One of America’s greatest challenges in building a professional soccer league is identifying youth talent. Major League Soccer (MLS) boasts one of the most diverse leagues in the world, relying on foreign talent to fill the gaps that cannot be filled by domestic players. This strategy has not necessarily lead to success on the field, but it certainly can come at a hefty price to teams that buy more foreign players. The Los Angeles Galaxy have already taken steps toward focusing on the youth players in America by being the first MLS team to field its very own third division team in USL PRO, America’s third division professional soccer league. The LA Galaxy II will field a combination of academy players, homegrown talent, and reserves from the Galaxy’s first team to compete in the USL PRO’s twenty-eight game season. New York Red Bulls sporting director, Andy Roxburgh, also revealed last week the club’s plan to follow the Galaxy’s example in fielding a developmental team in USL PRO starting in 2015. Roxburgh told Soccer By Ives reporter, Franco Panizo,
The league is now telling every club they need to do it (field a USL PRO team) so it won’t be a debate. I’m sure everybody will be doing it at the end of this year.
Roxburgh’s comments reveal the MLS’ intention to improve on youth development and the quality of play on the sporting side. Encouraging teams to expand into the third-division is also a good business decision by the league. MLS teams that create a second team in USL PRO will be able to operate the sporting side of the organization cheaply and efficiently. USL PRO does not restrict the spending of its teams with a salary cap. MLS clubs will be able to sign more players under their third-division team and develop more players without the salary restrictions and roster rules of MLS. Upon the announcement of LA Galaxy II, many began to question whether the team would sign a first-team caliber player under the third-division side and then loan them to the first-division in order to circumvent the MLS salary cap. Assuredly the league would prevent teams from exploiting the system that is aimed at developing younger players. What is important is that MLS clubs will cast out a greater net for developing talent at a lower cost.
Logistically, clubs may take a small financial hit in creating a team in USL PRO because they would have to provide additional money for their USL PRO team to travel across the nation to compete. However, the costs of adding an additional team to the organization also remain relatively low in the grand scheme of things. LA Galaxy II plan on training and playing at the StubHub Center where the first-team plays. Roxburgh revealed the Red Bulls will simply add seating to their new training facility in Whippany, NJ and play games there. MLS clubs can find ways such as these to logistically field a second professional team cost efficiently.
MLS clubs with teams in USL PRO will also increase exposure for the organization, both across the nation and locally when their third-division side plays live matches. As the club’s network expands geographically and commercially, so does the number of people exposed to the product which can lead to an increase in the number of customers who may invest in the organization. MLS has focused recently on expansion and adding teams to the league, including Orlando City SC, New York City FC, among other candidates. As most are aware, MLS operates as a single-entity structure, therefore each team is owned by the league. Despite the expansion fee which team owners must pay MLS in order to operate in the league, all losses incurred by each team are assumed by the broader MLS organization. Expansion in sports is an investment that does not guarantee profit, as is the case in other industries. By encouraging teams to create teams in USL PRO, the league is looking to build depth in its teams rather than width. USL PRO has not indicated whether there is an initial fee for MLS clubs to field a team in the third-division as of yet. Prior to the start of the nineteenth MLS season, Premier League legend, and current New York Red Bull, Thierry Henry told reporters what he thinks will improve the league the most:
Can it be the salary cap? Television (exposure)? Free agency? I’ve said it when I arrived my first year, second year, third year here…. If you want a bright future, you need to fill it. You need to focus on the youth.
MLS expansion to new markets remains a hot topic for American soccer fans. When MLS teams begin to add developmental teams in the third-division, the league will be increasing efforts to grow a sustainable professional soccer league in the United States. Just ask Thierry Henry.