The $6 million sale was not the big story

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Six million dollars focuses attention away from other less spectacular but more fundamentally important news.

A crucial formative element in the system that produced Brenden Aaronson, and his current, future, and probable homegrown colleagues is gone.

Current, future, and probable homegrowns

Parentheses indicate future probability
PlayerCurrent TeamCollegePOSGrad. Year
Mark McKenzieUnionWake ForestLCB2017
Matt RealUnionLB2017
Matt FreeseUnionHarvardGK2017
Anthony FontanaUnionACM2018
Brenden AaronsonRed Bulls Salzburg 2021ACM2019
Cole TurnerUnionDCM2019
Jack de VriesUnionACM/CM2020
Paxten Aaronson 2021Union 2021ACM(2022)
Jack McGlynn 2021Union 2021ACM/CM/DCM(2021)
Nate Harriel 2021Union 2021RB2019
(?Brandan Craig 2021?)(?Union/Union II 2021?)CB/DCM(2022)
Zach ZandiUnion IIVillanovaCM/ACM2015
Issa RayyanUnion IIDukeOB/CM/F2018
Ben OfeimuUnion IIRCB2019
Shanyder BorgelinUnion IIF2020
Selmir MiscicUnion IIACM/CM(2021)

With precise news-management, the club announced the demise of the professional-level crucible that produced all these players, the connection to the United Soccer League Championship, simultaneously with Aaronson’s $6,000,000 record-breaking distractor.

Death details

Philadelphia Union II, formerly Bethlehem Steel FC, has withdrawn from the United Soccer League relationship that dates continuously from March 1, 2010, Bill Becher, and the Harrisburg City Islanders.

It has not dropped from USL Championship to USL League One. It has severed professional-level ties. The system announced by Sporting Director Earnie Stewart, Union Head Coach Jim Curtin, Academy founder Richie Graham, YSC Schoolhouse head Nooha Ahmed-Lee, and Academy Director Tommy Wilson four years ago on November 16, 2016 not only announced its first payday, it quietly said it had gone out of existence.

Not all of it is gone. Both parts of the Academy continue. Ahmed-Lee’s college-preparatory Schoolhouse remains fundamentally unchanged, if constantly upgrading its well-practiced ability to teach its students remotely. Tommy Wilson and his staff continue successfully to shepherd teams through an elite youth player development platform, albeit a new, differently controlled one.

But the United Soccer League professional stepping stone that has catapulted every one of the 17 players listed above from the Academy into the professional game is gone. It needs replacing.

What will replace it?

There is no official word where Philadelphia Union II will play next year, only informed journalistic speculation based on multiple “sources.” Officially, the public only knows that there will be further announcement(s) at some future date(s).

Speculatively and unofficially, there will be a new MLS U-23 reserve league playing under the aegis of MLS NEXT. MLS NEXT is the new elite youth player development platform still emerging from the desiccated cadaver of U. S. Soccer’s old Development Academy.

The pool from which an MLS reserve league almost certainly forms is the 26 MLS clubs. A 27th will join next year.  Charted summaries follow below presenting what is known — or can be responsibly inferred — about each of those clubs’ lower division developmental teams and their likely competition plans.

The sole available fact is that three of those lower division pro teams have left USL’s two pro leagues – Philadelphia Union II, Portland Timbers 2, and Orlando City B.

The Athletic reports unofficially that four other MLS2 clubs will remain in the USL leagues with Major League Soccer’s permission. Three will remain in the USL Championship: Loudoun United FC of D. C. United, New York Red Bulls II, and Real Monarchs of Real Salt Lake. One will remain in USL League One: North Texas SC of FC Dallas. (The ownership change underway in Utah might change the Real Monarch plan.)

Subsequently Peter Vermes of Sporting KC is reported saying on October 22nd that Sporting KC II would stay in USLC “for now” and “will re-evaluate when other options emerge.”

Only unsubstantiated inferences can be drawn about the lower professional teams and opportunities of the other 19 clubs – 20 if you add next year’s Austin FC.

Seven of those – eight with Austin – do not currently have wholly-owned or affiliated lower professional teams. Six those are recent additions whose academies have not yet matured sufficiently to need a post-academy professional stepping stone. Some have poured money into stadium construction thus slowing academy development. Minnesota dropped its traditional full-time academy altogether October 2nd. , committing to devise a system more appropriate to its Iceland-like environment. The two oldest, the Canadians, laid down their lower level pro teams a few years ago, probably to avoid the attendant financial losses.

No lower level professional team

*Entering Canada from the United States currently requires quarantining.
TeamTop Academy level in 2020StadiumMLS Reserve League in 2021 ??
FC CincinnatiU-19sReady for 2021Probable
Columbus Crew SCU-19sStructural steel Probable
Los Angeles FCU-17sDonePerhaps, if they want the U-19s to be pros.
Minnesota United
(unconventional "academy")
(In some format)
DoneUnlikely, given rejection of 10-month academy model
Nashville SCno teams; ID-ing playersGround brokenNo
Montreal Impact*U-23s, for 2021DoneYes*
Vancouver Whitecaps*U-19sDoneProbable*
Austin FCU-15sGround brokenNo

As many as four, or possibly five, might like to participate in an MLS Next U-23 reserve professional league in 2021, but the two Canadians face Canada’s quarantine restrictions against entry from the United States. If the Canadians join the additions would number four or five. If not, two or three, totaling five or seven before considering the remaining clubs.

Neither five nor seven teams are enough for approval by U. S. Soccer. Eight is the minimum for the first year of division three status (according to information dated 2014). And 75% of the teams must be in the United States, so if the three Canadian teams (include Toronto FC II) participate, there must be at least nine American ones.

The remaining MLS parent clubs have had some type of lower team relationship with the two USL professional leagues as charted below.

Existing lower level professional team connections

Canada requires quarantining when crossing from the United States
USL Championship USL League One 
Wholly-owned AffiliateWholly-ownedAffiliate
Los Angeles GalaxyHouston DynamoInter Miami CFChicago Fire
Seattle SoundersSan Jose EarthquakesNew England Revolution
Sporting Kansas CityColorado RapidsToronto FC*
Atlanta UnitedNew York City FC

These teams’ intentions concerning lower team professional play in 2021 are entirely unknown. The Peter Vermes comment referenced above indicates that right now a reserve league is a fluid concept not a crystallized proposal.  It should surprise no one that in matters of player development the Union’s Jay Sugarman, Richie Graham, and Ernst Tanner are at the cutting edge of new ideas.

Why the change?

When commenting on the Aaronson signing, both principal owner Jay Sugarman and Sporting Director Ernst Tanner each emphasized and re-emphasized the organization’s on-going commitment to elite youth player development. But, probably, that future development will now occur within a new structure controlled by MLS together with the other member clubs.

Jeff Rueter of The Athletic emphasizes the annual cost savings the change should realize. USLC ‘s annual participation fee equaled 93.75% of a 2019 Kacper Przybylko salary (before 2020 raises — he made lots of starts and scored lots of goals — and prorating).

Transitioning to professional play at the U-19 level eliminates the expense of running simultaneously an amateur U-19 side in parallel to the professional one. (Philadelphia, Montreal and Minnesota have already made the change.)

And USLC has a series of requirements for a communications staff above and beyond those of an MLS first team. The requirements include in-game photography and official game-day roster and starting lineup transmission, in addition to the usual daily “comms” staff activities. Judging by past practices, leaving USLC saves the Union one full-time salary and an ad hoc photographer’s part-time compensation.

Cutting out USL may also simplify accounting. Reimbursement for past developmental costs has to be discussed as Major League Soccer works through details for selling homegrown players onward. Academy Director Tommy Wilson mentioned some years ago that he was on a committee considering such matters. Recent sales like Aaronson’s make the benefits to both the individual selling club and the league as a whole no longer theoretical. USL no longer can claim a piece of any such pie.

Cost-savings may be especially cogent given current economic reality.

Inconclusive inferences

The only point that rises to the status of a reasonable conclusion is that Philadelphia Union II will have some place to play next season. The only safe secondary one is that it will not be with either USL professional league.

The reports of Rueter and Phil Grooms of Beautiful Game Network, juxtaposed with Montreal’s U-23 announcement, suggest it will be an MLS reserve league of some type. Whether the U-23 requirement will be “hard,” or softer and more Olympic-like is anybody’s guess. An ability to get a Joe Bendik some game minutes while keeping the average game-day roster-age under 20 would make good sense.

If there are enough teams, there might be regional leagues and a post-season tournament. Four-to-six teams can reasonably make up a region playing each other three to five times, as USLC demonstrated this season. Playing geographically proximate teams more frequently than just home and home works for player development purposes, partly because teams rosters in a calendar-year based schedule get churned by the academic year’s mid-summer recycle. Regional grouping can also save transportation and lodging costs, if the teams are close enough as they are in the Northeast.

The cracked, cloudy crystal ball

Here is what a 2021 MLS reserve league could look like. It is grouped in descending order of likely participation. Several names are speculative and unofficial since sometimes the team mentioned does not actually yet exist.

Philadelphia Union II
Portland Timbers 2
Orlando City B
FC Cincinnati B
Columbus Crew II
Los Dos (LA Galaxy)
Tacoma Defiance (Seattle)
Sporting Kansas City II
Atlanta United 2
Fort Lauderdale CF (Miami)
New England Revolution II


Toronto FC II*
Les Deuxs (Montreal)*
Vancouver Ripples *

All these already exist as academy U-19 teams (except LAFC II), the level at which Ernst Tanner advocates transition to professional play.


  1. Thank you for this post, I was waiting for it. This news was so interesting to me when it first broke. However what become more interesting to me is a word Tanner used in the Aaronson conference. He referred to the Union 2 team as our “transition” team. Transition.

    That word tells us all we need to know about how the Union now view the process. It’s not about the level of competition or results. It’s about preparing those players for the first team. Really, the word transition is so different than the usual words – “reserve” team, “second” team, etc that is a fascinating insight to Tanners mindset.

    I was a bit worried about what this would mean to our pipeline, but it seems like Tanner has it all under control.

  2. This is quite interesting.
    There’s something to be said about getting game minutes, but there’s also something to be said about those minutes being against battle-tested men, not just up and coming teenagers.
    I feel like that might be an intangible quality lost among all of this.

    • That’s where the definition of U-23 league might come into play.
      If U-23 is hard and fast, your point is well-taken.
      If there are a given number of exceptions for every game, and with the mens’ soccer U-23 rosters for Olympic competition, U-23 sides could be salted with a few older veterans here and there.
      You are absolutely correct that Paxten Aaronson will not get to play against Forest Lasso, the defender who broke his older brother’s collarbone, accidentally. There are pros and cons to that.

      • Thanks for the article and time to respond, Tim.
        Love being kept in the loop on the development side.

      • Pretty sure the Prem under 23 league allow for three over age players on the match day roster…….

  3. I hope this doesn’t take the shape of a pure U-23 team. While I do think young players benefit from playing, a few strategically sprinkled older players can plug in holes where needed and if the right ones are picked they can even serve as role models of professionalism in addition to coaches on the field. For instance back in the Bethlehem Steel days, James Chambers seemed to be that kind of an influence.

    • “Chambo” was that kind of influence.
      Both Tanner and Sven Gartung earlier this season, without for one second criticizing Chambers, pointed out that not having such older leaders on the pitch meant that the young players had to learn to provide such leadership themselves.
      To Illustrate from 2019, when Chambo was out, Walter Cortes had the chance to be captain three times. From this year, Brandan Craig.
      Both points of view have cogency.

  4. For it to be effective, in my mind- the 2nd team, Reserve Team, Transition Team et al—should be kicking off games before the first team. MLS would do well to adopt a model like this. Traveling away would require more investment but these2nd team players should be playing the second teams of the other MLS Franchises the same day the First team plays.
    You would get buy in from the fans. You could likely raise prices a bit because people would be getting two games… therefore more spending inside the stadium which would offset costs a bit. People would have increased interest watching the next Darlings come of age etc etc etc.
    From where I sit I’m as interested what this all means for USL and it’s aspirations too.

    • Some elements within USL have seen its “player development” dimension as detrimental since at least 2017. The term was banned from the league’s official lexicon at that time. No USL-controlled writer was allowed to use the phrase “player development side” in anything they wrote.

  5. I tend to agree with Hilly on this.
    But if your academy coaching staff is made up of ex-pros like Kleberson, Chambers and the like, maybe they bring in enough “battle-tested men” and old friends on a regular basis to toughen the boys up.
    Ernst is definitely a hard ass in the positive way, so I am sure there is a plan.

    • True.
      Tanner’s track record in development is beyond impressive, so no doubt he has a plan to get the most out of the younger Doops.
      Tim’s point above about allowing them to take the reins of leadership is duly noted. You’re always taught as a youth coach to allow the children to make their own moves and decisions. Figure it out, bud. Don’t yell instructions at them from the sideline.
      Looking forward to what this all means, even though I still miss my long-lost Bethlehem Steel.

  6. I thought blooding the kids against the men of the Hartford Athletics of the world was invaluable for them. What do you think the rest of the world does? Ever watch an English Championship match or League 1………it’s the same damn thing. Kids being blooded next to journeyman pros. If they just have a reserve league filled with kids competing against kids……..does this really progress the youngins?

    • The European leagues have youth/reserve teams, but then send the younger players out on loan to lower level teams. There’s honestly no reason MLS clubs couldn’t do the same with their reserve leagues, as long as their reserve players are good enough to play in USL.

      • I am well aware of that…the point is they end up playing with men….and are better for it. A lot of cclubs use their 20’s or 23’s as their reserve…….and bring them up and blood them too in cup matches…….

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