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Ownership or Hybrid: Which USL Route Should Orlando City Go?

With MLS-owned USL teams possibly being forced into choosing a hybrid structure or moving to the third division, the choice is a difficult one for Orlando City.

Image courtesy of Orlando City SC

There's trouble a-brewin' in the USL. The MLS owners and independent USL owners are at odds and Orlando City is in the middle. But what is the best solution?

Like every other reserve team in the world, MLS-owned USL teams draw very few fans for games. In fact, nine of the bottom 11 teams in USL attendance are MLS-owned. This is upsetting to the independent USL team owners who want those teams to move into different markets with separate owners to raise attendance.

The idea is that MLS-owned USL teams should go the hybrid route pioneered by the Houston Dynamo. The team would play in a different market than the MLS team and have separate owners, but the soccer operations would still be controlled by the MLS side. It seems like a logical solution, but there are problems.

One of the big advantages of having the MLS and USL teams playing nearby is to have the players training together. By training with higher-quality players, the development of young players will be expedited. This type of structure can work for certain teams, depending on location, but doesn’t work for others.

The Seattle Sounders recently announced that their reserve side, Sounders 2, would be relocating to Tacoma in a hybrid agreement with the Tacoma Rainiers AAA baseball team. The proposed stadium would be located just 29 miles from Starfire Sports Complex, where the Sounders train each day. This makes the decision a rather simple one. It would be no trouble for the USL team to train with the senior team and take the short trip to Tacoma on game day.

While this structure is great for a city like Seattle, it’s used by Houston and San Jose as a way to lessen investment in their clubs. Houston Sports Park, training home of the Houston Dynamo, is 339 miles from H-E-B Park in Edinburg, TX. Nutrilite Training Facility, training home of the San Jose Earthquakes, is 247 miles from Reno 1868 FC’s stadium, Greater Nevada Field in Reno, NV. This makes the trip from the training facility to the stadium well over three hours. It’s still doable, but a much less desirable situation.

If Orlando City was to go the hybrid route, it would likely be more in the situation of the latter. And, to make matters worse, it probably wouldn’t even solve the attendance problem. The four big cities in Florida already have teams: the Jacksonville Armada of the NASL, the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the USL, and Miami FC of the NASL, in addition to Orlando City. Plus, Miami, and possibly Tampa, is close to getting a team in MLS. Putting a team in any of those markets would be setting it up to fail before it even begins

Other cities include Naples, West Palm Beach, and Tallahassee, but, in the event that residents in those areas don't already support a closer team, those cities are all over 150 miles away which would make using the team as a reserve team much more difficult logistically. OCB played in another city within the market, Melbourne, last year and attendance was similar to its attendance this year, so playing within the market in Melbourne or Daytona wouldn’t solve the problem.

Another option is to rebrand the team in an attempt to trick local fans like Real Salt Lake and the Philadelphia Union did. Both teams are in the bottom half of the USL in attendance with the Real Monarchs drawing a little over 2,000 and Bethlehem Steel drawing just over 3,000 fans. Is that really worth paying rent in a different stadium and the extra travel expenses?

With the USL launching a new third division league in 2019, it’s widely thought that the MLS-owned USL teams will be forced to move a division down. That would give the owners the option of forming a hybrid partnership with separate owners to stay in the USL instead of joining the new league. While this type of situation works for a club like the Seattle Sounders, it would not be the best fit for Orlando City, so making that move into the new league, while not ideal, may be the best option.