The USL Identity Crisis-How to be Competitive in a Development League

The United Soccer League has become a complicated place for soccer fans, especially now that the North American Soccer League seems to be crashing down. It has gone through a number of different hybrids over the years, and has held onto a variety of different visions for what the league is meant to be. Often competing for the tier 2 spot with the NASL in the North American market, the USL has found their main identity crisis to be whether they are an independent professional league, or a development league meant to feed the MLS. Since 2013 after reaching an agreement with the MLS, the USL has become a strange hybrid combining farm-teams with independent teams. 9 of the 30 teams in the USL remain unaffiliated with any MLS club-the remaining teams have either created partnerships, or act as the equivalent of farm teams for the MLS.

What is the USL? That is clearly a complicated question, and I’m not convinced that the league itself really knows the answer. The USL will draw more attention in future years as it becomes the primary tier 2 market spanning North America, and as interest in soccer continues to grow. It is the best place for those seeking a less expensive, more local team to support-although the Canadian Premier League will cause a wrinkle for the USL in Canada when it begins in 2018.

But the close connections that the league has created with MLS is both a blessing and a curse for USL’s success. Connecting with MLS teams ensures that quality players will be funneled through the league, and that money will be available to sustain it. Yet, MLS ownership is focused on building a winning first team-sustaining a competitive USL team is not a top priority. An excellent example of this is the vision that the MLSE organization holds for Toronto FC II. Toronto’s General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko, when asked about the 2016 season for Toronto FC II, said; “as we look to build on the positives from this past season, our main goal is to continue the development of our homegrown and drafted talent into first team players”.

In the same way, Toronto FC II’s head coach Jason Bent explained that he wants to win when he can, but his mandate is to help the first team by developing players. He described seeing Babouli’s transition to the first team as “almost like winning a championship. The pride I take in someone like Mo breaking through, it’s like how a proud father feels when he first sees his kid go away to college. That’s the feeling I get”.

But of course, a transition of an individual player to a higher level of soccer is nothing like winning a championship-especially not to those who are watching the team.

If the Toronto organization’s attitude about Toronto FC II becomes the most prevalent view of coaches and managers among MLS-owned and affiliated USL teams, the league does not have a future beyond simple development. This, I believe-would be a shame. It would be a shame not only because it would remove the ability for small markets to have their own soccer teams in the USL, but it would also, ironically, make MLS-owned USL teams less effective in accomplishing their task of development. The reason for this is because of the differences in the effectiveness of a team-focused versus a player-focused development program.

This may appear to be a pretty thin line-is there truly any difference between the two concepts? The answer, in my opinion, is a definite yes.

I do not believe that the excitement of the USL needs to simply the enjoyment of watching future stars in their early years, nor does the development process need to be restricted to developing individually talented players. Of course, seeing future stars will always be part of the fun in this type of league. Still, the College Football circuit in the United States is a handy example of how lower-tier leagues can gain a great deal of attention in their own right. In order for this to happen, the coaches and managers of the league must act as lobbyists for their own teams. Their priority needs to be on developing a winning team that can successfully compete at their level.

The value for development in this approach is the creation of a winning culture early-on in a player’s career.

Of course, it is clearly important that teams have their stars. Toronto FC II currently has Raheem Edwards on their roster-a young and exciting player who will hopefully have a bright future playing in the MLS or CPL. He was called up twice in the 2016 season, and saw minutes during the exciting Amway Championship final. Understandably, Edwards jumped at the opportunity. Yet, it is short stints such as these that serve to diminish the strength of the Toronto FC II team, decreasing the potential for a winning culture. The goal for a Toronto FC II player is not to help his team to victory, it is to stand out enough to be selected by the first team. This type of attitude is not one that should be encouraged in a development system, yet it is inevitable with the current relationship between the first and second teams of Toronto FC and other MLS-USL partnerships. There is clearly something to be said for developing a culture of winning in the lower ranks of a team’s development system. It breeds confidence and experience in handling the pressures that come from playoff soccer. But such a culture is incredibly difficult to create if players can and are being poached at any time. Imagine if Sebastian Giovinco could be taken from Toronto at any moment, regardless of where the Reds are in the season-such uncertainty and inconsistency in the roster of a team can make it nearly impossible to create an effective roster. The question can be boiled down to what is more important for a player’s development: gaining experience on the main squad through occasional call ups, or gaining experience being dedicated to a single team focused on winning championships. I believe the answer to this question is clear-instilling into a developing player an aptitude for winning is much more important than the brief moments of experience they can gain through occasional call-ups. Some of the most fascinating stories around soccer have to do with the intangible and unknowable factors. The home advantage is incredibly marked in soccer, more than any other sport. The same value exists in a team’s culture. If a team does not have a winning culture, that team will struggle with winning. Players need to feel that their club is meant to be great, and that they have it in their power to make that difference. Basic skills are important, and training is ongoing-but the value of playing in a professional league on a team that embodies a winning culture cannot be overstated.

I truly hope those in the USL system really begin to understand how important it is to develop a competitive league with teams that care about winning. Jason Bent’s allegiance needs to be with Toronto FC II, to the point that he experiences disappointment rather than joy when he loses a good player to the first team. That is the type of coach that will breed an attitude of success and loyalty in a team, and will create quality players that will be of use all the way up the ladder. There will come a time-hopefully sooner rather than later-that MLS teams that have the most effective academies and development systems will become the clubs that stand above the rest in club success. MLS teams should consider well whether or not they want to squander the opportunity to have their players gain real experience in a professional league. Because, if the owners allow the USL to fall into the trap of becoming a mere farm-team league, a great opportunity will have been lost.

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Nathanael Martin

Nathanael Martin

Nathanael is a Political Theory MA graduate Not-For-Profit Professional who spends way too much of his time reading about, writing on, and watching the beautiful game. After playing soccer throughout childhood, his love was rekindled when Toronto FC gave him the opportunity to cheer for a local soccer team on the national stage. Since then, he has become passionate about Canadian soccer and the development of Canadian players through the Toronto Academy system and other branches of Canadian soccer.

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