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MLS Report

MLS-USL Partnership Increases Opportunities

Major League Soccer announced an ambitious partnership with the third tier of American soccer that could help younger players find the games they need to improve. But will it work?
BY Matt Thacker Posted
January 24, 2013
5:14 AM
One of Major League Soccer’s greatest challenges in developing players has been the lack of meaningful playing time for young reserves. MLS took a major step in addressing those concerns with Wednesday’s announcement of a multi-year partnership with USL Pro, the third tier of U.S. soccer. The agreement has been described as one of the most important in the league’s history.

The initial plan calls for interleague play between the 13 USL Pro teams and the MLS Reserve League teams. All 19 MLS teams will have a choice whether to have a team in the Reserve League or partner with a USL Pro affiliate.

“This partnership represents the first step in a long-term alliance between MLS and USL Pro to connect domestic professional soccer through a system that benefits player development, competition and the overall business of our sport,” MLS executive vice president of player relations and competition Todd Durbin said in a press release.

MLS created a reserve league in 2005. It allowed younger players like Chad Barrett and Jason Hernandez (see above image from 2005) earn playing time while they were fighting to find a place on the first-team squad. The league folded in 2008, but returned in 2011 after a two-year absence. Teams play only 10 matches. USL Pro teams will pair up with an MLS Reserve League team for a home-and-home series. Those interleague matches will count in the standings for both leagues.

Four MLS teams are expected to have USL affiliates this year. Sporting Kansas City has already announced an affiliation with Orlando City, while the New England Revolution will partner with the Rochester Rhinos. Local media reports also have the Philadelphia Union partnering with the Harrisburg City Islanders and D.C. United with the Richmond Kickers. Those MLS teams will send at least four players on a season-long loan to their affiliate.

The agreement provides exposure and perhaps financial benefits to USL, while the MLS players on loan will ideally have the opportunity to see meaningful playing time.

The partnership is in its early stages. As with all good ideas, the success or failure depends upon the execution. If MLS as a league and individual teams commit to making this work, it could very well turn out to be one of the most important developments in the history of the organization. If not, however, it will turn out to be just another misstep in an effort to develop players.

Matt Thacker (@MattTalksSoccer) is ASN's MLS Correspondent. He runs SoccerPerspectives.com.

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