienced players in the starting lineup. This is something not widely done on MLS2 sides. After Okumu left for Sweden, homegrown defender Erik Holt made the most of his opportunities, scoring the conference-clinching goal against El Paso Locomotive. Next to him were a pair of USL veterans: 27-year-old Konrad Plewa (formerly of Red Bulls II and Saint Louis FC) and 28-year-old Kalen Ryden (Oklahoma City Energy and the NASL’s Jacksonville Armada).
Fourth, Real Salt Lake and Monarchs work together when an MLS veteran needs playing time to regain form and view it as an opportunity for the younger players on the USL side to interact and see how the older veteran structures his training and carries himself as a professional footballer. This past season, veteran RSL midfielder Luke Mulholland is an example. At 31, he’s the team’s eldest field player by a comfortable margin.
“Naturally, I would have preferred to play a lot of games with the first team,” Mulholland said. “Opportunities were very slim. We’re only happy when you’re playing, you know. It’s an RSL family all under one roof, so I have the ability to make the first team roster one week and drop down to play a game with the Monarchs in the next. I’m in a good position to get some games under my belt and get back into a rhythm of grinding for 90 minutes. That’s what I missed the most.” Mulholland not only regained form but was a key contributor for the Monarchs. He played 12 games for the Monarchs including their postseason run. Their record: 11 wins, one draw, zero defeats. He put in a man-of-the-match-caliber performance in Louisville.
The 31-year-old Englishman had been a fixture in Major League Soccer over the past few years, having made 123 MLS appearances, 97 of them starts. However, the midfielder only had two first team appearances in 2018, and it was Mulholland himself who asked to be placed on the Monarchs. The USL side had the room and since Mulholland would not be preventing a younger player at that position from getting playing time, they agreed. It paid dividends for the Real Monarchs. “I constantly kept asking my coaching staff [to play with the Monarchs],” said Mulholland. “The only way I can help the first team is if I can gain some form and rhythm with the Monarchs so every three weeks or so I’d ask to go down and play for them. And then, I just started to get in a good rhythm with the Monarchs, so it felt great. It always feels good to get 90 minutes under your belt and continuously playing week-in, week-out.” Mulholland was a key contributor for the Monarchs in the USL Championship Playoffs, playing all but 15 minutes as the side navigated its way past Orange County SC, Regular Season Title-Winner Phoenix Rising FC and El Paso Locomotive FC to earn a place in the final.
Fifth, the Monarchs’ approach is to split the minutes between veterans and academy graduates. MLS2 sides have a reputation for sacrificing quality in order to develop younger talent, and the Monarchs’ approach is a contrasting one. In their estimation, splitting the minutes can help accomplish quicker development. They believe it is the best of both philosophies in the USL.
“I don’t say this in a negative way, but we don’t really compare ourselves to other 2 clubs because we feel we’re the only MLS club taking this approach,” Egner said. “That’s not to say that anyone’s approach is right or wrong, but we’re the only one taking the approach that we are. It’s not really fair for us to compare ourselves to them, because they have different motives, a different model. When it comes to independent clubs, we want to beat them. For us, the measuring stick is the independent clubs and how our guys stack up to them. In the last few years, we’re right up there with them.”
Real Monarch players are made aware right off the bat that the club has three objectives, each with equal importance. The first is to help the players get to the first team. The second, should a player not make the MLS roster, is to help them earn another professional contract in a good situation. The third is to win — no matter the opponent or setting.
The first point of the club’s vision shows that while they take a balanced approach, is doesn’t come at the expense of the developmental component. Even in this title-winning season, homegrown players like Holt, U.S. U-20 goalkeeper David Ochoa, and 22-year-old striker Douglas Martínez, an international for Honduras, all played leading roles. Competing against Championship opponents has helped all three to grow in 2019, and each could take on a key role for RSL in the future.
Success is usually emulated, so if Real Monarchs can continue to achieve in the USL Championship, expect more MLS clubs to take notice and set up their MLS2 sides in similar fashion, whether those sides ultimately reside in the second or third division.
(Cover Photo: David R. Lutman/Special To Courier Journal)more