Last week, 12 cities from around the U.S. submitted bids to become an MLS expansion team. Only four of those 12 cities will earn an expansion team and seven of those 12 currently have teams in the USL, a factor that could have a significant impact on the 2017 USL season.
When Phil Rawlins set up shop in Orlando in 2011, the primary focus was getting to MLS. To achieve this goal, Rawlins and Head Coach Adrian Heath built a team that won the league double its first season and gathered five trophies in just four years in the USL. The winning had a major impact on the tremendous growth of the team as they broke attendance records on its way to being named an MLS expansion team in 2013.
While Orlando City may have a large and loyal fan base now, those championships certainly had an impact on drawing people to its first games at the Citrus Bowl, a fact not lost on the current cities vying for those four coveted expansion spots. It should come as no surprise that those cities will equate their points total this season with their chances of gaining a spot in MLS in the future.
More than any other year, this could have an impact on the USL season. Of the 30 teams in the USL in 2017, over half are vying for an MLS spot or are already owned and/or operated by an MLS club. This could put USL teams’ focus on winning as different as they have ever been.
For the reserve teams of MLS clubs, winning is important but far from the most important thing. For many of the young players that will take the spots of those teams, their goal is to play well enough to earn a spot in the first team. They still want to win games, but that spot in the first team is their goal. And the club is no different. It is more important for the clubs, such as Orlando City, to develop these young players than it is to win.
The same cannot be said for those seven USL cities fighting for MLS expansion. For them, winning is the difference between MLS and an eternity in the USL. For those cities, winning brings increased fan interest and exposure to the team, an important item to add to their MLS resumes. MLS’s eyes will be more focused on those cities this season than ever and they want to portray the type of atmosphere seen at the top of the MLS table.
The impact of these differences could be quite significant. While the MLS reserve teams will go into this season with the same ambition they did last year, the same cannot be said for the seven teams vying for those expansion spots. Certainly, they always want to win, but, even if they don’t say it publicly, those clubs know that winning will greatly increase their chances of earning a spot in the golden land.
So when the USL season starts this coming season, you may very well see two very different types of ambition. For some, it will just be another season developing the next great player for the club’s first team. But for others, this season will be seen as the most important in the history of their club. And winning consistently will be valued more greatly than ever before.