Analysis

The latest on MLS’s new second-team league

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Major League Soccer announced its new Reserve League in June 2021, saying that there would be 20 teams, that it would begin in late March 2022, and giving only a few other basics.

Monday afternoon, December 6, the league announced more details, giving some insight into what Philadelphia Union 2 will be up to next season.

Officially announced

The 2022 season will have not 20 clubs, but 21 organized into two conferences. The division into conferences parallels MLS’s conferences exactly. If the first team is in the west, so is the second team, and so forth. The 21st side is Rochester FC, formerly the Rochester Rhinos, as an independent club not affiliated with MLS in any way. Other such sides may possibly join in the future.

Eight more teams will join in 2023, seven of them being Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, D.C., LA Galaxy, LAFC, Nashville and NY Red Bulls.

There will be 24 league games in 2022. Since the two conferences have unequal numbers, each schedule structure will be different. At a guess, Philadelphia might play the other nine teams in the east home and away and then have six additional matches next year. At least four new teams would join the east for the 2023 season, so probably 2023 will see more than 24 games, because home and away against the other 13 would produce 26.

Eight teams, presumably the top four in each conference, will make the playoffs which are to start some time next September. That would mean three rounds: conference semifinals, finals, and a league championship if logic were to hold.

The new league’s first corporate sponsor is Adidas, and its president is Charles Altchek, MLS ‘s senior vice president of league growth and operations in 2021.

Its senior vice-president of competition and operations is Ali Curtis, formerly New York Red Bulls’ sporting director and then Toronto FC’s general manager. The Duke grad played three seasons in MLS as a striker, and then went to work for the investment bank J.P. Morgan. Following his time with Morgan, Curtis held various positions with MLS.

Expected but unofficial details  

Here is what Philly Soccer Page thinks it has discovered about the new league’s further details. Our sources range from impeccably reliable news reporting, through Twitter tweets and other internet rumors, to bribing the Chester seagulls along the Delaware with live bait in exchange for what they may have seen.

The new league is expected to be Division 3 in the U.S. Soccer pyramid, below the Division 2 USL Championship and directly opposite USL’s League One.

Some clubs will play in MLS stadiums. Others may meet the Division 3 seating and lighting requirements more imaginatively. D3 means a minimum of 1,500 seats and lights capable of sustaining night-time video. Since all but one of the clubs listed below is owned and operated by organizations whose finances satisfy Division 1 requirements, only Rochester must satisfy the financials for Division 3.

MLS NEXT Pro’s conferences for 2022 and 2023
Eastern Conference Western Conference
(For 2022) (For 2022)
Chicago Colorado
Cincinnati Dallas
Columbus Houston
Miami Kansas City
New England Minnesota
New York City Portland
Orlando Salt Lake
Philadelphia San Jose
Rochester Seattle
Toronto St, Louis
Vancouver
(For 2023) (For 2023)
Atlanta Austin
Charlotte L. A.
D. C. LA FC
NY Red Bull Nashville

Montreal’s professional “stepping stone” situation remains unclear. They have hired a U23 coach and did advertise initial tryouts for a U23 side this past September 21 and 24. But as of 11/26/21 it still lists neither a side nor a roster on its website, and still describes its academy page as “in transition.” Direct inquiries remain unanswered.

The new league’s principles which we discuss below are now flexible enough to accommodate varied developmental philosophies. Probably some organizations will enter U17 or U19 sides while others will go older.

Our version of MLS NEXT Pro’s founding principles
  • Few “age” or “first-team-experience” restrictions will exist, in order to allow a range of developmental philosophies to coexist. Rochester’s presence ensures such coexistence since it is not a professional player development side.
  • Consolidating two teams’ travel into one trip (think Union and Union 2) should save considerable money, given the costs of the charter flights that remain required for virus safety.
  • Playing on the same weekend but after the first team would maximize roster development flexibility.
  • Playing the same day would avoid an additional overnight’s expense but would hinder the roster development flexibility mentioned immediately above.
  • As previously with USL, the new league’s matches will be “streamed” over the internet rather than broadcast on traditional TV.
  • Front office personnel costs will be reduced significantly by simplifying the paperwork needed to migrate across team boundaries. Such crossing will now occur within one league’s governance rather than between two separate ones, so Ernst Tanner’s “streamlining” should be achievable.
  • Any “friendlies” clubs can arrange above and beyond their official league matches before, during, and after the official league seasons will occur more easily.
  • Savings achievable through acute regionalization of game schedules will be superseded by consolidating two sets of travel expenses into one. Union 2 will go with the first team out of the Eastern time zone to Chicago, for example But as under the old USL system transcontinental travel by reserve league teams will not exist.
Postscript

Generalized comments about innovation and experimentation from league President Altchek quoted by Jeff Reuter of The Athletic (behind a paywall) suggest that among other innovations MLS might try to create a system of movement between developmental levels akin to that extant in professional baseball.

The details of the mechanics, and the labels on those details, will of course be different.

But an ability to have a young professional tested by actual game minutes of regular season league play without a club having to commit to a full-blown major league contract seems likely to be an attractive one at some point.

15 Comments

  1. el Pachyderm says:

    Tim.
    ~
    Terrific stuff here. I appreciate the effort you make on this side of the ledger as it is vital and important
    .
    I could offer a 2,000 word response about all this, but will spare the melodrama. What I do think and what is dissappointing to me about this is how it was billed /advertised and what was ultimately provided.
    .
    MLSNext comprises in upwards of almost 100 teams at the youth level and this ‘special’ league was advertised to included independent non MLS sides… and what we are getting is a token club in Rochester…
    .
    … I could then offer another 1,000 word retort just to this bullshit, but will spare the melodrama.
    .
    Needless to say, 60 + other MLSNext clubs will create players with no transport to a first team, with no transport to the top of the pyramid as MLS further factions an entire swath of players into it’s tiny and when I say tiny -I mean TINY nest… the rest with no where to go.
    .
    In other words– if you have a kid playing at FC Delco, PDA, etc etc playing against Union, Red Bull etc etc…(and winning often) it’s a dead end in all likely hood to nothing but a Divison II or III soccer because the MLS Academy will fill out Division I when Division I is done filling itself out with Internationals which is happenening more and more and more.
    .
    And for all those of you who will claim but the individual can promote up.. I challenge you to give me a good list of names of college players (in the evolving game) or USL players promoted up to MLS… and on top of that, guys like Ernst Tanner et al would most often rather bring a Peruvian, Costa Rican, Honduran 21 year old into MLS on a paltry salary then promote a dominant player plying his trade successfully in USL. The US is FILLED with phenomenal soccer players with nowehre to go. It is so dissapointing this far along with all this.
    .
    We have a broken eco-system. Top humming along. Everything propping it up undernath STILL a complete shit show– 100% addicted to using wins as the metric of success… and being fed lies from MLS who now runs US Soccer about a pathway, being fed terrible soccer by Technical Directors concerned most with turning a buck in the pursuit of winning as the metric of success—- and this is just on the boys side… I can’t even get in to how corrupt and disgusting girls soccer in America is.

    My eyes are wide open. Such a sham. SHAM.
    .

    • One datum only in response, el P, because I do not follow the wider ecosystem, as you so wisely label it.
      .
      Sunday it was clear that Jack McGlynn is ahead of Jesus Bueno on the depth chart.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Appreciate…
        .
        ….my contention comes back to….why is a 22 year old Venezuelan filling out a Union roster spot over 24 year old Pheonix Rising, Kevon Lambert of USL who is considered one of if not the best defensive midfielders in the league.
        .

      • I am not competent to answer definitively, only speculatively. And that speculation only relates to the Philadelphia Union.
        .
        Once, fairly early on in Ernst Tanner’s tenure here, I had the privilege of standing next to him while he was watching practice. He said nothing. But as compared the players he watched to the players my eyes were drawn to, there was clearly a difference.
        .
        He has an eye for potential that allows him to execute the the club’s business plan, which is to develop p[layers and sell them on to the highest quality European leagues possible, BOTH to maximize the club’s profits AND to put the player into the highest level he is ready for. I cite what we already know about Mark McKenzie’s story as evidence of that. Tanner judges the Belgian Jupiler League to be better than the Scottish premier league.
        .
        My guess is that Tanner concentrates his interest on the truly elite. AS long as someone is developing towards that physically, technically and mentally, … .
        But if after a decent opportunity to demonstrate the necessary growth has elapsed, he judges the player cannot get there, he moves on.
        .
        The decision-making is not his alone, and decisions must always take into account the messages they are sending to future candidates both outside and within the Union’s ecosystem.
        .
        Your Phoenix Rising defender is too old by Tanner’s stated criteria. To illustrate, Tanner moved on from Drew Skundrich with Bethlehem Steel. Skundrich has now survived to a second year with Hernan Losada at D. C. United. He signed with Loudon, trialed with the first team and has been retained for a second year. But MLS first team is Skundrich’s ceiling.
        .
        Tanner wants his developmental players’ ceilings to be the top level teams of the top four or five leagues in Europe. HIs target is not Norwich, or Mainz, or Getafe, or Lens, or Atalanta. His target is higher.
        .
        He’s looking for the equivalent of Alphonse Davies.

    • Love this from both of you. Really appreciate your lenses on the development leagues. I really like USL. I really like the independence from MLS. I really dislike this closed ecosystem.

    • Lefthalfback says:

      Can you possibly break this do a bit for those of us not as fully versed as you clearly are.

      You seem to be suggesting that players at 100 clubs at the MLS Next level have no plausible sho? Am I getting that right?

      Mind you, the vast majority of players have no plausibe shot at D1 soccer, let alone MLS.

      having said that, what is the fix?

      • Dear left halfback,

        No idea what the fix may be.
        .
        Sorry not to have been as clear as I might. el Pachyderm and I have have been enjoying our conversations for a long time.
        .
        I would suggest using a duality as an abstract analytical technique, because I think that is what Ernst Tanner may do, and also because I am fairly sure that is what Richie Graham does as he oversees the Union’s Academy.
        .
        The two simultaneous goals are to develop a business that is economically viable and to create a professional first team that can win in Major League Soccer.
        .
        The two goals cannot be one and the same thing. Cannot. The Union’s Academy’s hope to become economically self-supporting is to develop young players so that they can get into college and play soccer. You make it into the academy only if you have a decent shot at achieving both. They skim the cream and there is enough cream to make D1, D2, and D3 opportunities available to all.
        .
        Everyonce in a while someone special emerges. They are few and far between. Hopefully there might be one every year. So far the most in any given year has been five that have earned pro contracts directly out of high school or while still in high school.
        .
        That group of Homegrowns will itself be winnowed down to remove that grain from the chaff.
        .
        All the kids playing MLS NEXT are providing each other the competition and opportunity that may get them opportunities in college and university.
        .
        Philadelphia’s philosophy bypasses college and university. Not everybody’s does, Red Bull New York for example in the past has used college players actively. But Philly is shooting for the highest levels and believes that developing elite pros needs to start between 17 and 20, maybe as late as 21.
        .
        MLS NEXT will populate primarily the NCAA in quantity. A few will get shots at MLS, fewer will have MLS careers of some length, and rarely someone may make it to a European developmental or “selling” league.
        .
        Making it all the way to Manchester City, PSG, Bayern, Juve, or Barcelona will be rarer still.
        .
        And making a career at those elite levels the way Alphonse Davies is doing will be the least frequent outcome of all.
        .
        Hope this helps.

  2. Solely from a Union point of view I am actually excited for this. With the way we use the pipeline and have so many good prospects I will actually be watching these games.

  3. Larry Guengerich says:

    I doubt it will happen, but I would love to see Union II play some matches around the wider Union area. Lancaster, Allentown, etc.

  4. This could be good. But the possibility of it being all fodder is very real. The I also don’t follow it the some do here. But Pachy is right,the eco-system is broken! The pay to play system demands wins above all! It just dosen’t find the best of the best, cuz it cant!

  5. John O'Donnell says:

    The reason for this league is because the lower divisions are just getting established. Most players in USL have year to year contacts and selling a player involves doing it midseason. Imagine last year in the middle of a SS run if we sold Aaronson and McKenzie instead at the end of the season. Paying a fee for the most part doesn’t bring in much but it also might give the perception that you given up on the season. The other thing is that most of the independent teams don’t have much front office staff.
    .
    Jeff Rueter wrote an article about this for the Athletic on Feb 9, 2021.
    .
    From the article.
    That outlay of time and effort isn’t a luxury every USL team has. Of the league’s 24 independent clubs, only six have dedicated general managers or sporting directors — four of whom also work on the business side of their club. For the other 18, those duties are handled by one or more members of the coaching staff.
    .
    There was a player who was sold midseason and a name you might recognize, Michee Ngalina. He went from Colorado Springs to LAFC. The team just opened a new stadium and they have a familiar coach and GM in former Bethlehem Steel coach Brendan Burke.
    .
    The good news is USL is now in an infrastructure phase with building of stadiums and academies. A good reason for MLS2 teams to leave as they were a drag on the league as it was less about competing and more about development for the first team. The truth is the time has come as MLS helped stabilize USL and now they don’t need MLS as most their teams don’t draw good attendance. Hopefully going forward players will get sold up and down.

    • It was just announced that Michee Ngalina’s loan was allowed to expire by LAFC without purchasing him, so Michee will be back in the USL next year with the Colorado Switchbacks:
      .
      https://www.switchbacksfc.com/news_article/show/1197418
      .
      I’m not sure whose side of the argument this supports: that MLS teams can fill out their rosters with decent-enough USL players, or that USL players aren’t good enough for MLS rosters.
      .
      There’s been several players that developed in the USL and then jumped to MLS with success, like Mark-Anthony Kaye. And there have also been USL players that have been great but never made the jump to MLS for whatever reason, like Cam Lancaster.

      • John P. O'Donnell says:

        I believe it is both and good find you’re right it was a loan. Buying a player from USL right now though doesn’t make a lot of sense if you can just wait to the end of the season and then get them for free. Wasn’t that the case with Fafa who played with the Cosmos and made the jump from NASL?
        .
        At least USL is starting to see some growth now with teams having academies and Jonathan Gomez from Louisville City getting a call for USMNT up coming friendly. He’s also set for transfer as LouCity officially announced the club had agreed to a transfer with Real Sociedad. Terms of the deal were not publicly disclosed, but The Athletic reported in July that LouCity would receive about $100,000 from Sociedad plus about 10%, from a potential future transfer fee of Gómez to a third club.
        .
        Much like MLS now seeing success selling on to Europe and as players showed success, you would think in the future USL to MLS might also fall in line as well.

  6. Am I right to interpret the inclusion of Rochester in MLS II as a shot across the bow of USL?

  7. I have not followed the Rochester saga at all closely.
    .
    The observation I would offer is that MLS charges new entrants huge entry fees, and division one status now requires massive amounts of money at the disposal of ownership. Ownership has to have five years of operating expenses in hand, in addition to the entry fees.
    .
    USL demands only three years operating expenses in hand for the Championship, and less for League One. I have never seen any information on entry fees. I do think I know that current annual fees are $300,000 for the Championship.
    .
    Rochester has not been bringing in revenue for several years now. I would suspect that joining MLS NEXT Pro might be cheaper up front.

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