MLS Reserve League: A Test of League Strength

This is guest post by frequent TSG contributor Connor Walsh

In April 2005 Major League Soccer took the huge step of implementing the Major League Soccer Reserve Division, and its first match saw Chivas USA defeat San Jose 2-0. In 2008, amid a failing economy, the league was disbanded due to costs and organizational and logistical obstacles.

Fast-forward several months from now, March 2011. An only slightly better economy doesn’t seem to be affecting MLS on the corporate front.

The recently renewed Adidas sponsorship deal has been expanded so that the $200 million pact is worth $25 million per year through 2018. It replaces, mid-contract, a 10-year deal for $150 million, or $15 million a year — a 66 percent increase in annual value. Add two brand new franchises with their own stadiums (Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps FC), two other brand new stadia for existing teams (Kansas City Wizards and San Jose Earthquakes), with plans to add another franchise (Montreal) and yet another soccer specific stadium (Houston Dynamo) in 2012 and MLS is looking stronger.

Keep in mind the league makes $40 million a pop for a new franchise
fee (that’s $160 million over the course of the last two years).

Garber points to a return for reserve squads...

But enough of the numbers and statistics; this brings me to the reinstatement of the MLS Reserve League. Recent remarks by MLS commissioner Don Garber and MLS general managers and coaches suggest that with the new Adidas deal comes the revival of the reserve league. “The goal will be to make a very direct link between our academies, our reserve league, our youth programs with a lot of the other youth programs going on in this country,” said Garber.

An unnamed source within the league said that there is currently a lot of talk about reorganizing the reserve league into regions, probably East, Central, and West, which makes for an interesting schedule; a double round-robin of 10 games each.

But that creates problems of its own, as some officials want more than 10 games. After all, the full teams play three times that amount. But more than 10 games would likely require traveling beyond the regional “limits” which increases costs and would likely require a team to stay longer at away games so that reserves can play their match, which was usually on a Sunday morning or afternoon following the full team’s Saturday evening match.

The revival of a reserve league likely means an increase in roster size for the full side, which is something else both coaches and fans have been calling for. Most are hoping that the old problems don’t rear their ugly faces, as assistant coaches and semi-pros were sometimes needed to help fill out a game.

“While you could argue that having a reserve league is better than nothing, the way it was set up really limited what you could do,” said Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid. “There wasn’t enough time to work with those players and not enough games.

“You need 16 or 18 players, and a coaching staff primarily for that team, and a support staff. We didn’t have that. Then you had to keep track of a guy’s minutes so you didn’t go over the limit.”

An important part of the reserve league would be making sure that every team in the league can support one.

MLS is a growing league, but still quite young and financially, it’s a question mark. Only two teams in 2009 finished in the green (Seattle and Toronto). Adding a reserve team means adding players, staff, and coaches specifically for the team. More players and staff requires more money to pay them and adds to travel expenses for matches.

The last thing most GM’s want to see is increased expenses. A way around this foreseeable problem could be to take the more successful and profitable clubs and let them develop a reserve league amongst themselves for the first year. This ensures that the financially “weaker” teams in the league don’t take a hit, while at the same time allowing the league to iron out any issues before expanding into the whole of the league.

How important is the reserve league?

Consider this: last season’s Mexican Primera Division Ballon de Oro winner and American World Cup forward Hurculez Gomez came through the reserve league, as did Real Salt Lake defensive stalwart Nat Borchers.

Why is a reserve league so crucial?

Let’s examine some names synonymous with U.S. Soccer, but not with Major League Soccer. Luis Gil, the 16-year-old who starred for the U.S. U17 side and reportedly spurned an opportunity to join the Arsenal FC academy to join MLS this past February, has yet to appear in any regular season matches. He was loaned to USSF Division 2 side AC St. Louis to get some games, but the problem with that is that he must now get used to an entirely different system and players than the one Jason Kreis uses in Salt Lake.

The case of Jack Mac...

Another U.S. youth star is Jack McInerney (18) of the Philadelphia Union. While he has made 14 appearances with the full side and scored a couple of goals, he has yet to play a full 90 minutes, save when he was loaned to the Harrisburg City Islanders, a USL-2 club.

Francisco Navas, Juan Agudelo, Amobi Okugo, and Omar Salgado are other U.S. youth stars who find themselves languishing on the benches, or in the case of Salgado, without even a bench to sit on. Those three players have shown promise at the U.S. U20 level, but Navas (18) has only made one appearance with the Houston Dynamo, Agudelo (17) is cap-less with the New York Red Bulls, Okugo (18) has made 9 appearances for the Philadelphia Union, but only two as a starter, and Salgado (17), who was expelled by Chivas de Guadalajara when he chose to play for the USA, has been club-less since July.

While I don’t expect that these players should be regular starters for their clubs, the lack of a reserve league only serves to stunt their growth. Most of the time, these players only see time in the early stages of the U.S. Open Cup.

Steve Davis said it best on his blog: “So now, clubs around MLS can better appreciate the full value of reserve matches. They see good, young players languishing on the bench with nowhere to go.

“The young talent won’t get any better without matches. But the decreasing percentage of teams that qualify for the playoffs means managers will be increasingly reluctant to put the youngsters first-team minutes with so much on the line. So, the young guns are stuck.”

But not only is it the youth who would benefit, but older players who aren’t fit for first team action could be sent to mentor the youth and get game time with the reserves, in a much less pressure filled environment. Teams in Europe have players who regularly make the 18 or 21 man game day roster, but see no time. Those players feature with the reserve side to keep them game fit and ready if called upon.

It’s got to be relaxing as a coach when you can be reassured that if a first teamer gets injured or, in the case of MLS, will miss time due to international competition, that the players behind him are game fit and focused away from the training pitch.

What about college players? Does adding a reserve league system mean more players leaving the college game to try their luck in the pro ranks? Probably so.

To be honest, I’m fine with it. The college soccer system is flawed and doesn’t even follow the same rules and/or guidelines of FIFA. By the time some of the collegiate systems best players enter MLS they are 22-23, which takes away 4-5 years of growing into a professional player and really learning the fundamentals of the professional game and on occasion the international one. Clubs and reserve teams in Europe are riddled with players around the ages of 17-22. Where most of our best players spend years in a more academic laden environment at universities, top European players enter academies at very young ages and play with that clubs academy sides until they are old enough to sign a professional contract. Take Sebastian Lletget, a U.S. U20 starlet, who has been training for around 4 years with West Ham United’s youth squads, and just several days ago signed a professional contract with the club.

The theme is simple: the future of MLS, and more importantly, the U.S. National Team, is consistently riding pine. The addition of the MLS Reserve League gives important minutes to young players at a time when their minds are at their best for learning. The more games that these players can get, with familiar faces and under the direction of their clubs coaches, the better that it will be for both Major League Soccer and the United States National Team.

As the old saying goes, the only time we know that we’ve really got something, is when it’s taken away.

The opportunities from reserve matches could produce a shot with the first team, thus making first team players better because of the pressure from below. The youth needs incentive to work hard in practice, and what better than starring for your reserve team and getting a shot with the first team?

The reserve league is a win-win, both for the league and for the players themselves. The leagues gets to nourish the future stars of the league and national team, and the players gain experience and are given incentive to push the guys in front of them outside of training.

“We need a place for our academy players to play when they get a little bit older and if it’s set up right they can even train with the reserve team once in a while,” said Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerway. “It’s a natural extension to the academy system that the league has set up and I think it will be a great step for the league.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Ryan R. on 2010/09/15 at 2:58 PM

    Nailed it, Connor.

    You focused on the impact the reserve league has on MLS, but we discussed before how important it is to the USMNT as well. With FIFA tightening the rules on youth players going abroad, even to youth academies, there isn’t an opportunity for a top young player to go and play in the Arsenal, West Ham, Cardiff, Hoffenheim, etc. youth academy and develop there anymore. Hell, Omar Salagdo couldn’t go to the Vancouver youth academy.

    So, if the top US players can’t go abroad to develop and really are too good for the ODP program or youth clubs playing in the Development program, it’s Bradenton (which can only take so many players) or languishing on a MLS bench doing nothing. Now, these top players can turn pro at 16 or 17 and not have their growth stunted by sitting on the bench. I mean, if you go to MLS, 10-15 reserve matches plus daily training with Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Edson Buddle, Gregg Berhalter, etc. and the occasional cup match is a quality way to develop. That’s something that can help the young players really grow and will keep our young players from being left without a home, which was a real possibility with FIFA not allowing them to go abroad anymore.

    Reply

  2. Spot on. Just like with academies, you’re not going to see immediate results. However, Colorado built much of their club through the reserve league and you listed some of the players that had benefitted from PT in the reserve league. As MLS continues to emphasize the signing of youth players, then those players need a venue to improve. The reserve league is just that.

    If Adidas, MLS, and its clubs stick with the reserve league for at least 10 years, then everyone will benefit immensely.

    Reply

  3. I am thrilled that the reserve league is coming back; I just hope that the owners keep funneling enough money towards it to make it worthwhile. There are examples of many corporations on the planet failing to take advantage of a wonderful thing due to poor implementation at the outset.

    Your point about having only the financially viable franchises taking a crack at it the first couple of seasons is a good idea, though with fewer clubs doing this the travel expenses would likely increase over the regional model.

    You mention that the academy and reserve team would have separate coaches and players, but does it need to be this way in the beginning? Sure you don’t want 14 year-olds with their peach fuzz and cracking voices going up against Pablo Mastroeni if he’s recovering from injruy, but a handful of the clubs have U-19 teams competing in the USSF Developmental Academy so they’d be perfect for this new reserve league. Plus there are already coaches in place for those clubs, which makes funding less of an issue. I realllize that the reserves are suppposed to be more professional than a developmental academy, but it would be a nice way to baby-step into this.

    I’m hoping this time around that the reserve league isn’t soo structured (as mentioned in the article above) that players can only play a certain amount of minutes, etc. MLS needs to do this correctly, possibly let teams have a squad size of 35 players which gives you 18 first teamers and 17 reserve players on match day, let kids from the academy step up and play in a few of the reserve matches without forcing them to be in a professional contract (though there would have to be something covering both club and player in the event of an injury) so clubs could take a peek and see if someone is ready or not, and I’m sure there are some other things they could do to make this good for everyone involved.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Mike on 2010/09/27 at 7:45 PM

    Just because a handful of players came through the first edition of the reserve league doesn’t mean it wasn’t a disaster. Players did not get enough games and the games they played were glorified scrimmages. It deserved the scrapping it got and it should not be revived.

    I’m all for MLS teams starting up academies. I’m all for MLS teams loaning out recent draftees to D2 and D3 clubs, or to foreign leagues. But the league isn’t going to execute on a reserve league any better than it did a few years ago. It’s a bit like Communism – sounds good on paper, doesn’t work in real life.

    MLS would do much better to foster strong D2 ad D3 leagues (D3 being regional). If it accomplished that, then it would have legitimate, competitive leagues into which it could enter reserve teams several years down the road.

    Reply

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