A pro-rel what-if in the USL

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Bethlehem Steel lost its season finale on Saturday evening to Charleston Battery, 5-1, guaranteeing a 16th place finish out of 18 teams in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference.

What if?

Were the bottom of the USL Championship table subject to relegation to USL League One (as may happen someday in the future if USL League One becomes large enough) Bethlehem would be sent down, if — as is customary in many other 18-team leagues elsewhere  – three were the number to be relegated.

As the table below shows, Bethlehem, Swope Park, and Tacoma – the three youth development sides thought to have the heaviest emphasis on the “youth” of “youth development” – would be relegated to USL League One.

There has been a shadowy but real prejudice in USL and now USLC against player development sides.  All USL-controlled media completely stopped using the phrase to describe teams before the 2017 season.

USL’s hidden long-term purpose for USL League One might be to accommodate the player development sides that cannot compete effectively in the USL Championship, as well as any team that cannot qualify for U.S. Soccer’s division two requirements.

  • Rochester Rhinos and Penn FC are requirement refugees expected to re-appear in USL One in 2020.
  • Richmond Kickers is already such a refugee.
  • North Texas SC (Dallas), Toronto FC II (Toronto), and Orlando City B (Orlando) are all player development sides for the MLS team in parentheses.
  • Only four of the 2019 league’s ten teams stand completely alone, Chattanooga (TN), Greenville (SC), Richmond (VA), and South Georgia.
  • Madison (WI) is affiliated with MLS’s Minnesota, and Lansing (MI) is the Chicago Fire’s second (!) affiliate in addition to the Championship’s Indy Eleven.

Only three of the nine wholly-owned affiliates have made the USL Championship’s playoffs this year. Two of those have always populated their USLC teams with college graduates, Red Bulls 2 and Monarchs. Los Dos (LA Galaxy II) has good reason to be proud.

To win a playoff game with as young a youth development side as Bethlehem Steel FC had in 2018 was extraordinary. And this season they have been more than a full year younger in average age.

Here are the MLS wholly owned-affiliates in USLC in 2019.  Each conference totals 18 teams. When Red Bulls 2 won the double, they were all collegians. Data is as of Thursday October 17th.

The wholly-owned affiliates in the USL Championship for 2019

Swope Park's season is complete as of Thursday, 10/17/19. All others have one more game this weekend. Playoff sides are starred*. Sides that would be relegated in the articles counterfactual scenario are number-signed#
5thNew York Red Bulls II*New York Red Bulls57
12th Loudon United FCD. C. United36
13thAtlanta United 2Atlanta United35
16thBethlehem Steel FC#Philadelphia Union31
18thSwope Park Rangers#Sporting Kansas City26
4thReal Monarchs*Real Salt Lake53
9thL. A. Galaxy II*
aka Los Dos
L. A. Galaxy45
13thPortland Timbers 2Portland Timbers38
17thTacoma Defiance#Seattle Sounders28
Parenthetical details

For those interested, 20 of the 24 current MLS clubs are reported on Wikipedia as having affiliations or outright ownerships with clubs in the two USL professional leagues. I am guessing that the MLS requirement to have an affiliate still exists but is being enforced judiciously on a case-by-case basis.

  • LAFC is not listed as having a connection to Orange County SC of USLC, as had been so reported back when LAFC was being formed.
  • Vancouver is not listed as having an affiliation with Fresno of USLC, as was reported back when Vancouver ended Vancouver II.
  • That Columbus has no affiliate may reflect the recent uncertainty around the team’s very existence.
  • And FC Cincinnati in 2019 is an expansion side focused on building its new stadium. The new GM and head coach might be expected to change the lack of a developmental affiliation, if a budget for it were to be available to them. Earlier this season ownership was reported not happy about the lack of success given the dollars spent.


  1. It is a truism accepted everywhere in the world that players get better with better talent around them to push them, both on their own team and on the opposing teams. So why shouldn’t the “development” teams want to put together the best teams possible to develop the kids? It may mean that only 6-7 of the positions in the starting 11 are development players and the rest are veterans added for quality, but is that such a bad thing?
    It seems to me that might actually do a BETTER job of getting the top prospects ready for MLS.
    That said, I have never been a part of development at any PDL level so will happily defer to those with more knowledge / experience.

  2. I’d like to see the BSFC move down to League One eventually, along with the rest of the MLS developmental squads.

    • I would quote coach Burke from the 2017 opening of season press event at the Lehigh University president’s house, “Pressure creates diamonds.”

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