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MLS-USL Pro Partnership Official But Many Questions Remain

MLS officially announced a pretty significant partnership yesterday with USL Pro. This means many things for the league and the Fire and could be a significant point in MLS history

Is this the next big point in Don Garber's career as MLS commissioner?
Is this the next big point in Don Garber's career as MLS commissioner?
Ronald Martinez

Back at the beginning of January I wrote about the rumors of the MLS trying to create a partnership with one of the lower division leagues in order to revamp the MLS Reserve League (MLSRL). Here is the link to that article for your convenience if you have yet to read it.

Yesterday afternoon, MLS officially announced a partnership with the USL Pro division to help with the ailing MLSRL. Let's see how it is going to work heading into the 2013 season. Here are some thoughts on how the rumor from the beginning of January has matched up to what has been released on Wednesday and how it will affect the Fire.

  • Each of the 13 USL Pro teams will be paired with a single MLS team and play a home-and-home series.
  • Each MLS team is not required to have a USL Pro affiliate, but if they do have an affiliation with a USL Pro team then that MLS team cannot compete in the MLSRL.
  • If a MLS team partners with a USL team than the MLS team will include at least 4 players on a long term loan to the USL team.
  • Affiliations will be tailored to the needs of each specific team.

Those are a few of the specifics that were released, so let's compare to what I wrote at the beginning of January:

  • The MLS side will provide up to 5 players for the local USL Pro team.
  • If there is no USL Pro team near the MLS side then the reserve team will become the USL Pro team.
  • All USL Pro teams will be affiliated with an MLS team.

Now for the fun part of analyzing what has been released compared to what was rumored and what the actual outcome will be. I will start with the point that MLS teams can choose not to be affiliated with a USL Pro team. These MLS teams will still play in the MLSRL but have 2 additional games to play against a USL Pro team in a home-and home matchup every season. So for those MLS teams with no affiliation how many total games will that give each team in the new MLSRL? In the case of the Fire, last year they played 10 games. So does that mean they will play 12 games total this year? That does not seem like a major improvement to me for the teams that have no affiliation. Unlike those that will be affiliated, their players will have the chance to play up to 24 regular season games plus playoffs. Just to get it out of the way, according to a Jeff Crandall tweet on Wednesday afternoon, the Fire will not have a USL Pro affiliate.

To also expand on the home-and-home series, according to the release 1 USL Pro team will be paired with a MLS team for this. I don't see how this helps the MLS. I can see that the USL Pro teams would like it because it will give them a chance to bring in a MLS squad (albeit a reserve squad) into their home stadiums for their fans. Maybe I'm just reading this the wrong way but why not have more than just 2 inter-league games?

On the opposite side of the spectrum, teams with a USL Pro affiliation have to provide the USL team with at least 4 players on loan. The 4 players minimum will be on an extended loan but rumblings over the Twitterverse and down in KC have said that the players can be recalled but have to be replaced by another MLS player. So for instance, if a MLS team with a roster of 30 players loans out 5 players to a USL side, that would leave that MLS team 25 players to choose a game day roster from. Now, the 7 players that don't make the game day roster can sit on the bench for months and get no game experience. If those teams decide to do a rotation with their players with the USL side I can guarantee that the USL coach would absolutely hate this because he would not be able to develop continuity throughout the season. As Tweed Thornton mentioned to me, "loans were perfectly legal before and happened on occasion". This brings up the question why MLS teams were reluctant to loan players to lower division teams? Was it because the MLS wanted their reserve league to work so they frowned upon teams that actually loaned players out to lower division sides? Who knows. It was very rare that you heard about the Fire loaning players to lower division sides. The last player I can remember going out on loan was Kwame Watson-Siriboe back in 2011 when he went to FC Tampa Bay for the season because he wasn't getting ample minutes in Chicago.

It sounds like MLS will want as many of their teams to have affiliations with the 13 USL Pro teams as possible in the near future. According to Guillermo Rivera over at Fire Confidential, only 4 MLS sides will be affiliated with USL Pro teams for 2013. Those teams that will have affiliations are Revs-Rhinos (official), SKC-Orlando (official), DC-Richmond (unofficial), and Philly-Harrisburg (Unofficial). That leaves 15 teams left in the MLSRL. Not to mention even if every MLS team wanted a USL Pro affiliation, there are 19 MLS teams and only 13 USL Pro teams.

How is the MLSRL going to be set up in 2013? In 2012 the reserve games were played within a team's geographic location, which mean East Coast teams played each other, Midwest teams played each other, and West Coast teams played each other. The main reason for this was to reduce travel expenses and logistical problems for teams. What about for 2013? Is it going to be the same way but have those 2 extra games against a USL opponent? When it comes down to logistics for this year I highly doubt that teams will want to pay that extra cost of travel expenses just to play a reserve league game. This would go against the very reason the league went to the current format of regional play.

When I first wrote about this subject I was thinking that the point of doing this was to have either: MLS sides become integrated with USL Pro teams or have MLS reserve sides becomes USL teams. I thought this could have been great for MLS had they gone this route. It would have been like in Europe where some teams field their "B" squads in lower divisions. This would have given something more tangible to those reserves teams to play for. It would have given them the USL Pro title to play for, not just to be crowned MLS reserve champions (is there even a trophy for that?).

I know that Ryan Sealock tweeted earlier yesterday that this is a great thing for the progress of the league. At first when I heard the rumors in January I thought the same thing. After reading the details that were released and thinking about how it could actually work, I don't know if this could actually benefit the league. Tweed also questions if there is anything stopping the Fire from creating and running their own USL Pro side. What if the Fire want to loan players to NASL sides instead?Would we be allowed to do that?

These are some of the issues that MLS will have to address before it can finalize the details of how the partnership with the USL Pro and the MLSRL is going to work. There are just way too many questions with a lack of answers right now and I hope in the coming weeks or months MLS will be able to clarify the details in order to make this work for all parties involved.