Over the last few years, the USL has continued massive expansion by adding new markets and reserve teams of MLS clubs. While having these often young players play competitive games rather than in a meaningless reserve league has often been cited as a major positive factor of this style of expansion, another positive is the amount of games played.
For many players in the USL, and especially those that are on a reserve team, such as Orlando City B, the league serves as a place for development. Young players can ply their trade in this lower league as they develop their bodies and their skills until they are prepared to make the step up to MLS.
Prior to MLS reserve teams taking part in the USL, MLS had its own reserve league, like that of England. However, these teams played few games and the league lacked competition, so the reserve league folded after just nine seasons. Rather than following the English model, MLS decided to follow the lead of countries like Spain and Germany, where reserve teams play in the league system. The result of this change would be that the teams would play competitive games against independent clubs, better preparing the young players.
Initially, the reserve teams were not a part of the league, playing games against USL teams but not competing in the standings and not eligible for a playoff spot. However, that changed in 2014 when LA Galaxy II became the first reserve side to fully take part in the league. Today, 10 MLS clubs have reserve teams that are owned and operated by the club playing in the USL. But the competition is only one part of what makes this structure important.
As the USL has continued to grow, so has the league schedule. One of the biggest changes for players moving from a lower level, be it a lower league or college, to MLS is the amount of games. For years, the 34-game MLS season was significantly longer than the USL season. That has now changed.
While the MLS reserve league was minuscule at just 12 games maximum for a season, the USL was still far behind the first division. For 2011 and 2012, the league’s first two seasons under the country’s current structure, the teams only played 24 games. But that number has steadily risen. They played 26 games in 2013, 28 games in 2014 and 2015, and 30 games last season. With the Ottawa Fury and Tampa Bay Rowdies adding more teams to the league this season, the USL teams will play 32 games, just two fewer than MLS.
Just six years ago, players played a full 10 games less than MLS. This would become significant for players late in an MLS season, as they would tire out having never played a season that long. The impact of the expanded USL schedule is that players making the jump to MLS will now have played the type of rigorous schedule that they will face when they join the senior team. This will make the younger players much more impactful and dependable during the late-season playoff push.
Over the last couple years, the USL has gone through a quick and heavy expansion period which has significantly increased the amount of league games played. This increase in games will have a positive impact on the development of players who are preparing to make the jump to MLS.