If you ask the stereotypical promotion/relegation advocate on Twitter about his thoughts on the relationship between MLS and the third-division USL, he'll probably respond with some form of the phrase, "I believe all
football soccer clubs in this country deserve a chance to compete at the highest level. I believe a free and open league structure is what the United States needs to be taken seriously as a football soccer nation."
It is clear to me, now, that this is an impossibility. You can blame Branch Rickey.
I often find myself wondering about an alternate history of baseball in the United States, not simply because I like baseball, but also for soccer reasons. Baseball is the historical sport of this country, and as such it set the precedent for, and informs our opinions of, how American professional sports operate. It can also be easily paralleled with the history of soccer in England and the world at large.
Baseball wasn't always the organized machine we see today, with a neatly stacked rung of minor leagues whose members' sole purpose is to develop players for their affiliated major league clubs. Once upon a time, minor league baseball teams played in regional independent leagues across the country -- such as the Western League, the Pacific Coast League, and the Missouri Valley League -- as independent clubs who sold off their best prospects much in the same fashion we see from smaller soccer clubs in Europe.
This history is very similar to, for purposes of example, the history of The Football League in England. Prior to the legalized professionalism of soccer in 1885, clubs participated in local and regional competitions and the FA Cup. The Football League was founded it 1888 and, for the first four seasons, its member clubs were re-elected after each season. The concept of promotion and relegation didn't enter the fray until the League absorbed a rival league, the Football Alliance, into a second division in 1892.
In baseball, a league hierarchy only existed because of the depth of the pockets of the big leagues versus the small ones and, most importantly, a formal agreement between the the two biggest leagues -- the American League and the National League -- that saw them respect each others player contracts, creating a "separate but equal" status quo (this was, apparently, common practice in the country at the time) and also saw the creation of a championship between the two league champions, the World Series.
Had that agreement not taken place and the leagues instead agreed to, say, merge into two divisions, pro/rel could very well be the common practice in American sports. Incidentally, a similar scenario can be imagined for the NBA-ABA merger of 1976, but, partially because baseball is the original sport of the United States and set the precedents, things happened as they did.
Combine these events with Branch Rickey's creation of the farm system in the 1930's, and you have the historical antecedents that are causing the USL's identity crisis.
We find ourselves in an American soccer world where there are two leagues independent of one another, MLS and the NASL, and a third, the USL, that is securely in bed with the former. The USL-MLS relationship is all fine and good from the holistic perspective of creating a better American soccer player, but the problems lie in how the USL represents itself.
The party line of the USL is that each of its teams is an independent club, but in a league where eight teams will not be allowed to compete in the national cup competition due to competing interests of ownership, that hardly seems the case. I've covered the issues of the USL in a piece which ran about a year ago, in which I interviewed Chad Hollingsworth, American minor league soccer aficionado and proprietor of scratchingthepitch.com. I recently renewed that conversation after a fully completed season of MLS-owned clubs competing in the USL.
"I do not think that the influx of MLS-2 teams cheapens the competition," Hollingsworth said. "S2 (Seattle Sounders) was virtually unbeatable at home. Los Dos (LA Galaxy) made a run to the championship game. Real Monarchs (Real Salt Lake) were the hottest team at the end of the season.
"Development of players for MLS teams is the primary function of MLS-2 teams, but the best development comes in a competitive environment. While results are not the ultimate goal for these teams, results provide some context for player development."
Last season, the USL was a league which allowed a college player, Derrick Etienne, to compete against full professionals. Just this week, Etienne signed an MLS Homegrown contract, making him a professional player.
I believe Derrick Etienne is first MLS HGP signing who played for his club's USL team as an amateur player. 3g,3a in 14gp this year.— Jonathan Yardley (@jtyardley) December 21, 2015
Hollingsworth isn't troubled by the league allowing an amateur to compete, "I don't think it hurts the league's credibility," he said. "If the players are up to snuff, then it should be a positive for the league to have them in competition.
"It would be different if the MLS-2 teams trotted out 18 academy guys for every match that weren't USL-quality players. Whether the MLS staffs care about results or not, the teams are getting them. LA II was one goal from being in the championship match two years in a row."
Where does Hollingsworth see a problem? With MLS player rehab assignments and other short term loans, similar to the one Mike Magee took in a one-game loan to Saint Louis FC.
"I don't think, though, that a small number of good amateurs diminishes the credibility of the competition. I think one-match loans of lots of marginal MLS players to a USL team hurts the credibility of the league much more than amateurs."
To his point, Toronto FC II had fifteen players make five or fewer appearances for the team, five of which only made a single appearance.
Does Hollingsworth think the USL sees these identity crisis issues as important?
"I don't. I've raised some of them myself, sometimes directly to the league," he said. "I think they perceive them as non-issues.
"The goal of the USL is to make money."
Is the USL a legitimate professional competition? Or is it a league of farm teams? I believe Branch Rickey might think the latter.