I think this post warrants a disclaimer: I’m crazy.
I’m crazy in that I have a dream of promotion and relegation coming to the United States. I believe wholeheartedly that every town in the United States able to field a soccer team deserves the opportunity to play their way into the big time. A fundamental part of such a vision includes 100% independence for all of those teams.
Recently Tim Holt, the president of the United Soccer League-Pro, reiterated his desire for his league to form an affiliate relationship with MLS. This season has seen MLS teams like Philadelphia and Kansas City become affiliated with USL Pro sides Orlando and Harrisburg respectively. As part of such an affiliation the MLS teams sent their bench warmers down to these USL Pro teams for playing time. In other words, Orlando and Harrisburg became the AA-affiliates of their respective MLS overlords a la professional baseball in this country.
I hate this. A lot.
I’ve long thought Orlando was worthy of joining MLS, although the hoops the league is making them jump through makes me rethink such a vision. They’d be better off following the path of Indy Eleven and the New York Cosmos: they should join the less restrictive North American Soccer League. But I digress. My point is that setting professional soccer in the US up in the mold of professional baseball is the wrong way to go.
Columbus (and most of the other current MLS sides) saw fit to simply field a reserve team and play a home and home with Dayton Dutch Lions rather than use a current USL Pro side as a storage closet. Now Holt has said he thinks it would be a good idea for MLS teams to go ahead and simply field a “B team” that competes within the USL Pro. I’m fine with that as well. At least all teams involved can maintain their own independence, even if promotion into the NASL and MLS isn’t available for them.
This doesn’t just boil down to my personal ideology though. There’s a developmental benefit to Columbus fielding a “B team” instead of having Dayton (or even Pittsburgh) be their minor league bitch. Kansas City saw their young draft pick Dom Dwyer dominate while with Orlando, but he has yet to take off since being recalled from there. The quality of play across the board in USL Pro isn’t quite up to par with that of MLS (though Larry Johnson makes a compelling case otherwise over at Massive Report) and playing time against such competition isn’t necessarily a good thing for the player’s development. Fielding a “B team” also means the Crew can impose their preferred philosophy/playing style on their younger players without interruption. A minor league affiliate may not necessarily want to play the same way the Crew do and thus the player’s development is hindered even further.
If the Crew are going to completely remake themselves into a world class organization, there has to be one plan in place from top to bottom. That can’t happen if players are consistently being shipped back and forth between Dayton and/or Pittsburgh. Let the younger/reserve players continue to play with one another as the do now and develop some chemistry. Moving them down to a random team simply for the sake of giving them playing time is useless.
Unfortunately it seems likely such affiliate partnerships will eventually take hold and we’ll see more and more MLS teams shipping their fringe players off to strange teams in strange places and harm said players’ development severely. I hope Anthony Precourt and his new front office staff think long and hard about this issue whenever it comes up during the off-season. He’s made a great first impression so far and maintaining the team’s independence (while allowing USL Pro teams to do the same) would earn him a lot of respect in my eyes as a loyal Crew supporter.