The rumors can stop, now - though the speculation will only speed up. Today, MLS and USL Pro announced a deal - rumored since December - that will begin the integration of the MLS Reserve League into USL Pro, the third division of the American soccer pyramid. Many details still have yet to be ironed out, and I'm sure more information will be forthcoming, but here is what we know for now.
1. The rumored club affiliations between MLS reserve teams and USL Pro teams are happening, but they won't be mandatory for any MLS clubs. That is to say that although the Richmond Kickers are geographically close to D.C. United, both clubs will have a big say in whether they affiliate with each other. Per the announcement, we should expect affiliation announcements "in the coming days."
2. MLS sides that choose to affiliate with a USL Pro team will provide at least four players on long-term loans to that USL team. One has to think that short-term loans will also be made easier for MLS teams with USL Pro affiliates. Those MLS teams will also not participate in the MLS Reserve League in 2013 - instead, they will be affiliated with a team competing in USL Pro.
3. This year, each MLS Reserve League team will play two matches against an assigned USL Pro side, one each at the home site of each team (except for Antigua, who will play both games at its assigned MLS team's ground). These interleague games will fully count in the MLSRL and USL Pro standings.
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So, it appears that D.C. United have some decisions to make. (Or, rather, they've probably already made the decisions, but now we get to debate them without already knowing the conclusion - fun!) Do they affiliate with a USL team like the Kickers and forego having their own formal reserve team, or do they continue with the status quo ante affiliation and send out a few players on loans here and there while blooding second-string and academy players in the MLS Reserves?
It's actually a closer question to my mind than I thought it would be. I really thought the affiliation would be a no-brainer, but having to completely forego our own reserve team complicates things. I suppose my answer would depend on the USL affiliate and its willingness (and, of course, ability under transfer rules) to accept players on shorter-term one- or two-game loans. If there are players on the fringes of the first team who we don't want to send away for a full or even half a season, but who still aren't getting enough game time, the Reserve League becomes more valuable. Same with players returning from injury who need to regain match fitness. In those cases those short term loans start to look more necessary if there's no reserve team. Assuming United have a good partner in their USL affiliate, I'm completely behind this move and whatever affiliation United makes with the Kickers or with another team.
It sounds as though this whole arrangement could be moving toward full integration of the MLSRL into USL Pro at some point in the near future, possibly by the 2014 season. If that's the case, that would present another consideration for MLS teams when deciding whether to forge an affiliation agreement - would the club rather compete directly through its reserves (greater control and more games for more players, but possibly overwhelming for limited rosters) or affiliate with an existing USL Pro outfit?
In any event, as I hinted above, the decision has likely already been made. If I were a betting man, I would guess (pure speculation here) that United will be affiliating with a nearby USL team - probably the Kickers - and that we'll be sending young guys like Conor Shanosky and Taylor Kemp along with fringe players like Long Tan down to Richmond for the first half of the season, at least. Remember, it was the rumor of this arrangement and the timing of United's signing of 16-year-old Michael Seaton from the D.C. United Academy that led us to welcome the advent of MLS 3.0.
(UPDATE: The Richmond Kickers have now said that they will be releasing additional details related to this announcement tomorrow, Jan. 24. Our own Benuski is also working to interview Richmond Kickers coach Leigh Cowlishaw sometime this week.)
So, what do you think of the announcement? Do you want to see D.C. United tie the knot with a USL side? Let us hear it in the comments.