Newer thoughts about Philadelphia Union II’s 2021 competitive platform

Photo: Paul Rudderow

The United Soccer League’s Championship and League One – divisions two and three in the U. S. soccer pyramid – some weeks ago announced the basics for their 2021 seasons, although the early dates are flexible to reflect the ongoing pandemic. The information was basic: preseason’s start date, the regular season’s start and end dates, participating teams, and how they will be organized into subdivisions.

The list of participating teams tells Union II fans that beyond last October’s three announced departures, Philly, Portland and Orlando, no one else is leaving for the 2021 season.

Many MLS second teams were clear from the first that they would remain in USL for 2021. But back in October at least one other club qualified its “we’re remaining” statement with “for now,” and further explained that they were waiting to see what would develop. But not enough developed to change Sporting Kansas City’s mind, while Colorado has recently said it has 2021 options sufficient for this year’s U-23 candidates, so it does not need a separate league.

These developments mean two topics need revisiting.

  • What MLS clubs remain as possible reserve league participants, and of those which seem likely?
  • Were there to be no formal reserve league for 2021, what might comprise a jury-rigged Union II competitive venue?
2021 participants

Eleven U. S.-based MLS teams will NOT join a new reserve league in 2021: Colorado, Los Angeles Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, Seattle, Atlanta , D. C., New York Red Bulls, Kansas City, Miami, Dallas, and New England. Given the Canadian government’s continuing 14-day quarantine requirement to re-enter Canada from the United States, neither will the three Canadians: Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver. And Minnesota United’s last-summer actions — and rhetoric — against year-round academy activity excludes the Loons as well.

Subtraction leaves 12 possibles, with three of those unlikely this season.

The 12 are scattered across the continent, handicapping potential savings of time and expense.

The organizations charted below are without significant developmental connections in USL’s professional leagues for 2021. If previously required USL affiliations existed, they have seemed titular only.

2021 MLS East Acad U19 Reason Why 1st Team HGs 2021 MLS West Acad U19 Reason Why  1st Team HGs
1 Chicago yes 6 1 Austin No Too soon 0
2 Columbus yes 5 2 Houston yes 4
3 Cincinnati yes 2 3 LA FC yes 4
4 Nashville No Too soon 1 4 Portland yes 3
5 NYC FC yes 4 5 SanJose No Philosophy? 7
6 Orlando No Rebooting 5
7 Philadelphia No Philosophy! 10

The chart includes Academy U19 teams, since they indicate when an organization selects its professional candidates. Philly now makes its decisions at, or before, age 17. San Jose perhaps does likewise.

The number of homegrown players telegraph the organization’s commitment to growing its own. Philly’s current depth chart shows it is “all in” on that subject.

Nashville and Austin haven’t had time to develop U19 homegrowns, and Orlando is in flux, with The Athletic reporting sale talks between current ownership and the Wulfs who own the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings (behind its paywall, unfortunately).

This season only nine MLS sides seem likely to need non-USL competitive platforms  for their first-team deep reserves (and young former USL professionals in Philly and Portland).

East West
1 Chicago 1 Houston
2 Cincinnati 2 LA FC
3 Columbus 3 Portland
4 New York City FC 4 San Jose
5 Philadelphia 5

Thin numbers, projected economic realities of a pandemic-handicapped new season, and the benefits of negotiating a new enterprise carefully and thoughtfully in order to start successfully and properly all taken together suggest the new reserve league might be postponed to “coming years,” to quote a line from the Athletic article cited above.

Were the suggested delay to be true, the nine MLS clubs would need to create interim 2021 developmental opportunities on an ad hoc basis.

Bus travel opportunities exist between Cincinnati & Columbus (1 ¾ hrs one-way), and New York City FC and Philadelphia (2 ¼  hrs). But while Austin and Houston (2 ¾ hrs), and, perhaps, Cincinnati and Nashville (3 ¼ hrs) would also be geographic bus candidates, they may be too new to have youngsters in need of professional-level U23 competition, except for Houston. All other travel must be by air. And maintaining isolation means the extra expense of chartering, although bubble maintenance does minimize overnight stays.

Potential Philly specifics

Philadelphia’s location means a supplementary opportunity might exist with the Northeast Elite Soccer League. NESL formed in 2018 to provide members elite competition by crossing existing organizational dividing lines.

Of its six members, four come from three of the four conferences in the northeast region of the National Premier Soccer League.  The other two come from the Massachusetts and New Jersey state associations of the United States Amateur Soccer Association. All six rosters intermix college amateurs with former professionals.

Philadelphia Union II played three of the NESL teams last October and November in “friendlies.”  Union II were defeated soundly by FC Baltimore Christos. Their first half against West Chester (PA) United Predators’ starters was tightly contested, but in the second half Predators’ reserves were overwhelmed. And Union II soundly defeated Vereinigung Erzgiburge (Warmisnter, PA). They did not play Jackson Lions FC (Jackson, NJ), FC Motown (Morristown, NJ) or Safira FC (Sommerville, MA). But twice during earlier preseasons Bethlehem Steel FC has played Motown, both times in usefully diagnostic, competitive matches.

The legal niceties of maintaining amateur status must have existed last fall for the  Union Academy college-bound amateurs who participated. Presumably such niceties continue.

Additional matches could occur against select, competitive MLS NEXT U-19 sides. For example, Union II played NY Red Bulls U19s last fall.  And area teams comparable to Philadelphia Junior Lone Star might also provide match opportunities, as Lone Star itself did early last November.

Ernst Tanner’s commitment to developing and evaluating his academy youngsters means he is looking for opportunities under every stone on the beach, without reference to whether an over-arching league structure exists. And Jim Curtin is now on record that the public should expect Union II to play “double-digit games” in 2021.

Double-digit means at least ten but probably fewer than 34, USL Championship’s 2019 regular season total. Were Chicago, Cincy, Columbus and the Cityzens to play Union II home and away, that would provide eight games. NESL’s six, if  home and away, would make 12 more, for a schedule totaling 20, particularly if Philly subsidized NESL’s travel costs to some degree.

The MLS matches might exceed two with some or all of the MLS sides, if we remember that not crowning a champion allows maximum game minutes to take pride of place over competitive balance.

Double digit 2021 Union II games that maintain virus isolation might absorb some of the oft-discussed McKenzie and Aaronson revenues.


  1. Being one of the first teams in MLS to reach this stage is actually hurting us this year with the lack of organization/teams to play at the moment
    Also, I realize Tanner has restructured UII effectively as the last stage of the Academy (will we ever have someone 20yrs+ on the roster again?)
    But I miss having a USL team already
    It also feels like we are rushing some of these kids into the first team because of the current set-up (almost like we need a competition level between U19s and the first team…)

    • I would say we’re only rushing them if they fail to perform well in MLS. If they are competitive against MLS players then why would we hold them back from playing in MLS?
      Aaronson and McKenzie took some time to fully find their feet in MLS. Fontana looks to be taking a bit longer. So, you may be right that another layer of competition could be beneficial but I’m still excited to see them try.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        I think the issue I foresee there is that they still had a lot of time in Bethlehem to get ready for MLS. There isn’t a clear path yet to those kind of minutes, and if they’re just practicing and otherwise languishing on the bench of a first time without room for their services, that won’t work.

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