Analysis / Breaking News

MLS’s plan for a lower-division stepping-stone league

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Jeff Reuter and Pablo Maurer of The Athletic published a piece this week on Major League Soccer’s plans for “a lower division league intended to serve as a link between MLS Next academies and first-team rosters.”

The full update is behind The Athletic’s paywall, but here are some observations, in no particular order:

  • Starting with over half of MLS means there will be at least 14 teams.  That’s more than the old USL of Harrisburg City Islanders vintage had before MLS2 sparked its current growth spurt.
  • Aligning the schedule with MLS’s clearly prioritizes the mobility of MLS deep reserve players — think seven of the Union’s current ten homegrowns — to practice with the first team and play for the second. Almost certainly, that mobility’s detail will be much simpler and therefore less expensive than crossing the MLS-USLC divide has been. 
  • The semantic shift from “MLS U23 Reserve League” to the less concrete “lower division league” is important.
    • it gives  much greater flexibility about membership, as Reuter and Maurer explain. Both the Union’s emphasis on ages 17 to 21 and the New York Red Bulls contrasting focus on post-collegians can coexist, for example.
    • It may suggest mixing fully professional sides with competitively elite amateur ones, such as West Chester United Predators, FC Motown,  and Baltimore Christos, who have consistently given Philadelphia Union 2 useful “friendlies” since last October. To accommodate such amateur clubs annual entrance fees would have to be low, or even non-existent.
    • Such a fee structure would allow stand-alone independent youth development clubs such as FC Delco –whatever they now call themselves — and others of similar ilk to join, provided they proved themselves competitive.
  • Parsing semantics at third-hand is fraught with risk, but the phrasing that MSL2 sides would not be required to join in 2022 suggests that “strongly encouraged” or even “required” MLS2 participation may come into the picture further down the road.
  • How providing a few hundred minor-league games might impact upcoming TV contracts is worth considering.
    • On the one hand American tv audiences in the Big Four of televised professional sports do not usually watch the professional minor leagues on television.
    • On the other hand NCAA Division I college football is a series of player development leagues for the NFL that is lucrative for both the networks and the universities to televise.
    • Televising an MLS lower division league would be in the interest of both the clubs and the networks because it would increase the sport’s exposure and might help grow public interest in it.
  • If MLS actually files an application with U.S. Soccer for a new league’s classification as division three, it would be a powerful signal of intent and preparation.
    • It avoids immediate direct competition with the division two USL Championship.
    • It considerably reduces stadium size as a stumbling block. Purely for illustration, the University of Delaware’s recently renovated soccer stadium probably meets both D3 seating and video broadcasting requirements.  
  • The league itself, as well as its individual clubs, is going to be spending quite a bit of extra money.
    • Annual membership fees have to be low for non-MLS clubs with low or non-existent ticketing revenues to join. Some entity has to subsidize that. (USL Championship reportedly cost $200,000 a year for 2020. For the Union in 2021, that sum pays the salaries of the Homegrowns in Supplemental Roster Slots 29 and 30 and leaves more than $50,000 left over. ) 
    • Running a new, separate league takes people, and they will draw salaries and need equipment.
    • Creating high-quality video to be broadcast and/or streamed also takes people and specialized equipment.
  • Official announcements are not likely to occur before the 2020-21 MLS Next season concludes towards the end of June.

As the detailed implications of the project begin to unpack themselves, it becomes easier to understand why it has taken so long to emerge. It seems likely that in addition to the individual clubs within MLS, U.S. Soccer, Canada Soccer, TV network(s), and a sampling of independent, club soccer development sides have needed consultation and coordination.

Keystone Sports and Entertainment’s participation in developing this new league is a given. Only time will tell how much of a role it played in this process.


  1. I for one look forward to this. I am so far gone I actually would watch U2 games for a glimpse of the next generation of homegrowns.

    • Tim Jones says:

      Early in 2016 I bought individual tickets — and committed myself to the attendant travel — to most of Bethlehem Steel’s inaugural season home games. I was intensely curious what the process of starting a minor league farm team would be, and being retired I decided to go see for myself. Then Dan Walsh hung out his “help wanted” sign looking for someone to write about Bethlehem, and I decided to inquire, circumspectly, about what that might entail.
      Coach Burke started having weekly phone conferences for writers and Dan suggested I listen in. Because there were usually only one or two of us, once I figure out the etiquette I got to ask a dozen or more questions every week not just one or two and coach is an intelligent man and an excellent teacher.
      It has been fascinating to watch the younger players and to tr to decipher what separates the ones to whom the Union offers contracts from the ones who look perfectly good to me but who do not get the opportunity.

  2. Scott of Nazareth says:

    Great stuff as always Tim! Does really lay out the scale and complexity of whats involved in putting it together. Keeping my fingers crossed.

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    while I appreciate the incorporation of ‘lesser teams’ that may be good enough to compete, ie FC Delco (which I say tongue in cheek because a few Delco teams absolutely give UnionAcademy a run for the money and win) who are continually in the business of developing mid tier college level talent… let alone Division I level talent or professionals…. I still struggle with understanding why MLS ‘second teams/reserve teams’ do not just travel with the first team and play the game before the first team match. I’m sure there is an expense, but is the expense actually more then this other way of doing it? There is still travel and other considerations in this ‘reserve league’… Hell charge a few dollars more for the tickets to games… market the shit out of it, you’ll get some more money from other means, do a better job of producing talent to sell abroad which mitigates costs… most of these Homegrown player contracts are basically paying these kids peanuts….. compared to a world market value.
    It seems a straightforward solution to me.

    • I think it’s more about the exposure and expansion into another league to control the market. If, as Tim says, the intention is to broadcast games, then why not go whole hog for a full fledged commercial entity. Lower leagues in England get broadcast as I believe Bundesliga two (which seems more like what they aim to be)does also.
      I like the idea. Where I have my doubts is the broadcasting. The league hasn’t even figured out how to give exposure to pre-season, let alone a whole new league. Like we can’t even get decent transfer rumors or a deadline day show. I just get the impression they are trying to build Rome in a day without any mortar to cement the stones together.

      • Minor league broadcasts are better suited for minor league settings, e.g., the Iron Pigs in the Lehigh Valley where they get broadcasted games. U2 was popular in that area as the Bethlehem Steel and regretted losing them over the USL lights issue. While they train in Chester, returning the team’s home matches to that area or another regional minor league area might do the trick along with helping solidify regional club support.

    • Travelling for reserve team ‘double headers’ right now also gets U2 the kind of matches they need.

  4. Tim Jones says:

    In hindsight, I omitted that Reuter and Maurer indicate that MLS may file its application for D3 status for its league to U. S. Soccer quite soon. If that actually happens, it would seem to be a commitment and a tangible, concrete, crystallizing step forward.

    • Do you believe it will be in place for next year.
      . . .
      I never thought pulling U2 out of the USC was wise unless and until a better alternative was already set up. With available USC team preseason scrimmages over, what teams and matches are U2 getting, never mind of the kind and quality for developing MLS level players?

      • Tim Jones says:

        It is an excellent, excellent question to which I have no information on which to base an answer.
        A reserves on reserves match was played with Marlon LeBlanc coaching and a few U2 players present last Friday the 4th against a similar side from DC at Audi Field.
        information was minimal and appeared at the last second.
        There is a match for early July where they will travel to Richmond to play the Kickers.
        I know that the New York Red Bulls organization has always preferred as little information about matches as possible, judging by their behaviors over time.
        The other geographically obvious club is NYC FC. And that is all I can say about them.
        Elite Amateur sides are in their seasons, and are often competing simultaneously in multiple leagues.
        Logic says there may be occasionally intersquad events between 1st team reserves and U2. Curtin mentioned one such publicly a few weeks ago.
        But the opportunities are limited. I know there is at least one person trying to drum them up, in addition to Tanner. But this summer seems like it will be sparse.
        I have to think that TV stuff may have come from the networks. It has nothing to do with player development. But the league wants to be accommodating. So a developmental year may have been compromised, if not to say lost.
        I doubt Tanner is happy about that, but business considerations in the long-term will override him.

      • Thanks for the update Tim. Yeah, a lost development year…grrr.

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