On Wednesday, Real Salt Lake became the latest team to officially unveil their USL PRO team, as well as the stadium it will play in, next season. The Real Monarchs may have a name that is more or less unique but may not strike fear in opponents, but that's besides the point. They will have their own team.
This follows in the footsteps of the LA Galaxy, who got a jump on everybody else with their own USL PRO team, LA Galaxy II, this season, featuring former Chivas USA player Laurent Courtois for part of the season. Other teams have announced plans to also start USL PRO teams in 2015, particularly the Vancouver Whitecaps (no details yet) and the Montreal Impact (team will be called FC Montreal).
There's no known requirement for MLS teams to start USL PRO teams in the coming years. There is, however, a requirement for MLS teams to participate in the MLS-USL partnership, established in 2013.
The first year, Chivas USA was the only team in MLS to not do anything regarding the partnership. I've written about it before, and in the grand scheme of things, given the many, many problems with the club that year, worrying about fulfilling a planned relationship with a lower league is pretty low on the priorities list.
Still, CUSA remain the most reluctant team to be involved in the partnership. This season, they finally started playing reserve league games against USL PRO sides, but they sent zero players on loan to a USL PRO team this season (that's actually fewer than in 2013, when they sent one, goalkeeper Patrick McLain, to the then-LA Blues). They aren't the only team to not send players on loan (that I could find, I may have missed someone) to the USL PRO or NASL this season, as, perhaps coincidentally, RSL joins them on that list. But RSL has an incredibly well-run organization that is very close-knit. The same, obviously, can't be said for the Goats.
Next year, the MLS Reserve League is not expected to return, in anticipation of the next phase of the partnership, which will presumably require MLS teams to either establish affiliate relationships with existing independent USL PRO teams, or to set up their own. More teams will likely go the latter route ahead of next year, and others will be content to stick with affiliates for the time being. Either way, the organization currently known as Chivas USA will have to do something.
But this discussion so far ignores the actual benefits of having a partnership between the two leagues. In the past, MLS players on the lower end of the roster more often than not are signed, sit on the bench, perhaps see a bit of time, then are cut during or after the season. The next season, the same thing happens, with players just cycling through the league, seldom really seeing development and seldom getting second chances.
The point of the partnership, from MLS' side, is to help give developing players meaningful competitive minutes. In that respect, the partnership to date has been successful, as plenty of players are seeing playing time they simply wouldn't at an MLS level. While few of those players have subsequently broken out to be stars, with the notable exception of Sporting Kansas City's Dom Dwyer, I certainly can't think of circumstances in which it has halted a player's progression to date.
Now, there is a good question about whether USL PRO reps will really help those players at the end of the roster develop. If they can't hack it at the highest level, then dropping down the divisions, getting playing time, albeit against weaker opposition, may help them, but it may not help them ultimately make the leap to being regular MLS contributors. And that's a fair critique.
But think about some of the players on the end of Chivas USA's roster this season. Might it have been beneficial for players like Michael Nwiloh, Matt Dunn, and perhaps most importantly, Caleb Calvert, to play some real games? Sure seems like it would be time better spent than simply training with the team, and playing little to no competitive minutes for the first team.
The bottom line is that the new owners will need to ramp up their engagement in the MLS-USL partnership. Given the need to straighten out the MLS team's future, I certainly don't expect a USL PRO team in 2015, and maybe not even in 2016. But Chivas continue to put out a team that is simply not equipped to compete in MLS. Some of the issue is financial investment in MLS-caliber players, and some of it is that promising players don't see enough game time to improve, especially when the USL level is a good stepping stone for some of those promising players.
Either way, the path to success in MLS is increasingly showing to be factors outside the league itself. Will the next LA2 owners understand what that truly means? Here's hoping they do.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!