Back in January, when MLS announced its affiliation with USL Pro, the third division of the American soccer pyramid, the league in short order promised that the current setup, wherein MLS teams have the option of sending a number of players on season-long loans to an affiliated club without sacrificing those players' league eligibility, would be just the first step. Last week, the league announced the second step of the process to improve the reserve league: at the All Star Game, league executive vice president of player relations & competition Todd Durbin explained to media, "Right now, the strategic path is to try and rotate away from our Reserve League such that all of our teams are either participating in the USL PRO through an affiliation or through a standalone team, hopefully by the end of 2015."
Let that sink in. Right now, only four teams affiliate with USL Pro sides - D.C. United, the New England Revolution, Sporting Kansas City and the Philadelphia Union. That number could grow to 10 next year, and by the season after that, every single MLS team, the league hopes, will either affiliate with a club in USL Pro or enter their own reserve team into that league. That's a couple of pretty huge jumps, and - I have to say - it makes perfect sense, for all the reasons we talked about when the initiative first launched at the beginning of this year. Especially the part about MLS clubs launching their own, essentially in-house USL Pro affiliates.
So, where does D.C. United's stadium proposal on Buzzard Point enter into this? As we all know, United and the Richmond Kickers have affiliated for this year, with players like MIchael Seaton, Andrew Dykstra, Conor Shanosky, Casey Townsend and Collin Martin all spending some amount of time down in the commonwealth. That agreement is for one year, but with the results we've seen in regular, meaningful minutes for the loaned players, there's little reason to think it won't be renewed for 2014 and even for 2015. In it's short time, the partnership has really been nothing but successful, as United's young talent is getting games while the Kickers sit in first place.
In 2016, though, if all goes according to plan, there will be a shiny new stadium in Southwest DC, providing heretofore unavailable revenue streams to D.C. United and potentially giving the team, for the first time in its history, something closer to complete control over the scheduling of events in the building. Given those developments, and the club's escape from the not insignificant burden of paying rent for each game it holds at RFK, what's to stop D.C. United from fielding a United B side in USL Pro?
All the hurdles - revenue, schedule control, rent costs - will be gone, and the only thing that could stand in the way would be ambition, or lack thereof. The team would realize all the benefits that come from the partnership with Richmond, but even more so. Players would train with the first team all the time, rather than shuttling from the District to Richmond every Friday. They would spend more time under the tutelage of United's coaches, who won't depend on another staff (as first rate as Kickers coach/everything Leigh Cowlishaw and his people are) for reports on players' progress. First team players we don't want to send on loan for any extended period of time but who aren't seeing MLS minutes due to fitness or form could get game time in their home stadium and under the eyes of DCU trainers and coaches.
Adding USL Pro games to the calendar would also be a boon for the new stadium. It would provide more events that would bring more people to the neighborhood on more dates. Depending on how the club approaches reserve/USL games, it could add value to season ticket holders and/or create a lower cost ticket for families looking to get to the stadium. (Hell, in the dream scenario, where United embarks on a sell-out streak like Portland, Seattle or KC, it would create tickets that are available at all.)
As great as the affiliation with Richmond has been for D.C. United, it's clear that launching its own team in USL Pro - once United moves into its stadium - would be even better for the Black-and-Red.
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