While Kaká and Giovinco are generating headlines, you”ll need to look outside MLS for the future of football in the United States
Since we’ve spent the last number of months drowning in news about MLS’s C.B.A. negotiations (and thankfully we’ll have a season to watch), it’s worth acknowledging that after years of anxiety-riddled-adolescence men’s soccer in the United States has never been stronger.
Obviously the national team has had some sputtering performances in recent months, but they present concrete challenges for any opponent. And while MLS is still a decade or two away from reaching its full potential, it now exceeds average per game attendance in the NBA and NHL, and is creeping in on the numbers of Europe’s most storied leagues.
But while plenty of attention will be dedicated to the comings and goings of David Villa, Kaká and the arrival of the next foreign superstar, where MLS is most pregnant with possibility is at the grass roots level. Firmly set below our top domestic league is a developmental ecosystem that is thriving far beyond what most fans, players and coaches could have imagined just a decade ago.
The crucial number is two; that is II, as in, LA Galaxy II, Seattle Sounders FC II, Portland Timbers II, New York Red Bulls II, and counting. All are a part of USL (formerly USL Pro), a league of twenty-four teams, eight of which are MLS owned and operated franchises. Twelve more are MLS affiliated, solidifying a partnership that may not mean much to the average soccer fan today, but it will in the near future, and USL doesn’t mind saying so.
“The rising tide of soccer across North America is unstoppable,” USL boldly pronounce on their website. “The world’s game will also be the No. 1 sport here, in time. Never before has the time been more right for the USL to rise to the occasion and be recognized as the new-generation professional league it has become. Now is our time. Soccer is rising, and so is the USL.”
In short time USL hopes to expand from twenty-four to forty clubs, adding strength to an organization that is fully capable of supporting the development needs of MLS clubs, giving young players a firm professional stepping stone if they choose to forego college, and summer playing and training opportunities for standout college performers in its amateur partner the Premier Development League (PDL, which has sixty-three teams).
According to Mike Jacobs, USL’s Executive Vice President for Corporate Operations and League Development, the addition of USL into America’s professional pathway is essential for the overall growth of the game.
“What we’ve established with MLS at this point is far more substantial than what we had in place twenty years ago, and now we can support a much wider population of players than Project 40 was able to reach,” said Jacobs.
Jacobs coached at the University of Evansville for nine seasons, and remains a staunch advocate of the college game as a vehicle of development. But for him, “the MLS/USL partnership enhances the development opportunities for 18-22 year olds casino online who might be ready to go pro, but aren’t physically, psychological or emotionally prepared for MLS.”
In recent years USL has been the launching pad for players like United States U-20 international Bradford Jameison IV and Dom Dwyer of Sporting Kansas City. It also gave Tommy Thompson, a highly touted San Jose Earthquakes prospect, immediate playing time after he left Indiana University at the end of his freshman season.
But with all the developmental advantages in mind, Jacobs was keen to point out, USL is as competitive for MLS II teams as it is for storied independent clubs like the Rochester Rhinos. “For those who think of USL as an exclusively ‘developmental’ league, remember that LA Galaxy II went to the semifinals of our league championship in 2014, so this isn’t just a feeder system.”
Not only does USL’s competitive spirit present players with a desirable opportunity to hone their craft, it’s also inspired fans across the country to support their local clubs. In 2014, over 600,000 fans witnessed USL matches first hand, in intimate fan friendly environments, creating a sense of community and connection for the clubs and their supporters. In a recent preseason exhibition, the defending champion Sacramento Republic played in front of 20,000 spectators, at Hughes Stadium, and Real Monarchs SLC have just drafted plans for an 8,000 seat soccer specific venue they hope to have ready for 2016.
In addition to USL, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy is alive and well, establishing the foundational infrastructure that’s beginning to mirror European and Latin American club cultures. But unlike Europe and Latin America, the United States possesses a developmental advantage that is virtually impossible to replicate; namely, college.
With respect to the relationship between MLS, USL, the academies and college soccer, Jacobs was fully confident in the structure we currently have in place. “The reality is that very few 18-year-olds are going to secure regular playing roles in MLS, and there’s no other country in the world that can offer the range of opportunities we provide the 18 to 22 year old age group.”
Where so many players in Europe and Latin America will be dropped from the pro environment in those years, the United States now has multiple paths to professional soccer that are firmly rooted in our communal, economic and educational infrastructure. For Jacobs, “most of these kids should go to college, which is why a lot of pro clubs are starting to endow scholarships for younger players who take the risk of going to the pros.” Which suggests that college soccer will continue to build on an already strong foundation of history and talent, while elite players won’t be cut off from a college education if they take the leap.
All of which points to the fact that America is poised to possess the most vibrant, and populous, development system on the planet.
So smile … winter’s almost over … MLS kicks off tomorrow … USL is on the rise … go watch your local PDL, college or university team. And when you do, remember, you’re a part of an ecosystem that will soon be the envy of federations around the world.
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