Name that American club: they squeezed into the playoffs on the last day of the season, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion in added extra time of their first round match; they increased their attendance by 50% in the last three years; they play in a beautiful stadium within a mile of the river, commanding a major portion of their city’s sports fandom; in 2011, they beat Columbus Crew and Sporting Kansas City away in the U.S. Open Cup. I forgive you if your mind ran through MLS teams and came up empty.
This team, the Richmond Kickers of the United Soccer League, poses questions to those who doubt the breadth and depth of soccer fandom in the United States. Since reaching an agreement to integrate with the MLS Reserve League in 2013, the USL has exploded. A key term of the integration was that each MLS team would either directly own a USL club or negotiate an affiliation agreement to loan players. Four MLS teams affiliated immediately: Sporting Kansas City, Philadelphia Union, D.C. United (with the Kickers) and New England Revolution. The next year, Oklahoma City and Sacramento opened independent USL franchises. MLS club LA Galaxy also purchased the rights to a USL franchise, starting a major trend in the USL’s development.
Essentially, Galaxy’s MLS Reserve side moved directly into USL, providing more playing time for untested youngsters. USL fielded 14 teams in 2014. USL rode the wave by welcoming 11 new teams for the 2015 season. New affiliated franchises opened in Charlotte (Colorado Rapids), Saint Louis (Chicago Fire), Louisville (Orlando City), and Austin (Columbus Crew). Seven MLS teams purchased their own franchises. There will be 28 teams in 2016, and 30 in 2017. The league is on a meteoric ascent.
The agreement has already paid dividends for both MLS and USL clubs. In some cases, the affiliation was a formalization of an already strong relationship, says Leigh Cowlishaw, Director of Soccer at Richmond Kickers. In a phone interview, Cowlishaw described the ease with which the two teams formed a partnership: “it was a very easy transition for us. We already had a strong tradition of loaning players from DC United, and they had moved in some of our players onto their first team.” As the gas giant dominating the U.S. soccer solar system, MLS’s pull inevitably attracts most of the country’s top talent. Although Richmond falls outside DC United’s “Homegrown Player” radius, many MLS teams can pull young talent away from smaller clubs via the Homegrown rule. As a result, Cowlishaw said, it can be difficult to convince players to come play in Richmond despite the club’s rich tradition and thorough youth setup. The affiliation helps with this problem.
“It’s natural for those college players to want to get on MLS rosters. We have to find the right player who wants to come play in Richmond. [The affiliation] is a fairly good opportunity to expand [DC United’s] resources with players that our budget would not be able to have.” Richmond Kickers fielded four young DC United players during the 2015 season, and although none were stars, defenders Luke Mishu and Jalen Robinson and goalkeeper Travis Worra all started more than ten games. In many cases, the MLS tag can give teams the credibility needed to draw crowds. The league’s average draw has grown 29% since the affiliation, even with the loss of huge drawer Orlando City to MLS and the addition of many low-drawing MLS-R teams.
Further, the MLS label may help lend stability to the traditionally transient lower league setup. Since 1993, the Kickers have played in 4 different leagues at varying “tiers” of U.S. soccer. The official agreement lends a sense of permanence to the USL, something that U.S. soccer development sorely needs.
MLS clubs also have much to gain from partnering with USL clubs. First and foremost, said Cowlishaw, “it’s an extension of their player development pyramid. Players aren’t going to develop the best by playing in front of empty stadiums.” Young players participate in meaningful USL games alongside players who are fully invested in the success of the club. Enduring the stress of crucial late-season battles and playoff games can forge a stronger young player.
“Players aren’t going to develop the best by playing in front of empty stadiums – Leigh Cowlishaw, Richmond Kickers director of soccer
Unlike in MLS-R, veterans of USL play alongside young players looking to make their name in MLS, allowing mentorship and acclimation to a professional environment.
The challenges faced in USL are very different for independently operated teams and MLS-B sides. There are pros and cons of prioritizing the USL in the way that Cowlishaw and the Kickers do. For teams such as LA Galaxy II (Los Dos) and Portland Timbers 2, the calculation is relatively simple, Cowlishaw noted. “They have a seamless system,” he said. “The MLS draft is moving towards being signed for the second tier, and it is natural for those college players to want to get on MLS rosters.” These teams have little worry about financial stability or fan engagement, or indeed USL success.
Bankrolled by the parent club and in most cases free to use high-quality facilities, MLS second teams don’t need strong fan followings. They can afford to give their product away cheaply, and play at training grounds or smaller venues: Galaxy II’s season tickets run at $5 per game. In many cases, MLS-B teams don’t even have to care about winning. No MLS-B team was in the top 7 of the final standings in USL, and 5/8 of them missed the playoffs. “Rosters can change dramatically based on first team games,” Cowlishaw pointed out.
Playing against an MLS-B team is also very different from going to an established USL stadium. MLS-B rosters contain many young, inexperienced players. Their priorities are simply different. Despite the possibilities of greater USL success and a lower financial commitment that come with an affiliated team, many MLS teams value the ability to closely manage and groom their players closer to home. When the Montreal Impact announced the launching of FC Montreal in 2014, club president Joey Saputo cited the desire of the club “[wanting] the players to play within our structure … [and] want the coaches to have a better eye on the players.”
This is a valid concern; Cowlishaw pointed out that Richmond Kickers had no obligation to play its D.C. United loanees. He was quick to draw the line between B-teams and independent USL clubs like Kickers. The two operate on very different models; the independent clubs face all of the challenges of their MLS counterparts without the same financial clout, including fully competitive player selection.
With the expansion of MLS-B teams, and the MLS Superdraft’s increasing pull, finding players is difficult for Kickers. “It’s very difficult to recruit players as we don’t have a wealthy ownership group and don’t profit in many ways,” Cowlishaw described. “There is more competition for players, and we continue to have to find the right niche.”
Furthermore, attendance and fan experience are frivolous for MLS-B teams but vital for independent USL sides. Of the eight MLS-B programs, only 3 had average attendances of more than 2,000. Toronto FC II’s game against Wilmington Hammerheads drew 50 spectators. Conversely, Cowlishaw said that Richmond Kickers’ foremost concern is their fan experience: “we want to make Richmond Kickers the focal point of Richmond fans by providing a fantastic fan experience.” He said he hopes for attendance to reach 5 to 7 thousand in the next few years.
The opportunities available to independent USL teams embody what is exciting about the future of U.S. soccer. “The beauty of U.S. soccer is that it’s totally dependent on each marketplace. [Bethlehem Steel F.C., the Philadelphia Union’s newly announced USL side] could have their own tradition outside of Philadelphia Union. MLS clubs are expanding their marketplaces.”
Despite the concerns voiced by many that the aforementioned Bethlehem Steel FC will be subsumed by the Philadelphia Union’s identity, Cowlishaw emphasizes that Richmond has been able to maintain their brand. “We have a very strong identity. We have a huge youth club, almost five thousand players, and attendance is increasing dramatically. We have great facilities, a great surface, and we can bring in top class international competition.”
He believes that Bethlehem Steel are capable of forging their own image independent of the Union. It’s an exciting time for Kickers and for MLS. The league is expanding, attendances are high and expectations are higher. The team has a quality coaching system and a burgeoning academy. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the future of soccer is bright outside MLS. Promotion and relegation, anyone?