MLS and USL PRO announce milestone player development agreement



Major League Soccer and USL-PRO announced a long-rumored player development partnership on Wednesday that will change the MLS development landscape in a significant way in the coming years.

Beginning in 2013, USL PRO and MLS Reserve League teams will take part in interleague play while soe MLS teams will establish exclusive affiliation deals with USL PRO teams. The affiliation deals will mean MLS teams can send as many as four reserve team players on season-long loans to their USL PRO affiliates.

“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 & Competition Todd Durbin said in a league-issued statement.  “Over the past several years, USL PRO has made great strides in restructuring their league in a manner that serves to complement the objectives of MLS.  This is a win-win for all involved, and it demonstrates our strong commitment to growing North American professional soccer at all levels.”

What exactly will the new partnership mean for MLS teams?

All 13 USL PRO teams will compete in the MLS Reserve Division, playing two games each against MLS opponents. The MLS teams that choose to have exclusive affiliations with USL PRO teams will not take part in the actual MLS Reserve Divisions (with those teams having four or more players in season-long loans with their USL Pro affiliate.

The arrangement means younger players who can’t break through into regular first-team MLS rotations can be loaned out to ULS PRO affiliates where, in theory, they can earn regular playing time that can help them develop. Prior to this agreement, younger players who couldn’t find regular first-team minutes were reduced to playing in reserve team matches against other MLS reserve teams filled with young and inexperienced players.

In theory, the USL PRO teams should not only provide playing time for some players, they should also provide better competition in reserve league matches. Their players will have the chance to impress MLS scouts, which should provide plenty of motivation to take these reserve matches seriously.

The new project has come together quickly, leaving some teams to sit out this year from the affiliate arrangement. At least four teams are poised to take part this year. D.C. United, New England, Philadelphia Union and Sporting Kansas City (with Orlando City) are all teams expected to have USL PRO affiliations that will lead to loan deals for young players.

Several more teams are expected to establish affiliations by 2014 as the newly reconstructed MLS Reserve League set-up is formulated and teams get a better sense of how USL PRO affiliates can help MLS teams.

What do you think of this development? Excited to hear that young MLS prospects will have a chance to earn regular first-team minutes in the USL PRO? Think MS needs to do more to help develop their young talent?

Share your thoughts below.

This entry was posted in Featured, Major League Soccer, USL. Bookmark the permalink.

66 Responses to MLS and USL PRO announce milestone player development agreement

  1. DCLee says:

    Great news!

  2. VCU says:

    DC United-Richmond Kickers ; Philadelphia Union-Harrisburg City Islanders ; Sporting Kansas City-Orlando City would be my guesses for all the affiliations and maybe Rochester Rhinos-New England? Anyway this news is MASSIVE for soccer in the US, great for developing younger players. Looking forward to seeing how it benefits the MLS.

  3. Nathan says:

    Can you clarify the loans to USL teams for exclusive affiliations? First you have “as many as four reserve team players” and then you write those teams will “hav[e] four or more players” on loan. So which is it: ≤4 players or ≥4 players?
    Second, teams with those affiliations will not get to field a reserve league team? So they’ll go from having 11 players getting some playing time (and being able to rotate those players) to having somewhere-around-four players getting more playing time (and against better competition). That sounds like a very significant drawback and I could see most teams preferring to field a reserve team. Are there other advantages or ways to get 2nd team players playing time that I’m missing?

    • Daniel says:

      From comments elsewhere it looks like an affiliation is at least 4 loaned out players, and that makes you not have a reserve team.

      • T-lover says:

        Most likely 6-7 players will be loaned out, in a affiliation.

        • Nathan says:

          Still seems like a disadvantage. A lot of teams use the reserve league matches to get playing time for their roster players in the 12-18 slots. Can’t loan those guys out. Also use it for players coming back from injury. Again, can’t loan those guys out. Not having a reserve team removes a lot of flexibility and has some significant disadvantages. If I were a GM, I’d keep my reserve team.

          • fischy says:

            That is the choice. I don’t how much most reserve players really benefit from reserve games, but the league was a good way for teams to see trialists during the season, and to see how Academy players do against pros….and a way for fans to see those kids play…for free. I’ll miss that with DC.

          • K-Town says:

            Playing time for players 12-18 are on the bench an sub minutes. I think you mean slots 19-24 ish that will not be on the bench or playin reserve league minutes. I hear you on that. However, I rather have six guys playing 25-30 meaningful games knowing hat scouts are also looking at their USL PRO teammates. The six guys on the bench can battle it out for a spot on the sub bench at practice. Not ideal, but good enough for now an better than slots 19-30 playing ten crap games.

            • Frank says:

              MLS teams can also schedule more friendlies with USL, NASL and college teams… But I agree with some of the others, right now I don’t understand this whole thing well enough.

              BTW, the Crew loaned out Aaron Horton to the Dayton Dutch Lions but recalled him before he had a chance to get any playing time. I wonder if that is still an option for teams wihtout formal partnerships.

            • Nathan says:

              You only have three subs. And usually there are a few that are used more frequently than others. GKs and defenders are very rarely subbed on except for injury, but those are the players you want sharp when they are called upon. And you don’t address players returning from injury. Zakuani needed those reserve league minutes last year. You can’t just throw him into a meaningful game. They also get used for trialists. But I guess my biggest question is why can’t teams have both? You can loan out players in the 20-30 range, loan out academy players, but still be able to field a reserve team to give minutes to 12-20, trialists, 1-11 returning from injury, and academy players (up to 5 per side according to current rules). Not all clubs could or would want to do both, but I don’t see a good reason to prevent clubs from doing it.

  4. Daniel says:

    I like it! I know Philly has been pioneering it with the Harrisonburg City Islanders, but United have also been building their partnership with the Richmond Kickers for some time as well. Does not surprise me to see both of those clubs in the list of early adopters.

    I like the level of play and that most teams in USL Pro aren’t ambitious to move up. Most teams in the NASL want to be in MLS, so that would have been difficult to make this type of thing work.

  5. Bobb says:

    USL Pro and their teams need to all higher graphic designers and create new crests, the current ones would look amateurish in the 1970s NASL.

  6. sly says:

    Great step. Naturally I need some more details. How many games will the reserve league play? I don’t know enough about USL PRO how many games do they play a season. So for a team is it best to have your best players play USL or the reserve league…

    I don’t see any negatives and more games and professionalism is best for the young players. But once it happens I’m calling it now I’ll be the first to ask for much more games.

  7. jimcrist says:

    good move to get younger fringe players lots and lots of minutes!

  8. Michael F SBI Mafia Original says:

    Like Nathan, I’m confused. Why would an MLS team agree to loan out four players if the consequence is not fielding a reserve team? So now the remaining reserve team, (lets assume an 18 man roster) has 14 players who don’t have anywhere to play?

  9. OPMG says:

    So the USL teams only play the MLS reserve teams twice? And that makes up their entire season of USL Pro? It seems a little unclear exactly how the league will be organized but this is a huge step for youth professional development. And with the added bonus of USL players getting exposure to MLS coaches and scouts, the level of competition/effort for each match should be fairly high.

    • Joe Soccer says:

      Last season the USLPro schedule was 24 games. There are two extra USLPro teams this year, so I don’t know if the plan was to increase the number of games or not. The two games against the reserves teams will either replace two games that would have already been scheduled or will just be added to the schedule in addition to the games that would have already been scheduled.

      Supposedly the USLPro schedule is supposed to be released soon, so it should become more clear exactly who is paired up with whom shortly.

    • fischy says:

      I don’t think you have it right. The USL will still exist, but their teams will compete in 2 leagues. At least, that’s my reading of it. Though, if they play 26-28 games against 13-14 MLS sides, this would be a pretty full season. So, maybe that’s it for the USL teams.

  10. futbol says:

    Reserve league is weak and not taken seriously… about half the roster were MLS benchwarmers and half the roster academy kids. It will be better for the MLS prospects on the younger side to gain some experience in USL Pro where the games are more meaningful and more of an opportunity to play.

    I think this is a good move structurally, since the leagues need a “feeder system” type of structure.

    I’m curious to see how MLS teams handle these players contracts, housing, etc. since I’m assuming they will be signed thru MLS.

    Also, from a competitive standpoint…if only 4 teams loan out MLS calibre players, then those 4 USL affiliates have a competetive advantage???

  11. Brian says:

    I like the idea of MLS reserve squads playing USL teams because it gives them more competition and hopefully more games. However, I hope this doesn’t evolve into USL teams being basically farm teams for the MLS clubs.

    The occassional loan is fine, but I think we want most of the young promising players training day-in/day-out in close proximity to the 1st team so the are exposed to high caliber competition even if they have to travel to get games.

  12. Camjam says:

    I’m having a hard time understanding….. According to this article “All 13 USL PRO teams will compete in the MLS Reserve Division, playing two games each against MLS opponents”. With the aforementioned 4 teams taking the affiliation road and being excluded, that leaves 13 MLS teams (I hear Chicago opted out). That makes a 26 game MLS team schedule for USL team, no? When will USL actually play each other?

    • Nathan says:

      *Each* USL PRO team will play two games against *a* MLS team, not *each* MLS team.

      • Camjam says:

        well that makes more sense then. In my defense, that was a Copy-Paste job, so I think the article was corrected afterward.

  13. beto says:

    sounds like a good deal. 11 USL teams + 15-19 MLS Reserve teams makes the third division a lot more relevant. With 24 teams, I wonder if they will break into divisions..

    Can the players play with the reserve team one week and then the first team the next week? I suppose that doesn’t work if they are part of the affiliate side? Seems like the better option would be to play with the MLS reserve team.

    Who is NE partnering with?

    • beto says:

      26 teams*

    • NateP says:

      I would like this, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening. For MLS teams keeping their reserves they get the same old 10 games against other reserves, plus maybe 2 (22 uslpro games vs reserves / 15 MLS reserve teams) more games vs USL teams. For the four teams using affiliates their loanees get 22 real games, but the rest of their reserves go back to the bad old days. Would much rather have a German or Spanish type system where the reserves actually join the 3rd division and play the full schedule.

  14. ed - houston says:

    sounds complex but optimistic about it. it’s a step in the right direction.

  15. el paso tx says:

    What’s so freaking hard about Nasl and Usl Pro going east and west like Mls, which would help every league to have connection between each other. Another important fun fact, next year 2014 should be a very important year for all soccer fans in the U.S. because Mls needs to make more moves like this,in order to get world cup 2026. Therefore by at least 2016 Mls, Nasl, UslPro should all be working together and should be on the same schedule like a happy family. Then why not change the name of the league to something like North America Premier League NAPL or (any other ideas) because sooner or later the cartoon name and logo of MLS should go bye bye.

    • Supsam says:

      What makes the name, MLS, a “cartoon name”? Is it because it doesn’t sound european enough since it doesn’t have the word, Premier League, in it?

    • eddie says:

      What makes the name MLS cartoonist? North America Premier League sounds like a copycat of the English Premier league. We’re not England and Americans don’t want to copy their model. Who said it’s the best model and the model America should mimic? Frankly I could care less about trying to be another EPL, with regard to look and feel. Americans are more interested in quality, professional product and sustainability.

      We live in America and should create our own identity while keeping with the traditions of the game. That doesn’t mean mimic other countries and surely not their naming convention. If there’s a fundamental or strategic method that will enhance the growth of the sport and it just so happens to come from England, then so be it. Otherwise let’s leave EPL in England and help develop the game in America.

    • Charles says:

      We should change it to:
      “We used to belong to the English” Premier League.

      To get it as close as we can for those “over glorifying and obsessed with looking like that league” people.

      Ps. Dont forget to change the schedule to winter. I think Chicago warmed up through the 16 degree mark yesterday !

  16. chris says:

    I hope in the future each MLS franchise has its own USL Pro team in a nearby smaller market. If it becomes say a 30 team league they can divide it into divisions and run it like an actual league. I think branding them as a different team instead of DC united reserves would help merchandise and attendance sales offset wages and everyday operations.

  17. Vic says:

    Why not just keep the existing 12 game MLS reserve teams league. In addition have the MLS teams play the USL teams maybe one time each season. That would give you a 25 game season. That would insure young MLS players would get playing time rather than competing for playing time against USL players.

    • fischy says:

      You overstate the Reserve League schedule. It’s very condensed, and many games are postponed but then never played. Teams play 9-10 games.

      • fischy says:

        Also, MLS teams would not be keen on all that costly travel to USL teams….and vice versa. The USL wants to keep its own schedule, not be merged into the MLS, playing a dozen or more games against MLS reserve sides. They like the idea of getting some good young players for free…and MLS teams can get the kids some meaningful games, instead of a random half here and there.

  18. Han Solo says:

    The USL teams will be playing their regular USL schedule, plus playing ONE MLS reserve team twice: home and away. If you head over to DEVO’s Direct Kicks, which covers the Rhinos, he says that they will be affiliated with New England and thus get some reserve players from the Revolution to play for the Rhinos. The Rhinos will play the Montreal Reserve Team twice this season.

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out. How many MLS teams will be affiliated the year and then how many will jump on the following year……

  19. Chris says:

    Well, there’s one team in the “L.A. area” that being the L.A. Blues who play in Fullerton, CA. (in O.C.) about 25 miles or so from downtown L.A. I wonder how that will work out? Will Chivas or the Galaxy send players there? Will both teams send players there? Cue a snarky anti-Chivas-related remark in… 5… 4… 3… 2…

  20. rick says:

    The article confused the crap out of me. But despite that fact, I get the feeling something good is happening. ha ha ha

  21. Let me be Frank says:

    This is a good start, but I would like to see an affiliation similar to the NBA and NBDL in the future. Teams pretty much “send down” and “recall” players as many times as they want I believe. It gets them experience and also gives the team the ability to get them back due to another player getting injured.

    • Joe says:

      MLS and USL left it up to the teams to decide the terms of the affiliation. For instance the Union and HCI has the agreement along the lines of this. The Union control and pay for their players and are free to be recalled at anytime back to the Union. It will allow the loaned players to train and play with HCI but are ready to be called back at anytime. This aspect should mean that an injured player close to returning can get some action before returning (wonder if they will Loan Freddy Adu out???). From what I have gathered the other 3 teams have somewhat similar agreements. For the Union it is beneficial to go this route as they already had an association with HCI, it is only about an 1 1/2 hour drive between the two stadiums and the reserve league team played their games in a field and not a pro surface.

  22. chris_thebassplayer says:

    Definitely a big step in the right direction. I just don’t understand why sending only 4 players and having an affiliation with a USL team would preclude having a reserve team. The more the merrier. Keep the reserves and have the flexibility to potentially rotate players from the reserves to the affiliated team…spread the USL experience around among the reserve players.

    • drew11 says:

      I like the idea of integrating MLS with independent USL clubs. It can only strengthen D3 while leaving those USL clubs in their communities. But then with MLS support does D3 become the de facto D2?

      The question is if this is really the start of something big or just another plan that never gets off the ground. Like the original MLS reserve league. Loaning only a few players does not inspire much confidence in me.

  23. jw7 says:

    So, all a MLS team has to do is establish an affiliate relationship with a D3 team, send them any four players on a long term loan and they get to drop all the current expenses of their failed MLS Reserve team league?

    And these “MLS” players will be developed better living hundreds of miles away from the D1 team and its coaching staff playing with D3 players all season long.

    What if the D1 player does not want to play in D3 USL Pro with a bunch of PDL players that could not find a pro team better than in D2 or D3? Then what choices does MLS provide for that player.

    I watched a few USL Pro games in person last year. I saw the Charlotte Eagles play Charleston on a high school turf football field the play was very sloppy and the teams very inconsistent overall.
    When was the last time you watched the Dayton Dutch Lions play?
    Better development than a young D1 player training with older more experienced first team members learning D1 roles and responsibilities from D1 coaching staffs? Really, you must be joking?

    I see this as a quick and easy way for the MLS to again drop it reserve league teams but this time they get to still talk about how they are involved in player development and they still get to keep control over a larger group of young US based players.

    If this is going to be such a great league for player development then lets wait to see just which four players the MLS teams send to this great development league. I’m betting Philly won’t be sending Freddy Adu to D3, now will they?

    • Alamo City Ultra says:

      Exactly. This is just the MLS trying to make it look like they are doing something without having to spend too much money. So much for wanting to be a top league by 2020. They may be one of the tops in attendance, but that is because we are so starved for soccer. Quality is no where close to English, Italian, or Spanish leagues and is perhaps light years away with developments such as this.

    • Tyler says:

      Sounds like someone has a little animosity towards UslPro… Did someone not make a team? Being in a professional enviornment and playing games reguraly is the point here. It might not be the most ideal situation but it will get better with time. Do you want all these homegrowns sitting on the bench not developing? Whats your great solution for all of this? Seems like your in the minority of thinking this is an awful idea.

      • Tyler says:

        Instead of just attack and be negative, how about you give of us your great idea of a reserve league since you are so knowledgable on the whole situation?

  24. Vic says:

    Negatives: Some MLS teams won’t have a reserve team in favor of sending 4 or more players to a USL team. That will affect players 12-18 on an MLS roster that use reserve league for more playing time. That will also affect top U-18 and U-16 players that were able to get some games with the reserve team.

    Positives: It will help the homegrown players that got very little time with the first team. It will help everyone on an MLS team that fields it own reserve team.

    Hopefully most if not all team will eventually field their own reserve teams. I assume it was part of the initial debate between the usual owners that want to spend more versus the ones that want to spend less. I’m guessing the current plan was part of the comprimise. There’s certainly hope though.

  25. The Imperative Voice says:

    I think MLS teams have often used reserve matches to get players at the tail end of the first team playing time. That is definitely not how a German team uses the reserves because they are literally separate sides. I’m not even sure that’s how a British team acts except with people way deep on the first team roster…..mind you, they have deep first teams.

    So I find it hard to get upset if the net effect is to make it harder to get work for players 15-20. I don’t think that’s traditionally what you use reserve teams for, is to get bench players PT. It’s more for people who are coming back from injury or too deep in the first team to even dress. Otherwise, they’d only suit up for something like the League Cup or the early FA Cup rounds.

    What it sounds like to me is a mix of reserve teams for some and something like the D-League for others. The D-League has done wonders in terms of career salvation for players like Jeremy Lin, who went down then came back up. There is no guarantee the major league loan players will stand out and earn back into the first team, but was there before? At least this way there is a real opportunity to play regularly, and I think regular PT is important for young players’ development and their psyche. Ideally, I think we need our own German style U23 sides,where a player remains in the organization and is groomed for the team style. But that’s expensive. MLS is lucky to be in the black just with major league teams. For now, this is a useful intermediate solution that puts into place what many teams were already doing ad hoc. This also expands the reserve-type season by integrating USL teams in, to the extent teams opt for reserves.

  26. XPK says:

    I hope the US soccer landscape doesn’t turn into the debacle currently facing the leagues in Scotland. If the USL-PRO and NASL and MLS all keep bickering about how to structure leagues in America going forward it could turn out poorly in the long-term.

  27. Roger4ProRel says:

    How long before the hand pass and the 3 points corner kick is implemented?

  28. WorldCitizen says:

    Here’s hoping this strengthens USL at the expense of the NASL as well. The whole NASL thing is frankly pretty flimsy; they have no TV (USL does, with FSC) and not much else going for them, whereas USL is a well-established organization that encompasses a broad umbrella of affiliated organizations from the youth level (Super Y-League) up to professional. The NASL owners thought it’d be bright to break away from USL to have more control over their revenues and such, but I can’t imagine they’re really doing any better than they were in USL. It’s too bad, because USL PRO would be broader and better with the NASL franchises on board, so I’m hoping this development deals a blow to the NASL and perhaps encourages those owners to reconsider their decision to “go rogue.”

  29. rh says:

    My son is going to a two-team combine for USL PRO, after being invited. He is quite a “younger player” as he is in HS. We have looked at playing in college as an option for him, but frankly he wants to play pro, and college soccer is not a path to that. We aren’t sure if USL PRO would be a path to it either, but to get combine experience vs. his major competition – players in their 20s – would be very beneficial when he goes to trials in Europe starting this summer.

    It would be very interesting if USL PRO becomes a path for truly younger players – 15 to 18 years old – to play at a pro level without the baggage of the “let’s make believe it’s developmental” academy. The two DA programs near us have terrible training, yet they are consistently in the top two spots in their academy league divisions. Sad that a kid realizes how bad the DA training is, and the USSF pundits ignore it.