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More details on the MLS Reserve League-USL Pro integration deal

In a press call today, MLS and USL clarified further details of the integration of the MLS Reserve League into USL Pro, announced yesterday. The big takeaway: 2013 is "merely the first phase," and much more is to come over the next few years.

Bob Levey

In a conference call with media today, MLS Executive Vice President for Competition and Player Relations (EVPCPR?) Todd Durbin and USL President Tim Holt made very clear that yesterday's announcement that the MLS Reserve League would begin integration into the USL Pro schedule this year was only the beginning. Holt referred to 2013 as "merely the first phase" of an integration process that Durbin indicated will develop over the next one to two years.

The biggest new detail to be announced is a third means of participation for MLS clubs. We learned yesterday that MLS teams who participate, which for 2013 will include all the U.S.-based teams save for Chivas USA, will have two options. The first is to form an affiliation with a USL Pro organization and withdraw from the MLS Reserve League (MLSRL). This involves sending players on season-long loans to the affiliate club and whatever other technical or business arrangements the two clubs make. Right now, only the New England Revolution and Sporting Kansas City have announced affiliation deals (with the Rochester Rhinos and Orlando City FC, respectively), but it is widely expected that D.C. United will announce a deal with the Richmond Kickers and the Philadelphia Union will continue and expand their relationship with the Harrisburg City Islanders. The second option for MLS teams is to continue to field a reserve side, with the MLSRL beginning interleague play with USL Pro. In 2013, this will only involve 2 games with USL sides, but the plan is eventually to develop a full 20+ game reserve league season with many more interleague matches.

Today we learned about a third option: MLS clubs will also be able to form standalone USL Pro teams with which to affiliate. These new MLS club-owned USL sides will most likely consist of players under contract with the USL team (i.e. not eligible for MLS without a new contract) and some number of players loaned from the MLS side of the combined operation. In any event, the league does not foresee any imminent change to the 30-man roster size.

Durbin said that this 3-option model is designed to give teams flexibility and to help build the lower division over several years. Saying that the agreement's impact goes beyond youth development, he added that a "vibrant and robust lower level is critical" to growing both the game generally and MLS in particular. Durbin pointed to MLS' stated goal to be among the top world leagues by 2022 and noted that this deal has major "strategic importance" in the pursuit of that goal.

On the USL side, Holt indicated that the deal represents a "great opportunity" for envisioned expansion of the lower level, especially with the ability to work with MLS to enter and build up markets that do not have a recent soccer history. USL Pro has focused in recent years on regional (rather than national) competition, which saves on travel costs for its clubs, and it will continue to follow that path under its agreement with MLS.

In response to questions about the practical application of the deal, Durbin spoke about the U.S. Open Cup and the participation of academy players from teams who affiliate with USL Pro sides. On the former, he noted that the USOC has a cup tying mechanism that only allows any given player to appear for one team during each iteration of the tournament: An player on loan from MLS who appears for a USL affiliate in the Open Cup will not be able to appear in an Open Cup game for his parent club during the same season. It will be up to the affiliated clubs to decide which players will be eligible to appear in the Open Cup games and whether on-loan players who do appear in the tournament will be eligible to play against their parent club.

Durbin sounded confident that academy players who appear for USL Pro sides alongside professional players will not be putting their NCAA eligibility into jeopardy. That is currently the case with MLS Reserve League matches, which can feature up to five academy players per side. The NCAA, of course, only allows amateurs to play and has recently treated as eligible those players who have played with professionals without having been paid themselves. As with everything else in this new deal, the participation of unsigned academy players will depend on the contours of each individual affiliate agreement between an MLS club and a USL Pro side.

So, what does this mean for D.C. United? Everybody is expecting an announcement about the team's affiliation with the USL's Richmond Kickers soon, really, any time now - we'll have Benuski's interview with Kickers head coach Leigh Cowlishaw on the subject later today. As for these new developments, it gives MLS teams, including United, a way to pick their level of involvement in the reserve league setup. Teams with more resources can charter their own USL team and control every aspect of player development in-house by "loaning" their own players to their own USL shop. Teams can experiment with different levels of involvement with and influence over outside USL teams or can simply join in an eventually-expanded MLS Reserve League.

The more I think about it, the more I like United's path here. Players like Long Tan or Taylor Kemp or Ethan Raynr or Andrew Dykstra or even Raphael Agusto aren't likely to make much impact on the first team, especially early in the year. Giving them truly competitive games in the USL will help their development by putting them into situations where they are competing to see the field and playing in games where the outcome actually matters, which just isn't the case with reserve league games.

Tim Holt and Todd Durbin are right about one thing, regardless. This is just the beginning of the partnership, and I think the sky is the limit for what it could do for development in this country.