It was just over a year ago that Orlando City's USL adventure came to an inauspicious end with a shock loss to the Harrisburg City Islanders at home. Despite this disappointing exit, the Lions' reign in USL was always punctuated by success, making the playoffs every year, achieving three regular season titles, and two USL Championships in just four seasons. That success has helped to define the club during its early MLS days, with club and supporters expecting big things every time the team hits the field.
After a one-season absence, it looks like the purple of Orlando City will be reentering the USL scrum next season with a local affiliate. A team name and home haven't been announced, but as of now it looks like it won't actually be named Orlando City II and won't be hosted at the team's home stadium.
As the USL and MLS have expanded their partnership over the past few seasons, Major League Soccer clubs have either partnered with an established club, or fielded their own secondary club. The advantage for MLS clubs is hard to argue and Orlando City's MLS squad will benefit from having its young players playing competitive games close to home. However, the benefit for the USL is questionable.
As this year's playoffs kicked off, only three out of eight "MLS II" teams managed to qualify for the playoffs--none in a convincing manner. The USL was once again dominated by independent teams, including a regular season championship from lower league stalwart Rochester Rhinos.
What can Orlando City learn from the performances from "MLS II" clubs? First, USL won't be the walk in the park it was between 2011-2014--not that those seasons were easy. I can hear Adrian Heath yelling in my ear as I typed that. Orlando City was able to field an extremely competitive team as it pushed for MLS. A return to USL won't see as much funding for a secondary team. Second, and more positive, depth is built through a secondary lower league club.
As the USL-MLS partnership is still in its first few seasons, it is hard to know how useful the partnership is for both sides. It seems to be helping the top teams in MLS while not threatening the independent teams in USL. Win-win so far. If "MLS II" teams were to come to dominate USL, this could be disastrous for smaller markets like Charleston, Rochester, and Louisville, which have done well supporting and enjoying playing in the USL. I can't imagine a fan in Austin or Colorado Springs will enjoy showing up to get destroyed by an "MLS II" team week in and week out.
For Orlando City, the chance to build its depth (a weakness this season) and develop young local talent will be a fantastic opportunity. Judging from the success of the second teams of the best clubs in MLS, Orlando would be wise to invest in its USL team.
As soccer markets continue to demand clubs in MLS, the USL, and the NASL, I'm curious to see how this partnership continues moving forward. My prediction: after a few successful years in the USL, "MLS II" clubs will break away into a separate reserve league. This is a move that I see being good for the USL, the development of soccer in the U.S., and in growing talent for MLS clubs.
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