A divisional drop could be in store for some of MLS’ USL sides shortly, according to a recent report from The Athletic’s Sam Stejskal.
According to the report, in just a few years’ time, Timbers 2 and other MLS-affiliated USL teams could be opening their season in USL League One — the third division of men’s professional soccer in the United States — instead of the USL Championship (the second division).
The USL cites poor attendance record among the nine affiliates and MLS sides prioritizing development over results as some of the key factors in its decision. Stejskal reported that all nine of the MLS sides rank in the bottom ten of league attendance. For reference, T2’s average attendance is listed at 2,140 a game, good for 28th in the league. In the case of MLS teams, the reasoning for the attendance drop off is simple: In those markets, fans have the first team to follow, and they only keep tabs on the USL team to monitor the development of promising players. For cities such as Albuquerque, Indianapolis, and Sacramento — the three teams that bring in the highest average attendances — the USL is the highest level of soccer there is.
When it comes to the primary focus of each team, MLS sides tend to favor development, while independent clubs prioritize results. The thought process is fairly simple: It doesn’t matter whether the team wins 4-3 or loses 0-2. As long as younger players receive experience and the parent club has new data to draw upon for evaluative purposes, everything is fine. On the other hand, independent clubs focus a lot more time and resources with the goal of winning a championship each season, regardless of how old or experienced the team is.
Sometimes, though, development works out — and Timbers fans have seen some of that first-hand this season through T2. Players such as Marvin Loria and Renzo Zambrano have proved themselves as first-team rotation players, while others, such as Eryk Williamson, Tomas Conechney, and Marco Farfan, have shown flashes of their potential. (It has also given Dairon Asprilla a place to excel.) One of the teams’ main arguments revolves around how they will be able to further develop young players if they aren’t able to compete against the best sides in the second division. Sure, prospects will continue to receive playing time in USL League One, but the competition is much younger and does not provide as stiff of a test that could further boost development.
The whole idea from a USL perspective is to improve the level of competition while making the Championship a strong second level of American soccer that can stand apart from the single-entity MLS. While clubs such as the New York Red Bulls, Los Angeles Galaxy, Portland Timbers, and Seattle Sounders may not be happy about the proposal, they will reportedly be able to remain in the division if they make some key adjustments.
Sources described USL as wanting to “raise the standards for all Championship clubs,” Stejskal reported. “Broadly, that means having high-level facilities, staffing appropriately on both the business and soccer sides, and making real efforts to field a winning team and to make inroads in the market.”
“If MLS-owned teams hit those standards, and sources pointed out that several likely would, USL would be happy to keep them in the Championship. If not, they would want them to drop to League One.”
Everything is still up in the air as both sides continue to go back and forth with one another. At the end of his report, Stejskal noted that the topic will be discussed in Orlando at the MLS Board of Governors meeting and USL league meetings at the end of the month.
Will T2 and MLS affiliates be in USL League One in a few years? Will this bring back/add to the conversation of promotion and relegation? There are a lot of uncertainties for sure. For now, there’s the present to worry about, and T2 will continue their stellar season on Saturday night as they take on Fresno FC at 7:30 p.m.