In 2013, Major League Soccer and USL Pro came to an agreement where MLS clubs would partner with USL Pro clubs, sharing players and business strategies. Orlando City's affiliation with Sporting Kansas City was profitable as it helped them gain entrance into MLS.
This year, their affiliate is Louisville City FC. But this affiliation is unique in MLS and an idea that may be followed in the future by other clubs.
In 2014, the LA Galaxy took the affiliation idea to a new level by creating their own reserve team in USL Pro, LA Galaxy II. Other MLS sides have followed LA's lead, with the Montreal Impact, Portland Timbers, Real Salt Lake, Toronto FC, Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps, and New York Red Bulls following suit this season.
Orlando City had a choice when entering the league on how to handle the mandatory affiliation. One option would be to affiliate with an existing club, over which they would have no control. The other option was to create their own USL club, which they would operate. It would be much more costly, but they would make the on-field decisions. However, the Lions came up with a third option, a combination of the two.
Wayne Estopinal, a founding owner of Orlando City, purchased the USL rights from Orlando upon the club's entrance into MLS and moved the franchise to Louisville, KY, where he owns an architecture firm. While Estopinal becomes majority owner of the new club, Orlando City maintains a minority stake in the USL outfit.
Upon the sale, the Lions' impact on the new club became apparent. Former Orlando City midfielder James O'Connor was almost immediately named head coach, leaving his position as player/coach under Adrian Heath. O'Connor soon after expressed his plan to play the same formation and style that he mastered playing in central Florida.
There are both positives and negatives to owning a USL club as many MLS clubs have decided to do. One positive is that the MLS club can decide the formation and style of play. By having your loaned players playing the same style as the senior team, their transition back will be much easier. Another positive is that the loaned players will definitely play. After all, the purpose of loaning players to another club is for on-field experience. Otherwise, it would be a complete waste.
The negatives of creating your own USL club are financial. There are likely only four to six players at most that will be loaned out. If you own a USL club, you must employ enough additional players, likely none of whom will play for the senior team, to fill out the roster. You also must have a place for that team to play games and employ staff for those events. Seeing as these games will likely average less than 5,000 fans per game in most cities, the operation will almost certainly lose money.
Orlando City's affiliation with Louisville City solves both problems. With a minority stake in the club, and likely an agreement that they'll have a say with on-field operations, the Lions can be sure their players will play extensive minutes in Louisville and in the same style as in Orlando. Meanwhile, the club won't be responsible for the financial burden of a USL team.
This new partnership strategy has already made its way into the plans of other MLS teams. The Houston Dynamo announced Tuesday that they are looking for a similar relationship. In their case, they would start a team in USL with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBA's Developmental League, with the Vipers controlling business operations and the Dynamo controlling soccer operations.
However, the clubs most affected by this strategy would likely be new expansion clubs. The newest MLS expansion club to be announced is Minnesota United FC of the NASL. And with overflowing attendance, Sacramento Republic looks to be not too far behind. These clubs understand the relationship between MLS and USL and no doubt will be looking for the best method to follow. Orlando City may have given them that path.
While this seems like the ideal plan for future affiliations, there is one drawback. Having an affiliation outside of the MLS team's city means the loaned players won't be training alongside the first team players. It's an aspect Adrian Heath mentioned during his weekly coach's show Tuesday night. How important that is must be left for each individual club to decide.
Since MLS and USL Pro agreed on this new partnership, all MLS clubs have been looking for the best method to develop their young players. It's been a long process with several different strategies taking place. Orlando City's strategy is a unique one which may be catching on.
So what is the best strategy for MLS-USL affiliations? What are the most important factors in deciding which path to take? Give us your opinion below.