MLS in Focus: The USL Partnership

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

by RYAN BRISTER

In early 2013, Major League Soccer announced a partnership with what was then called USL Pro; the third-tier league in the U.S. and Canada.

At the time, the agreement added a couple games against USL opponents to the very short schedules played by the existing MLS Reserve League. Some teams went a step further and loaned players out to USL clubs. The set-up was a bit haphazard, but a step in the right direction for player development.

Things have evolved quickly in the two years since, and the ties between the two leagues have deepened. Now, eight MLS teams have reserve sides playing the full 28-game USL schedule, and every other team has an affiliate with which to make loan deals. The result is significantly more playing opportunities for young MLS players, and in a more competitive environment than the reserve league.

The partnership is still growing, and many teams are not taking full advantage of it just yet. But here are a few players who have already benefited from their time in the USL


Anatole Abang

USL2

After signing with the Red Bulls in March, the 19-year-old Cameroonian forward has made an impact in both MLS and the USL for the Red Bulls. He scored five goals for the senior team, including one in the Open Cup against the Cosmos, during his rapid burst onto the scene in June and July. He briefly pushed Bradley Wright-Phillips out wide, using his size and strength as a lone striker. A dip in form and RBNY’s summer signings have limited his playing time of late, but Abang appears to have a bright future ahead of him.

Bradford Jamieson IV

USL

Before missing significant time recently with a concussion, Jamieson was one of the brightest teenagers in MLS this season. He’s played in seven games for both the Galaxy and Los Dos, and has scored at both levels this season. Last year, as a 17-year-old, Jamieson was able to play more than 1,200 minutes in USL, scoring six goals. He’s one of a few homegrown players coming up with the Galaxy, because the rich just get richer.

Tim Parker

USL3

Parker was drafted 13th out of St. John’s in January, but the Vancouver center back has quickly risen since starting the season in the USL. In nine MLS starts, he has earned praise from both head coach Carl Robinson and goalkeeper David Ousted. Parker has come up big with goals on set pieces in both the Canadian Championship and CONCACAF Champions League.

Richie Marquez

USL4

When the Union drafted Richie Marquez in the third round of last year’s Superdraft, the defender was in no way ready for MLS. Marquez played college soccer for the University of Redlands, in division III. But he spent all of 2014 with the Harrisburg City Islanders, making 28 appearances in the USL. This year, Marquez has earned a starting job in the Union’s back line, pushing aside more expensive and highly touted players. With Marquez in the line-up, Philly has given up 1.4 goals per game; that average jumps to 1.85 goals per game without him.

Justen Glad

USL5

You don’t see a lot of teenage defenders receive playing time, but 18-year-old Justen Glad has made six starts for Real Salt Lake this season. He began the year playing for their new USL side, but injuries afforded him an opportunity in MLS. He’s been called up to the U.S. U-20 team.


This is more correlation than causation, but of the eight teams who have created USL sides, seven are currently in playoff spots in MLS. It takes an ambitious owner to start a new team for the purposes of development, and those ambitious owners have typically been the ones who have success at the MLS level. As the USL season winds down, currently the Red Bulls and Galaxy reserves are in playoff positions, with Sounders 2 just outside.

For most of the teams involved, this is just the first year of fielding full-fledged reserve sides in the USL. Philadelphia, Houston, and Orlando plan to start USL sides of their own in 2016, and more are probably on the way. The players I mentioned above are in theory just the tip of the iceberg for the partnership between the two leagues, and the full results will take years to realize. The additional playing opportunities it provides to young players is going to be a big asset for MLS going forward.