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New USL League Solves Attendance Debate

With the USL and MLS owners at odds over reserve team attendance numbers, the newly announced USL league serves as the perfect solution.

Orlando City SC

In 2005, Major League Soccer launched a reserve league for the use of its teams. The league folded 10 years later in favor of a new system where MLS clubs would affiliate with existing USL teams. Either teams could create their own USL team, essentially a reserve team, or partner with an existing or expansion USL side. Which type of team the MLS club chooses has become a hot button issue within the league.

There are three types of teams in the USL: MLS-owned and operated teams, independently-owned teams with an MLS club running the soccer operations, and independent teams. Lack of attendance for the MLS-owned teams has created a struggle between those teams and the independent teams. It’s a struggle that will continue until the USL’s new league launches in 2019.

The issue starts with the fact that MLS-owned and operated USL teams are nothing more than reserve teams, and everyone knows it. And reserve teams don’t draw fans. Whether the team is in an established country like Germany or in the United States, people don’t show up for reserve team games.

To prove this point, look no further than the attendance figures from the league systems that the USL hopes to emulate: Spain and Germany. For the 2016-17 season, Spanish teams have averaged 1,253 spectators per game. After Sevilla Atletico, which averages 4,148 spectators per game, only seven of the 15 reserve teams in the country draw at least 1,000 spectators to each game.

The figures are even worse in Germany. The highest average attendance for a reserve team in Germany is Borussia Dortmund II, which averages 2,033 spectators per game. That’s well less than MLS-owned USL teams Bethlehem Steel, Real Monarchs, and Portland Timbers II. Only three of the remaining 22 reserve teams draw four digits. The average attendance for German reserve teams is just 610.

At 1,532, MLS-owned USL teams top both of these leagues in average attendance, despite having fewer spectators for the senior teams than several of their European counterparts. However, as USL attendances continue to rise, the owners of independent teams are not happy. Neither is USL President Jake Edwards.

While MLS clubs are focused on player development for their USL sides rather than the finances, independent USL sides are much more concerned about how these teams affect the bottom line. But what can be done about it?

There is another option other than owning a USL team or partnering with an existing team. In 2015, the Houston Dynamo teamed with the owners of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBA Development League to form a new USL team, Rio Grande Valley FC Toros. The Vipers owners would operate the business side while the Dynamo would handle soccer operations. But there is a problem with this method.

One of the main points of having a team in the USL is to have the players close to the senior team. If a senior team member needs additional minutes, a move to the reserves is no problem. It also allows the two teams to train together, which aids in the development of young players. H-E-B Park in Edinburg, TX, the home of the Toros, is a whopping 338 miles from BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, where the Dynamo play their games. This long journey makes it difficult for players to easily maneuver between teams and for the two sides to train together.

This season, another team has followed the Houston model. The USL team is called Reno 1868 FC in Reno, NV, and is operated by the San Jose Earthquakes. However, the home of Reno 1868, Greater Nevada Field, is 247 miles from Avaya Stadium in San Jose. While closer than the distance between the Toros and Dynamo, it’s still too far away for the advantages of a reserve team.

This past off-season, Edwards intimated that he would like to see more MLS teams follow the models set by Houston and San Jose. It’s an opinion that makes sense for the league. While reserve teams won’t draw large crowds in the markets of the MLS sides, maybe they will in a new market that currently lacks a professional soccer team. But in order for that to work, they must be far away from the city of the senior side where fans can’t easily attend MLS games.

This has created an impasse between the two sides. The league and independent team owners want higher attendance figures for the league. MLS owners want a true reserve team to create a better development environment for their young players. The answer to this problem is the newly announced third division USL league.

In addition to less strict regulations on stadiums, the new league, which will fill the third division void vacated by the USL, will likely focus more on development and less on attendance figures. This would make the new league ideal for MLS reserve teams which are focused primarily on development. With the rise in soccer’s popularity in America over the past few years, filling the spots left open by those teams shouldn’t be a problem.

Attendance figures from the soccer-obsessed countries of Spain and Germany show that fans don’t attend reserve team games in large numbers. So it’s no surprise that MLS-owned USL teams are at the bottom of the league in attendance. With the USL moving alongside the NASL in division two, this has become an issue between MLS owners and USL owners. The newly announced third division league would allow these teams to keep their affiliation with the USL, as mandated by MLS, while being allowed to focus on development rather than profits. The USL, in return, will fill several vacant spots in its new league with no extra effort needed. It’s a win-win for all sides involved.