MLS's partnership gives USL Pro a path to bright future

USA TODAY Sports

With LA Galaxy II launching this year and potentially a model, the future for USL Pro may not be bold, but it could be bright.

When the LA Galaxy signed Raul Mendiola and Bradford Jamieson to Homegrown Player contracts this past offseason, it was the continuation of an expanding trend. With their signings, the Galaxy have now promoted four players from their academy ranks in the past couple years alone and they now have a league-high five Homegrown Players on their roster.

No MLS team has been more aggressive with these types of signings.

For a team that lists "winning MLS Cup" as a realistic goal virtually every season, this strategy might seem strange. After all, these five players are all 22 years old or younger and four are still teenagers, ages at which few are ready to contribute at the senior level.

Thing is, the Galaxy won't expect most of them to. Rather, aside from possibly Gyasi Zardes who claimed a regular spot in the starting lineup last year and will likely do so again in 2014, the crop of Homegrown Players will be cutting their teeth in the third-division USL-Pro on a team owned and operated by the Galaxy.

The LA Galaxy II, as they will be called, are what amount to a test-case for an expanding partnership between MLS and USL Pro that could dramatically change the face of American soccer.

"Our goal is to eventually fill the roster with Homegrown players," Galaxy President Chris Klein said. "We know we're not there yet but we'd expect guys like Bradford Jamieson, Jack McBean, Oscar Soto and Raul Mendiola to get significant minutes with this team. It's a proving ground for them as well."

In 2013, the first year of the partnership, MLS teams could either continued to field a team in the MLS-run Reserve League or partner with a USL Pro team. The main component of the partnership would see MLS teams loaning at least four players.

What the Galaxy are doing is obviously something far more extensive and could well become the model to which other MLS teams aspire. The Galaxy will effectively run their USL Pro team as their reserve squad, using it to get players on the senior team minutes, give injured players a chance to work back into form and, of course, provide an opportunity to their own youngsters. But unlike a traditional reserve squad, Galaxy II will have the capability to have its own dedicated roster. So instead of a player like Soto taking up a valuable senior roster spot -- despite not playing a single regular-season minute during his rookie year -- he can be given time to develop, while also getting game experience.

The Galaxy can also use unsigned players from their academies in USL Pro games, as long as those players are not yet enrolled in college.

In other words, the Galaxy hope to avoid the predicament several other teams have faced after signing players from their academies: Cutting a teenager before he's really had a chance to develop.

"These players are players we think very highly of but we couldn't get adequate games," Klein said. "So when MLS started talking with USL Pro, we thought that was a great option."

***

As great as the potential is for MLS in this partnership, USL Pro stands to gain just as much, if not more.

It was only a four years ago that the USL was on shaky ground. A host of teams had just split off and created their own league, which would eventually become the reborn NASL. As a response, USL Pro was born by combining the remaining USL 1 and the existing USL 2 teams into one league.

The first couple of seasons were a bit rough. Even before the first season kicked off, three teams based in Puerto Rico dropped out. The following season, FC New York folded. What was originally planned as a 15-team league was down to 11 teams in the span of about a year.

The MLS partnership has proven to be a lifeline.

Galaxy II were one of three new teams to enter the league in 2014 and, despite two more teams dropping out this year, the league will feature 14 squads spread out all over the United States. All but three of those teams will be affiliated with a MLS club.

"We're in a vastly better place," USL President Tim Holt said. "We couldn't even make a comparison to where we were 24 months ago."

Where they are is still far from ideal, but it's at least at a point where it is sustainable. A handful of teams now play in their own stadiums and a few those are even operating in the black, something that has been particularly rare in the world of lower-division American soccer.

Whatever stigma may come from USL Pro literally becoming a feeder league doesn't seem to be a problem in Holt's eyes.

"There's no aspect of our business plan that had us competing with Major League Soccer or trying to become their rival," said Holt, a statement that is quite different than what his NASL counterpart has said. "There's one major league of professional soccer in North American and it's MLS.

"Our goal hasn't changed. We wanted to be the strongest, best operated league in support of Major League Soccer in the United States. That's what drives us."

***

Strange as it may sound, the USL actually traces its history back to 1985. That's more than 10 years older than MLS. The league has gone through quite a bit of a change in that time. Teams have come and gone with alarming regularity and the organization has expanded to one that oversees the game played indoor and outdoor and by women, men, professionals and amateurs.

In some ways, this latest evolution may be the most important, not just for the USL, but for the greater American soccer pyramid.

For the first time, there's a very clear sense of permanence. Money is being invested into USL Pro, specifically, and not just because owners see it as a path to MLS. The Galaxy are already spending about $1 million on their team this year. The New York Red Bulls have announced that they intend to launch their own USL Pro team as well. It's not hard to see at least a handful of teams following suit by 2015 and probably a lot more in the subsequent years.

A couple years ago, it seems absolutely crazy that USL Pro could have 30 or 40 teams. But it seems almost realistic now. By next season, there could be as many as 20 teams. Once a boondoggle best explored only by eccentric millionaires with money they were dying to waste, lower-division American soccer actually seems to have the potential to be a sustainable business.

This partnership with MLS is a major reason why.

MLS, of course, is not just doing this out of the goodness of its teams' collective hearts. The LA Galaxy clearly see a potential competitive advantage in doing things this way. Other teams will follow. Teams will no longer need to choose between trusting someone else to help develop their Homegrown Players or allow them to languish on their benches. There's a very real possibility that the entire development system, from lower-division all the way to the national team will stand to benefit.

Sure, it doesn't look right by a world standard, but it makes sense in the arena of American professional sports. More importantly, it's here to stay. Given our history, stability feels pretty good

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