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Why MLS 2 Teams Are Not Bad For USL

The 2015 season is a historic one for the USL for many reasons. Aside from having a new name and twelve new teams, this season is the first year in which more than one MLS team has a team in USL. In fact, there are eight MLS owned USL teams, or MLS 2 teams. This development has been years in the making. In past seasons, MLS Reserve League teams competed against USL clubs in addition to playing against teams within their league. MLS-USL club affiliations have been on the rise for the past several seasons, and this year all 20 teams in MLS are either affiliated with a USL side or have a USL club of their own.

This seems like a sign of progress for USL, but everyone does not seem to be excited. I’ve read rumblings all over social media about the, allegedly negative, impact MLS teams are having on USL, so I decided to do some investigating.

First, I identified exactly what the complaints where about. Although I read a wide range of opinions, here are a few often repeated ones. Several people are upset that some MLS 2 teams have loaned 11 players on the day of a game. Others claim that loaned players should be required to remain at one team for specified increments of time rather than constantly going back and forth between MLS and USL clubs. Some assert that the actions of the MLS 2 teams are turning USL into a new form of the MLS Reserve League. Another theory exists that MLS 2 teams could potentially send an entire squad of MLS quality players on loan during USL playoffs. After my research, I’ve concluded that there is no reason for such fears.

Since many of these complaints mention the MLS reserve league, I began my research there. According to the 2013 MLS Reserve League rules, any player on a club’s MLS roster could compete in the reserve league, but there were stipulations about how long a player could play in reserve league and MLS games that occurred within 60 hours of each other. Although trialists were allowed to compete in the reserve league, they were not allowed to feature in any match against a USL team. Reserve league rosters could have a maximum of five academy players, a maximum of 5 non-MLS players, and a maximum of 3 trialists. Each team had to turn in a preliminary roster three business days ahead of the game that included 10 trialists or academy players who could potentially compete, and at least five of the players from the preliminary roster were required to play in the match. Hence, there were six vacant spots on the roster that could be filled with any player on the club’s MLS roster.
In 2014, only the New York Red Bulls, Chivas, FC Dallas, Chicago Fire, Montreal Impact, Seattle Sounders, Colorado Rapids, and Real Salt Lake had teams in the reserve league. In theory, Real Salt Lake could have sent Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, 5 academy players, and 4 non-MLS non trialists players compete against a USL side. Did any of these teams actually do that? Since the reserve league, MLS, and USL all overlapped, teams rarely sent regular MLS starters to reserve league games against USL teams. I do remember seldom instances when a reserve team match versus a USL team fell on the MLS team’s bye week, and a higher number of top flight player competed against USL sides, but that was certainly not normal. Out of the 26 matches in 2014 between USL and reserve teams, the reserve teams only won 31% of the time. Regardless of who was on the roster, these reserve teams did not prove to be overwhelming completion for USL teams.

It is my theory that MLS reserve teams did so poorly against USL teams in 2014 for two reasons:
1.      They did not make a practice of sending regular MLS starters to compete in reserve league matches.
2.      The reserve league teams, by nature, were an amalgam of players from the MLS team’s academy and elsewhere. Although at least some of the team members undoubtedly practiced with each other, it is quite likely that the teams did not necessarily have permanent members. If they did have permanent members, there were probably some players who were not always with the team. Hence, these teams lacked cohesiveness. When teams did send regular MLS starters to the reserve league roster, the additions contributed to the non-cohesiveness. A recently put together team will always have a disadvantage over a team that has been practicing and playing together for several games.
Although MLS is more involved with USL than it was last season, MLS teams are still following the same patterns from last year. MLS is their priority. With all due respect to USL, these clubs gain significantly more revenue from MLS and other more lucrative competitions. For example, the only USL team that has yet to win one game is FC Montreal, which is owned by the Montreal Impact. Montreal Impact was focusing on the CONCACAF Champion’s League for most of this season. This could be a coincidence, but it’s worth noting. With the MLS season in full swing, it’s highly unlikely that any MLS club will send its most valuable players to compete in USL.

Concerns about the playoffs still have not been addressed, but a statement from Nicholas Murray, USL Associate Director of Communications, quells any fears of uneven competition. Murray said:

There is currently no limit on the number of players that can be loaned from an MLS side to its USL partner, whether that is a second club that is run by the MLS club or an outside partner. Over the course of last season, 16 players from the LA Galaxy spent time with the LA Galaxy II, with the amount of time spent ranging from 23 games for the likes of young standout Oscar Sorto to one game for regular first-team players like Gyasi Zardes and Marcelo Sarvas.

There are no specific rules on which MLS players can be sent on loan to a USL side. Earlier this season we had the example of LA Galaxy standout AJ DeLaGarza appearing for Los Dos as he made his return from injury. There are rules in place, however, concerning playoff eligibility, where a player must have made at least five appearances in the USL in the regular season, with one of those contests having to have come prior to the roster freeze, which this year is on September 1.

Hope this has clarified the mechanisms that are in place to make sure we keep competition in the USL at its highest possible level, and provide a great level of entertainment on the field for our fans this season and in the future.

It is perfectly legal under USL rules for a full squad of players to be loaned from and MLS team to an MLS 2 team, or to a USL affiliate, for one game. Although some may not agree with that rule, I see that as no source of undue threat for USL teams. As mentioned earlier, an MLS team is highly unlikely to send top notch players to USL in the middle of the MLS season. If your favorite USL team is about to play Seattle Sounders II, I can pretty much assure you that Clint Dempsey won’t show up in your local stadium. As shown by the results of the 2014 reserve league matches against USL sides, teams that have been training with other people and are suddenly sent to play a match together aren’t likely to succeed often.

For any player to compete in the USL playoffs, they have to be with a team before September 1st and stay with that team for the remainder of the season. They would also have to have played in at least one game before September 1st. For an MLS 2 team (or a USL team affiliated with an MLS team) to include regular MLS starters in USL playoff rosters, the MLS team would have to agree to go without their best players from September 1st to the end of the USL playoffs. During the month of September, MLS teams are focused on gaining those last necessary points to qualify for the MLS playoffs. Why would any team allow their best players to go on a long term loan at such a crucial time?

There are rules in place to ensure that USL competition is fair. As I see it, MLS involvement only helps both leagues. MLS players are getting playing time that they could never get otherwise, and USL teams are getting free reinforcements.

The current season statistics further prove that MLS 2 teams do not pose any greater threat than any other team to other USL sides. The following chart shows the percentage of its games each USL club has won this season.

Percentage of games won
Rochester Rhinos
Charleston Battery
Richmond Kickers
Harrisburg City Islanders
St. Louis FC
Louisville City FC
Pittsburgh Riverhounds
Charlotte Independence
New York Red Bulls II
Wilmington Hammerheads FC
Toronto FC II
FC Montreal
Sacramento Republic FC
Seattle Sounders II
Austin Aztex
Orange County Blues
Los Angeles Galaxy II
Portland Timbers II
Arizona United
Colorado Springs Switchbacks
OKC Energy
Tulsa Roughnecks
Vancouver Whitecaps II
Real Monarchs
League Average:
MLS 2 Average:
Non-MLS 2 Average:

If anything, MLS 2 teams seem to be less threatening opponents than other clubs. As of May 11, MLS 2 team have set a record of winning less than their other USL counterparts.

MLS 2 teams are new to this league have to abide by the rules just like any other team. Although and MLS 2 team could send top MLS players to the USL, why would they?

Am I ignoring something? Do I need to consider some other side of the issue? I would love to hear your comments on this controversial topic!

--Marissa Blackman

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