The 2015 USL season is in the books, with the Rochester Rhinos finishing as champions at home on Friday, beating LA Galaxy II. With the season over, I thought it would be a good time to look back at the three groupings of teams in the league, and compare their performances this season.
Bear in mind, of course, two major caveats. With so many new teams, 13 total out of 24, the standard narrative of expansion teams doing poorly their first season must be thrown out the window. There's no question experienced teams had an edge, with a full two-thirds of playoff teams this year having at least a year of experience under their belts, but first-year teams did see some success as well.
And second, of course the objectives between MLS2 teams and those owned by non-MLS groups remain vastly different. For the MLS2 teams, their primary objective is to give young players time on the field and to help rehab first-teamers who were hurt or not getting many minutes in MLS, not necessarily to shoot up the standings and win trophies. For the independent teams, of course they're looking to win first and foremost in order to keep their local market interested in the team. That said, a quarter of playoff entrants this year were MLS2 teams, so there was still a desire to win at least among some of the clubs, and all but one of the teams were in their first season.
First, the independent teams, with no formal affiliate agreement:
|Team||Regular Season finish||Playoff finish|
|Orange County Blues||1st, Western Conference||Conference semifinals|
|Colorado Springs Switchbacks||3rd, Western Conference||First round|
|Pittsburgh Riverhounds||5th, Eastern Conference||First round|
|Tulsa Roughnecks||7th, Western Conference||DNQ|
A pretty good success rate for these clubs, with three of the four qualifying for the playoffs, the fourth just missing out. But none of these clubs could reach the final four, let alone the final, and as the smallest group of the three in USL, the sample size may make their accomplishments look a bit better than the other two groups. Still, not having the obligation to bring in players on loan from an MLS side didn't dampen their outlook, probably helping in team cohesion overall and keeping the squad players motivated week to week. And the team that did bring in a few MLS loanees outside of affiliate agreements, Colorado Springs, will likely have a more official relationship with an MLS team next year, I'd wager, as they barely put a foot wrong in their first season despite really having no hype leaguewide when they entered.
What about the independent affiliate clubs?
|Team||MLS affiliate||Regular season finish||Playoff finish|
|Rochester Rhinos||New England Revolution||1st, Eastern Conference||Champions|
|Louisville City FC||Orlando City SC||2nd, Eastern Conference||Conference finals|
|OKC Energy FC||Sporting Kansas City||2nd, Western Conference||Conference finals|
|Charleston Battery||Houston Dynamo||3rd, Eastern Conference||Conference semifinals|
|Sacramento Republic FC||San Jose Earthquakes||4th, Western Conference||First round|
|Richmond Kickers||D.C. United||6th, Eastern Conference||First round|
|Charlotte Independence||Colorado Rapids||7th, Eastern Conference||DNQ|
|Harrisburg City Islanders||Philadelphia Union||8th, Eastern Conference||DNQ|
|Saint Louis FC||Chicago Fire||9th, Eastern Conference||DNQ|
|Austin Aztex||Columbus Crew SC||9th, Western Conference||DNQ|
|Arizona United SC||FC Dallas||10th, Western Conference||DNQ|
|Wilmington Hammerheads||New York City FC||12th, Eastern Conference||DNQ|
So exactly half of the affiliated teams reached the postseason. Bear in mind that five of the six qualifiers were not new teams (only Louisville City managed that from this group of new clubs). It must be said that some teams had far more (or less, really) influence from on-loan MLSers than others. Sac Republic, for example, didn't get any Quakes loanees until the final weeks of the season. Wilmington, meanwhile, had one game that was effectively NYCFC going by a different name, but really had little other loan action the rest of the season.
It will be interesting to see how the affiliate relationships change next season. Several MLS teams are starting their own USL teams next year, so we'll see if the affiliate relationships shift again for 2016. And it will be interesting to see if any partnerships really elevate the affiliate agreements or if the trend to send fewer MLS players away to USL teams will continue next year.
And finally, the performance of the MLS2 teams:
|Team||Regular season finish||Playoff finish|
|New York Red Bulls II||4th, Eastern Conference||Conference semifinals|
|LA Galaxy II||5th, Western Conference||Finalists|
|Seattle Sounders 2||6th, Western Conference||First round|
|Portland Timbers 2||8th, Western Conference||DNQ|
|FC Montreal||10th, Eastern Conference||DNQ|
|Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2||11th, Western Conference||DNQ|
|Toronto FC 2||11th, Eastern Conference||DNQ|
|Real Monarchs SLC||12th, Western Conference||DNQ|
It must be said that the conference placings are a bit misleading, as Real Monarchs, the worst team in the West, finished with a better points total than Montreal and Toronto. But the lesser emphasis on results at the USL level seems borne out by the placing of the MLS2 teams, with only three of eight reaching the playoffs. Of course, seven of eight were new teams, so maybe more time will help them move up the table in the years to come.
I don't think one can make a year-to-year prediction that fully independent teams will perform best, affiliated independents will be in the middle, and MLS2 teams will on average perform worst. Instead, I'd offer this as a one-year snapshot of the main groupings of USL teams and see how the trends move over time, as well as how the league itself changes over time. Ultimately, we'll likely see more independent clubs, more MLS2 teams, and just a few affiliates in a few seasons, I'd wager. How will that tilt the competitive balance overall?
What do you think? Leave a comment below!