Following its entrance into Major League Soccer, one of the first things Orlando City did was start a reserve team that would compete in the United Soccer League. While Orlando City B serves the primary purpose of developing players, 2017 could be a key year for the future of the team.
Through the MLS-USL partnership, there are several ways that MLS teams can use the league to develop players. The initial plan in 2013 was to affiliate each MLS team with a USL team. The MLS team would then loan first-team players that were not receiving playing time to the lower division side. In 2014, LA Galaxy took it a step further by creating its own reserve team, LA Galaxy II, that would compete in the league. This allowed the club to own and operate the USL team, dictating every aspect of the team from coaches to players and playing style while extending the club’s brand. The final way, championed by the Houston Dynamo, is to have a hybrid setup. While the Dynamo run the soccer operations of its USL affiliate, the club is owned by separate owners and has a separate brand.
More and more clubs each year are deciding that fielding a team they own and operate in the USL is the way to go. There are several reasons why this is the preferred method. One is that the team will remain local and under the club’s control. Having the reserve players train every day with the first team is a huge advantage in their development. The clubs are additionally able to control everything from the coach to the playing style.
The problem with the reserve teams is that the attendances are notoriously low. All 10 MLS reserve teams that compete in the USL attract crowds well below the league average. This is likely because the fans of the MLS club know that the team is no more than a reserve team and because there is a better product (the MLS team) in the area. And this could create a problem.
Because MLS and the USL are run separately, they have separate interests. MLS’ interest in the USL is purely developmental while the USL wants a successful league. This may cause the USL to question whether having these reserve teams drawing such small crowds is worth the affiliation. So what can be done to solve the situation?
One potential move that the USL might make would be having the MLS clubs partner with other ownership groups where they would control the soccer operations and the other ownership group would control everything else, like Houston has done. The problem with this is that it would be difficult to put the team in the same area. Who is going to go watch a USL team every week when a MLS team is in town? Houston’s USL team, for example, plays some five hours away which makes it extremely difficult to have players train with the first team, especially if they have weeknight games.
If the reserve team is owned by the MLS club, the amount of money the reserve team makes or loses is quite irrelevant as the team exists solely for development. However, if the team is owned by a different owner, the amount of money the team makes may have a significant impact. This is why the team would likely reside further away, as Houston’s does.
The purpose of running a reserve team is to have those players training and playing locally under the watchful eyes of the first team staff. Having those players several hours away would be detrimental to the purpose of the team. Rebranding the teams would make little difference as teams like FC Montreal and Bethlehem Steel don’t do much better with attendance than teams like LA Galaxy II and OCB. While MLS clubs will want to keep things the way they stand, at some point, USL owners may demand higher crowds for the clubs that drag down the league’s average attendance. This could create a contentious situation.
In 2017, 10 of the 22 MLS clubs will have reserve teams in the USL that have played more than one season. At some point, maybe this year, the other USL owners will be looking for those attendance numbers to increase. While it is not a certainty that this will be the case, it could force the USL to make a change sometime in the future which would damage MLS clubs’ development structure. That could make the attendance for teams like OCB crucial this coming season.