I was intrigued by MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s comment a couple of weeks ago to Reuters Soccer Blog when asked about the future of the relationship between MLS and the second-tier, independent USL: “USL is going through some transition on their own. . . I am not sure what the future holds for that league or our relationship with it. I do believe that we can only all benefit from a strong minor league and a strong connection between it and the major league in this country. I look forward to seeing how that progresses in the years ahead.”
We now know what he meant by USL’s “transition” and about not being sure “what the future holds” for the relationship between the two leagues: according to It’s Called Football, USL is for sale and MLS is interested in buying. I think it’s clear from Garber’s comment above what such a purpose would mean for MLS and USL: and no, it wouldn’t be the wet dream of a real pyramid structure of automatic promotion and relegation.
Instead, it’s clear from Garber’s earlier comment that USL would operate as a true “minor league”: a development platform for MLS that would increase the league’s footprint across the country, give it control over a much larger group of players, and provide MLS teams with development teams such as exists in the relationship between Major League Baseball franchises and their affiliated minor league team, who have agreements to send players back and forth as determined by the Major League franchise (within certain league rules).
I think it’s fairly clear that such a structure would have considerable benefits for the existing MLS teams. The decision to cut the reserve league last year and the limited roster sizes have been causing all sorts of problems for many teams, especially those competing in multiple tournaments. Having an affiliated minor-league team would have numerous benefits for both short-term roster playing-time and long term player development, as well as giving the league and MS teams control over many more players. The decision for MLS will really come down to whether they can afford to do this or not.
But what would such a transformation mean for fans of existing USL teams, many of whom are proud of the independence of their club, however small they are? Imagine if this had happened ten years ago: would Portland’s infamous Timbers Army supporters have grown the strength and identity they have if they had been a feeder team for an MLS club? Would such a change actually hurt the chances of the grassroots development of the sport nationwide, or is it a pipedream to think that an independent club structure could succeed here as it has in England (which has traditionally had far more club depth than any either country per capita)?