Friday, January 25, 2013

"The New Deal" - Unwrapping the MLS/USL Affiliation Agreement

After months of speculation, Wednesday's announcement made the Major League Soccer & USL Pro partnership official.  MLS & USL Pro have entered into a long-term commitment that will restructure the the current MLS Reserve League.  The agreement also looks toward establishing a USL affiliate for each MLS franchise.  In addition to strengthening player development and a unified league pyramid, MLS could potentially explore opportunities to expand the league by "promoting" USL franchises.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, lets take a moment to unpack this monumental development.  While both leagues would describe the partnership as a work in progress, the framework for the 2013 season is in already in place.  (No Quarter also has an excellent breakdown of the new agreement here)  MLS owners have settled on three options for MLS teams and the lower division league:

<> Affiliation- MLS sides would name an official USL partner that would in-effect serve as their development team.  The deal would include at least four signings loaned to the USL side, with the strong implication that the USL has a weighty say in the process.  
<> Creation- MLS teams could choose to field their own stand-alone USL Pro team.  This choice may be the most beneficial in terms of bolstering the USL Pro league, but it would also prove the most expensive and technically challenging.  
<> Integration- MLS franchises may continue on their current track in the Reserve League, but would have a USL "partner" whom they face a few times throughout the RL season.  

So who's going where??  

Four MLS teams have already announced a USL affiliation:

D.C. United - Richmond Kickers

Philadelphia Union - Harrisburg City Islanders

New England Revolution - Rochester Rhinos

Sporting Kansas City - Orlando City Lions

Since no MLS side has opted to field an independent USL Pro side as of yet, that leaves integration for the remaining teams, with the exception being Chivas USA, who chose to forgo the Reserve League all together.  Initially, there will be two interleague fixtures for each USL side (home & away; except Antigua).  The results will count and be figured in to Reserve League/USL Pro standings, respectively.  The integration assignments for 2013 MLSRL/USL Pro are as follows:

Los Angels Blues vs. Los Angeles Galaxy
VSI Tampa Bay vs. Portland Timbers
Antigua Barracuda FC vs. FC Dallas & San Jose Earthquakes
Charleston Battery vs. Houston Dynamo
Charlotte Eagles vs. Chicago Fire
Dayton Dutch Lions vs. Columbus Crew
Harrisburg City Islanders vs. Colorado Rapids
Orlando City vs. Seattle Sounders FC
Phoenix FC vs. Real Salt Lake
Pittsburgh Riverhounds vs. Toronto FC
Richmond Kickers vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Rochester Rhinos vs. Montreal Impact
Wilmington Hammerheads vs. New York Red Bulls

While such widespread changes could potentially threaten the identity of smaller market USL sides, keep in mind the Charleston Battery has remained at the forefront of the professional soccer scene in the US, not to mention, they are the proud owners of America's first soccer-specific stadium.  Further, Charleston, Richmond and a few other USL teams have been in continuous operation for almost twice as long as Major League Soccer.  Of course, there will be plenty more changes to come in the next several years, but it looks to be a most promising development for American fans of the beautiful game.  

Probably what excites me the most about the whole shebang is an intensified rivalry between inter-league foes in the US Open Cup!!

So here's to the new partnership and another year filled with fantastic football!!  

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