Thinking about a possible MLS Reserve League

Photo, from 2017, courtesy of Nate Szwerdszarf

In his end-of-year press conference, Union sporting director Ernst Tanner spoke of streamlining the new stepping-stone-to-MLS competition platform, the rumored MLS Reserve League.

His comment was the organization’s first on the subject since its own October announcement that Philadelphia Union II was leaving the United Soccer League Championship and beginning a new system to transition its chosen academy amateurs forward, first to the professional practice level and then to the first-team’s game day 18.

Here are some guesses based on minimal evidence that partially develop what Tanner’s “streamlining” might perhaps mean.

A longer season, segmented

It would make sense for the Union II to replace its single seven-month season that travelled everywhere east of the Mississippi with geographically regionalized divisions playing multiple season-segments across a twelve-month calendar year, each followed by a set of all-inclusive playoffs . Suggestively, MLS NEXT describes its schedule as year-round.

By his actions Tanner has always suggested that his developing young players have lost too much growing time during previous off-seasons. This past fall Tanner arranged that Union II played five “postseason” matches against four “local” adult sides and one MLS U19 one. It  is the most comprehensive witness he has brought against off-seasons’ lost growing times during his tenure in Philadelphia.

Better coordination of youngsters’ athletic and academic lives might emerge.

As of New Years’ Day 2021, four first-teamers are still in the Academy’s high school. Growth on the pitch is ever more closely intertwined with growth in school. And there are no more amateur playing opportunities for individuals too old for the amateur U-17 team.

The athletics pathway decisions for most now come before high school is over (although Danny Flores may be illustrating that those decisions are not irrevocable, since he is continuing to play as an amateur on a PG year). Streamlined coordination between the academic and athletic years might enhance growth all around.

Editing the concept of Liga MX’s Apertura and Clausera could create a summer break that corresponds to academia’s transitions, whether within high school or from it to college. Having the graduation rite of passage occur at the same time as an hiatus in athletics would reduce distraction and stress. And final exams could fit into such a break.

Centrally-located, showcase-style postseason playoffs after every season-segment would increase the number of games with extra competitive pressure. and if timed properly could help synchronize the rhythms of players’ athletic and academic lives.

If the year’s various segments each included enough games,  evaluation decisions could be made in less than a full calendar year, an advantage to both players’ and roster-builders’ decision-making.

Geographic regionalization

The North American area for which geographic regionalization would most reduce growth time lost to travel is the Northeast. It has the most teams concentrated the most closely together.

Of necessity much travel time must remain by air. But in none of the probable regions will anyone be flying seven air hours — plus ground connection wait-times in San Antonio, Houston, or Dallas — from Edinburgh, TX to Vancouver, BC. That was USL’s longest  one-way single-game travel time in its western conference in 2017.

MLS will have 30 teams by 2023. Were all 30 to participate in a reserve league, dividing them into four groups would balance a side’s opportunities to correct its earlier mistakes against over-familiarity with the opposition. Two divisions of eight and two of seven would account for all 30. (Minnesota’s current action and rhetoric does not suggest it will participate in a year-round academy proposition.)

Including all 30 illustrates the maximum not a judgment of what is likely. Announced expansion teams are at the bottom in italics.

West Coast Great Plains & Mountains South Northeast
Vancouver (Minnesota) Miami Montreal
Seattle Salt Lake Orlando Toronto
Portland Colorado Atlanta New England
San Jose Kansas City Nashville New York City FC
L. A. Galaxy Dallas Cincinnati New York Red Bulls
L. A. FC Houston Columbus Philadelphia
Sacramento Austin Chicago D. C.
St. Louis Charlotte

A schedule of two home and two away per division would generate 24 and 28 games respectively. Since maximizing developmental minutes is the objective not equitable competitive balance, extra games should be easy to arrange as long as the time and costs of travel remain relatively balanced. A home-and-away pattern might be modified to accommodate seasonal climate imperatives.

Streamlining the bureaucracy of first and second-team game-roster coordination

The first bureaucratic simplification is that two separate organizations no longer have to reconcile two different ways of doing things. Decisions within a single. command structure are always simpler, faster and more efficient than negotiations between two separate ones.

Next, an MLS reserve league could  more easily schedule its matches to avoid conflicts with first-team games, since publicizing, televising, and selling tickets will no longer restrict maximizing developmental game-minutes.

A massive simplification is that an MLS reserve league would reduce or eliminate the paperwork coordinating players passing between two separate leagues, along with the bureaucracy needed to generate and receive it.

When either MLS-contracted first-teamers or zero-dollar-contracted academy amateurs came from their separate leagues to play in USL, before each game each player had to sign a brand-new, single-game-only, recallable loan agreement between the leagues. These new agreements had to reach the USL head office 48 hours before kickoff.  They were explicitly not official until USL had acknowledged their receipt by email. None of their predecessors mattered.

By the same deadline, a roster of 23 possible players had to be submitted as well, in alphabetical order. The roster gave independent media the opportunity to prepare for televising, talking, and writing about the match. Adjustments in the next 24 hours could occur only with the permission of the other team. After that, no changes were possible, theoretically. (There was one known Bethlehem change in that final 24 hours, in 2016.)

Minimum fines were specified by the league for failure to comply with both agreement submission and roster alphabetization. with the league having discretion to increase either fine as it saw fit.

The paperwork details come from USL Championship’s rules summary in its 2020 media guide.

Union hiring behavior suggests that USL probably required a full-time communications staffer to service Bethlehem, as well as a photographer for home game days. The latter had to submit pictures at halftime so the league website’s match reports could go live as soon as the match was over.

If neither televising matches nor coordinating two leagues remain necessary, preparative paperwork and its bureaucracy disappears. And games can occur on developmentally convenient days without regard to making money from them.

Improved player mobility — not only down but especially up

Full MLS control of a reserve league’s roster rules could streamline and expand the fluidity of movement between first-teams and reserve-teams.

We might expect the following. They are listed from certain to possible.

  • No limit on the number of amateur-contract players allowed in specific game-day rosters.
  • Maintenance of the current salary-capped MLS roster structure at 28 (30 if homegrowns fill the extra two slots).
  • Greater control of a club’s academy players during the academy and stepping-stone-to-professional phases of their careers, “anti-poaching” in other words.
  • Not just two, but several — unlimited? — numbers  of young first-team players are eligible for “loan-down” to the reserve league, for a substantial number of consecutive games (8?-10?) but much less than a full calendar season.
  • While so loaned, such players would not count against the first-team’s 28 (or 30)-player roster limit.
  • The first-team roster will absorb what had been the USLC roster, without having to pay MLS minimum salaries but maintaining the current salary cap structure. (See immediately above for how “official 30” could become actual 33 or more.) Keystone Sports and Entertainment would still be paying fewer than USL’s formerly-required 12 player salaries together with their insurance, housing, transportation and at least some of their food. (Keystone treats all its players well and deserves credit for so doing.)
  • Greatly increased club discretion to call up lower-team players as needed or desired. In effect if not legal structure, they might adopt Major League Baseball’s option system to allow testing a player in MLS regular season competition without  committing in advance to a full first-team contract, as they are currently required to do.

No doubt some of these certain, and imagined, changes need reconciling with the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The CBA, now proposed delay sharing a new TV deal’s revenue with the players and to extend to 2027 after the North American World Cup, was originally negotiated months before either MLS NEXT’s or the alleged Reserve League’s predecessors had died.

Postscript: A roster management detail 

The Athletic reported last Thursday that the process of “graduating” from the Generation Adidas program has changed. Instead of a subjective judgment made on the basis of minutes contributed on the pitch — a system that could blind-side a club’s plans for salary cap management if graduation came early — graduation will now be at the end of the GA contract.


  1. While I like the idea of an increased number of games for youth players, I do wonder if something closer to a year round schedule puts them in a bad place in terms of player fatigue and injury. 24+ games is a lot to play at a high level over the course of a year.

    I know that top international players are normally playing something close to a year round schedule, but it seems rougher on players at a younger age, especially since there are Youth National Teams and such for the best prospects as well.

    • I really don’t think 24+ is all that many. My U13 son playing youth soccer plays 10ish in a fall league, + 6 more in fall tournaments, 10 more in the spring league, + at least 3 more spring Cup, + 6 more summer tournament. (and we won’t even talk about winter indoor and futsal.) Now granted youth soccer has unlimited substitutions, but do you really think a game every other week or so is all that many with a roster size built to allow squad rotation, and a purpose to encourage that rotation to allow the organization to see what they have ?

      • A reserve league is also played at a much higher intensity than U13 or regular high school soccer games. Maybe 24+ isn’t as many as I worry about, but I have seen so many younger players who have got big playing time at the highest level suffer hard luck injury histories later in their careers, derailing their potential (Jack Wilshere is probably one of the best examples).

        Hopefully the Union will have some medical staff monitoring injury and wear and tear so that everyone is rested enough (especially because wins and losses really won’t matter a ton in a reserve league).

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    In-fucking-dispensable information here Tim.
    …really well done- the time, thought, digging and commitment is noted.
    Thank you.

  3. Atomic Spartan says:

    Thanks for putting this together. Informative

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