Throughout Major League Soccer's history, fans and critics alike have asked questions of the league's development. Does the college game develop players properly? How can teams develop without academies? Where will the reserve players find minutes?
Recent years have brought to light visions brewing in the background with the creation (and recreation) of the reserve league, residential academies being formed, Generation Adidas contracts being expanded, more publicly understood contracts and more comprehensive scouting by nearly every team in MLS.
The evolution of development took another great leap when Major League Soccer announced a formal partnership with USL Pro, third tier in the American soccer pyramid. A multi-year inter-league partnership that allows MLS Reserve League sides to compete alongside the 13 United Soccer League Pro sides.
The USL's goal has always been one of development, be it in the men's or women's leagues. The agreement with Major League Soccer allows for many types of development. MLS sides will have its Reserve League teams compete at a professional level in real matches, which are far more beneficial than the occasional scrimmage and repetitive training sessions. At present home and home series are being lined up, though in all probability it will go beyond that.
More formal affiliations between clubs can be cultivated. The New England Revolution for example are partnering with the Rochester Rhinos. Geography certainly plays a factor in these relationships which do still face the realities of finances and travels. In all likelihood, Philadelphia will partner with Harrisburg, DC United with Richmond, the LA Galaxy with the LA Blues and so on.
While MLS teams can develop their players in the matches, loan spells are also likely. It's already happened to some extent and this agreement makes it all the more likely. If teams and more specifically coaches can get on the same page philosophically it makes it all the more likely that players will have successful loan stints, but also be able to move up the ladder with ease. Smoother transitions mean better soccer, which translates to better results.
It has already been done with several players, including Corey Hertzog who we profiled about his stint with USL side Wilmington Hammerheads. Think also of those who needed time to develop like Jamie Watson who went from MLS, to PDL, to USL to NASL.
Other examples of partnership include preseason tournaments such as the Desert Diamond Cup hosted by FC Tuscon and the Carolina Cup, which the Charleston Battery often host. Orlando City, whose MLS aspirations are well known, have their own MLS pre-season shindig this year as well.
On the USL front, they now have a huge marketing opportunity. In much the way minor league baseball markets itself as a home for the stars before they're born, the USL can do the same. Just as well, when the teams visit, they'll know with ample time to market the match. Imagine the LA Blues with time to sell tickets for a match against the Galaxy? Not only will single game tickets be sold, but it's more likely packages and season tickets are sold with the promise of MLS matches included.
Add to that the US Open Cup and MLS now has an even more powerful presence across the continent. USL clubs cover more geography than MLS so the marketing is two fold. Suddenly Major League Soccer can insert is brand into previously untouched territory.
Where does the NASL fit?
Where does this leave the second division? It has been written and published on this site more than once that a partnership between Major League Soccer and lower divisions would be beneficial to all involved if done correctly. Recently though, the North American Soccer League has made moves that almost suggest NASL plans to go head to head with MLS as early as 2015.
NASL, the second tier in North American soccer, has multiple teams with Soccer Specific Stadiums with more on the way. The Carolina RailHawks just completed renovations on their stadium, the Scorpions of San Antonio are building a new home and the New York Cosmos have proposed a $400 million dollar complex.
In addition to their stadiums, the second division continues to expand. The Cosmos will begin play in second half of 2013 while NASL Virginia, Ottawa and Indianapolis are expected to arrive in 2014. No salary cap, new stadiums and ambition that comes with adding teams suggests that the NASL sees itself as a potential rival to MLS rather than a blatant understudy. That competition only means good things as competition between teams to fill stadiums, market and produce talent mean more soccer for the masses.
Where NASL ends up in this though remains to be seen and in all likelihood fans won't know until 2017 how successful its growth and success is. Whether it embraces it's current position as second division or vies for a top tier role in North American Soccer could spell success or doom for the league.
Rumors have also sprung that while MLS investigated it's relationship with USL, the NASL was also invited to the table. A move in which reportedly NASL walked. While unconfirmed, it does make one wonder where the NASL views itself going forward.
Reasons for the well documented divide between USL and NASL largely focused on the business model of the two leagues. NASL wanted a more national approach with teams traveling and playing one another while the USL wanted a more region-based fiscally conservative one.
It seems both have gotten there wish and it is to the benefit of all soccer fans across the continent. More matches played, better talent brought in and more coverage of the game only serves the greater good. The beautiful game continues to grow by small steps, leaps and bounds. Regardless, it is growing and that should be celebrated.