Commentary / USL / USL - Bethlehem Steel FC

How much does the USL actually matter?

Photo: Jamie Heim

There are a few different ways to look at Bethlehem Steel FC’s 0-0 draw with Louisville over the weekend. Let’s start with the easy ones.

Louisville City, which won the United Soccer League last season and are currently sitting second on the table, were on the road. It’s over 10 hours to Bethlehem by bus and a draw will do just fine. It was hot and muggy. We’ll take the point. Conversely, the Steel were playing in those conditions against a much better side. If they want to sit back and play for a draw, we can do that too. We’ll always take a point against tough competition.

And that’s what happened. A few chances here, a few yellow cards there, and each club walks away with a nice point. Except, what does that point actually mean? I’m not referring to team record or table position. In the grand scheme of things, what does that point actually mean?

It recently occurred to me that it means nothing.

Top sides

Louisville City is actually a great example of a very good team in a league that has a promising future. It starts with the market size. The metro area of Louisville has well over a million people in it and would be fit for an MLS franchise. When you look at some of the current USL cities and those joining the league soon, that’s not the case. Louisville has a large sports following and some big-time businesses. There won’t ever be an MLS team in El Paso or Charleston.

The only thing Louisville needs now is a soccer-specific stadium, which it’s working on. Playing in a baseball stadium ultimately won’t cut it, despite the likes of New York City Football Club and others. Louisville will eventually be an MLS franchise. It simply doesn’t matter where they finish on the USL table.

With clubs of that size, in a prime location like that, is the primary goal even to win? I don’t think it is. The primary goal is to gain exposure, grow the club, and reach MLS. Sure, winning can go hand-in-hand with that sometimes, but not always. In the eyes of MLS, a large-market club playing in a soccer-specific stadium is far more attractive than a winning club that scores goals in left field.

On its road to MLS and in the big picture, Louisville’s draw with the Steel this past weekend got them no closer or no further away to the ultimate goal. That’s because in its current structure, the USL matches don’t matter enough.

What about FC Cincinnati and Nashville? Two other strong teams in the league that have already been confirmed for MLS. The remaining matches they’ll play in the USL don’t matter. MLS won’t revoke their new membership if one of them finishes 9th in the East.

Let me be clear: player development matters, and that’s what a lot of these clubs are doing. The games matter to the players and to the coaches. They matter to everyone working at these clubs. But in terms of competitive nature, looking at it from a fan’s view, the individual matches don’t mean enough. They don’t change anything. There are no penalties for losing, no consequences of major injures, no accountability.

Richmond

I’m going to pick on the Richmond Kickers for a bit, not because I have anything against them, but because they’ve already played in the area three times this season. They also make a decent contrast to Louisville City. Richmond just sneaks into the top 100 largest cities in the country. When you look at upcoming MLS bid cities, it’s tough to picture a club from Virginia in the league. The reality is most USL sides won’t move up.

But the Kickers, in a recent 5-0 loss to the Union in a U.S. Open Cup match, did something interesting: they played a B lineup. At first, it didn’t make sense to me. Here they are playing an MLS side in an MLS stadium and they aren’t going to field their best players? Wouldn’t they want to win? It’s reminiscent of major European countries, where large clubs will start young talent and rest regulars in cup matches and focus on the league. Over there, the league really matters.

Here? It seems very silly to do what the Kickers did. They got swamped by an MLS side and have lost to the Steel by a combined 7-2 this season. Would it look better if they were at the top of the USL table? Probably, but it wouldn’t change a thing. The way I see it is you either have MLS potential as a club or you don’t. There are a ton of Richmond-esque teams in the USL that are too small to move up and won’t ever make national headlines. They may produce an MLS talent that gets a chance here or there but, in the end, what is the ceiling? How do they grow?

There are hundreds of small clubs throughout England and while they may be in a similar boat, the opportunity is still there. Play well enough, get promoted to the next league, gain exposure, grow. It works the other way, too. Don’t play well enough, get relegated, take a step back. That kind of fluctuation and constant pressure is lacking in the USL. Losing doesn’t matter.

Affiliates

Bethlehem Steel fall into the third category of clubs in the USL – affiliates. Some are consistently good, like NYRB II, some are particularly bad at the moment, like Toronto FC II, and some are more like the Steel. All of them are always under surveillance and most of the major decisions will come from the parent club. For that reason and more, winning matters even less to these teams. They literally aren’t built for it.

Think about Steel coach Brendan Burke’s job. He’s not judged by wins and losses. He reports back to Union staff constantly and is in place to develop talent. Hell, he doesn’t know what players he’ll have to choose from until the day before a match sometimes. It’s the exact opposite of Union coach Jim Curtin, whose job (only seemingly at this point) is directly related to his record. If the Union lose, he didn’t do a good enough job. If the Steel lose, the players just aren’t good enough. It’s a broken system.

If Toronto FC just won the MLS Cup, why is the affiliate team so poor and sitting on two points after 13 matches? Because Toronto FC II hardly impacts them at all. They may care about a name or two on the squad and how those players are faring, but traveling down to Harrison and losing 4-0? It just doesn’t matter. Next year, records will be erased and the same teams will line up to play. In fact, they’ll add more teams.

NYRB II won the USL in 2016. What came of it? They probably got some money, but not much else. It was undoubtedly a great experience for their players, but it should be more than that. It doesn’t grant them playing at a higher level and it doesn’t mean they’ll get a certain opportunity. Yes, affiliates would never be eligible for promotion anyway, but they should still be competing against clubs that are. They should still have a direct impact on the makeup of the league.

The Steel could go undefeated for the remainder of the season and ultimately, in the big picture, nothing will change. Players will either progress and improve or they won’t. Development isn’t directly related to wins and losses and it doesn’t have to be, but the matches these players are playing should matter more. There should be money, exposure, and even jobs on the line.

The promotion/relegation notion has already been denied by MLS. It turned down billions in TV revenue to uphold a more American playoff structure. At this point, the conversation may even be recycled. I’m not proposing a fix here, because I think promotion/relegation is the only one. I’m just going to view USL matches a tad differently going forward.

I respect what Brendan Burke does and I admire each of the Steel players for living out their dream of playing professional soccer. I look forward to talking with everyone more this season because I love soccer, too. But in the current form, a USL win does nothing but change my questions to them. A loss does nothing more than move numbers around on a table.

Right now, the USL is hollow.

26 Comments

  1. Meh, all sports are meaningless. Here, you are just trying to quantify who is less meaningless. Irrelevant, in my opinion.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      On the eve of World Cup, this is a brazen as it gets. I fucking love it.

      • Is one person’s experience less valid than another’s? I’m pretty sure the experience those players get seem pretty meaningful to them. Because the author finds less value in these games, so should all, even the players? Phoey. Hogwash.

  2. Pete Mazzaccaro says:

    This comment section should be fun…. First, regardless of USL as currently constructed or with pro/rel, the purpose of Steel is the same — to provide minutes for players in the Union system and work as a bridge between the first team and the academy. Wins and losses are irrelevant.

    I think there’s a decent chance that USL could divide itself into two divisions and introduce pro/rel between them. That would help, and might be a good way to test pro/rel in the U.S., where most owners and investors appear to remain unconvinced of the merits of pro/rel.

    Most interesting to me is what happens when MLS ceases to expand. What do ambitious USL clubs do then? Currently, they can dream of buying into MLS. What will they do when the pyramid is truly closed/

  3. Christian,
    As a urbanist nerd I have to point out a very important detail you didn’t look at. Richmond actually has a slightly larger population in it’s metropolitan area than Louisville does! They are the 44th and 45th largest metros in the US. I hope MLS expands to where there are 50 or 60 teams, but I don’t see that ever happening.
    .
    I also think it’s very short sighted to see a USL. team’s potential as MLS or bust. Hopefully, one day there is pro/rel, but there is still value to having a team to support in your city. This is a similar argument Eurosnobs have about MLS, they say who cares it’s just MLS. It’s never about league, it’s about having a team to support.
    .
    But I will agree with you that the Kickers’ focus should be on the Open Cup over USL play, just as Toronto’s focus was on CCL over MLS play.
    .
    As for Steel, while development is more important than results, there is value for Steel to make the playoffs and be put in high pressure, playoff situations. Going to Louisville in the playoffs was huge for the Steel players last year. I ran into the team in the airport the day after that game and they talked about what a learning experience it was, even if they did get beaten badly.
    .
    Sorry if I was too critical, I really did enjoy the article. While I disagreed with much of it, it was very thought provoking.

    • Wilkerson McLaser says:

      Was going to say the same thing about RVA. In some key respects, actually, RVA as a market is better suited for MLS than Louisville — much bigger corporate profile (far outsized to its population), big creative population, and can credibly claim market “spillover” to another major MSA/media market, Hampton Roads (which is a 2M MSA but much too fragmented for major league sports).
      .
      What separates RVA and Louisville in terms of MLS is ambition. I’ve heard some Kickers FO folks like the idea, but the organization has made zero genuine moves or statements of intent in that direction.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    the underbelly of US Soccer is the most compelling soccer in the country at the moment. organizing. growing. communicating. coalescing.
    .
    people think I’m nuts. But I’m not.
    .
    TV revenue in the new world will mean little.
    .
    at the moment, courts have dockets and arguments being made. we will see what happens with all that . we will see if MLS is forced to give up its strangle hold on top tier soccer. we will see if a lateral pyramid rises- totally organic.
    .
    all i know, people here argue tv this tv that tv this tv that. In the new world…. Youtube, Amazon, Google, et all will be the financiers of football in this country.
    .
    the only and I am certain of this as much as I am certain of the air we breath, the only question that remains is, will I have two marbles still rolling around to see and enjoy it.
    .
    Atlantic City FC. My club.
    .
    Yours?

    • Pete Mazzaccaro says:

      Philadelphia Atoms. They play their home matches a 15 minute walk away from my home. $5 tickets. It’s a nice arrangement.

  5. Using what seems to be your argument, Christian:
    .
    What do the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs have to play for? After all, no matter how well they do, they’ll find themselves in the same league, rather than MLB, next season.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      I struggle when these type of comparisons are made.
      .
      I understand the argument. I do not denigrate. US Soccer has clearly decided to try the American model of professional franchising and individual player development over the organizing of clubs according to meritocracy.
      .
      Beyond that any correlation between US Soccer and the framework used throughout the world becomes white noise. An open pyramid determines success or failure and players find their level accordingly as do clubs …..abroad. That is simply not the case here. There are countless thousands players in American soccer with a legitimate chance to play first division, I’d argue better than manny currently doing it, but they toil largely unseen. There no Mahrez’s or Vardy types here… well, there are actually, but well never know it.

  6. Maybe I missed something. When exactly did MLS turn down billions in TV revenue? I seriously don’t know what you are talking about or can’t remember it happening. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but when? That said, I could make a case that US TV giants would not know how to plan broadcasting a league where teams in major TV markets could possibly not be there. MLS to ESPN “hey guess what, next year we will not have a team in NY or Seattle.” ” But we do have Dubuque and Spokane.” Full disclosure. I am not a Pro/Rel hater. I just realize that in the US of A, money talks.

  7. Tim Jones says:

    A few days ago, USL announced that Albuquerque NM will join the league in 2019. It is very clearly a division 2 admission.
    .
    During the season I Only pay attention to the USL East, effectively reflecting my coverage assignment which is the Steel.
    .
    What the league will look like next year, 2019, is an interesting question.
    .
    There are forces at work that will affect 2019.
    .
    First, there is,a,Canadian Premier League that will begin play. It will not affect the MLS sides. Whether it affects the remaining Canadian wholly owned affiliate in USL, Toronto FC 2, is less clear. There are four possibilities besides continuing as is; fold, join USL D3, morph into a so-called hybrid affiliate with someone else where the business is someone else and the technical Soccer is the parent club’s, or join the CPL.
    .
    Second, there is the size of next year’s USL. I try to keep track, but only USL insiders know for sure. I make it 37 teams for 2019 without Rochester returning from hiatus and with Ottawa and Toronto FC 2 leaving for the CPL.
    .
    The Mississippi has divided the two conferences. Western conference travel expenses and travel times are huge, and getting bigger. Expansion means schedule adjustment. 18 teams home and away is 36 games. 19 teams means 38. If Rochester and the two Canadians are in, that’s 42nteams and two 21 team conferences so home and away is a 42 game season.
    .
    Three conferences would make sense to me. Of course we have no idea who might fold. Only insiders know what is likely.
    .
    Third, there are remnants of the NASL. Edmonton I am assuming might join the CPL. I have assumed Sandiego joins USL. The Cosmos and Miami are wildcards, but very unlikely to have anything to do with USL given its cooperation with Lucifer, I mean MLS.
    .
    Final comment. MLS seems really to want billionaires as its new owners. That principle explains why Sacramento remains on the outs.

    .

  8. Scottymac says:

    You missed the point of your own thesis.
    .
    USL doesn’t matter, not because there isn’t pro/rel, though you rolled that way. It doesn’t matter because The MLS doesn’t sign players from it. There are never transfers from one USL club to a nonrelated MLS one. Player movement exists solely in a baseball minor league system analog, or flotsam and jetsam released players signing on a free to round out a roster.
    .
    I’m not impressed with Cory Burke getting a callup. Call me when Jack Mac tears it up for Indy and the Quakes sign him. Short of expansion, I can’t remember the last time I heard a player moving up between teams.
    .
    When MLS/USL fixes that economic disparity,then we can talk about what do those guys play for.

    • Kevin1813 says:

      NYCFC signed Sean Okoli after he had a great year for Cincinnati. Mostly plsyers don’t move because MLS has an unofficial policy of not signing USL players unless they are out of contract. The league doesn’t want to help it’s competition (USL) by paying transfer fees.

  9. Eduardo Castro says:

    Enjoy your article. The new Canadian Premier League that will start up next year is going to follow the European model of promotion/relegation;no playoffs and a club model rather than the franchise model that mls follows which will allow communities all over Canada to start a franchise and possibly move up unlike the us where big cities such as Baltimore and San Francisco art shut out of being in mls. Your thoughts on this development in Canada?

  10. A Yorkshireman in Detroit says:

    I do hope pro/rel will be tried out in USL as it will give the league more purpose and it shouldn’t matter the size of the city/town in my book. If a team has a good nucleus of fans and they are staying afloat money wise then size shouldn’t really come into. You just have to look at the variety of teams in the EPL , Man Utd to Bournemouth so very different but room for both.

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