McCarthy's Musings: Fate of USL Bears Watching For MLS

MLS and the USL don't often see eye-to-eye, but that hasn't stopped MLS from reportedly putting in a bid for the struggling minor league organization. Kyle McCarthy explains why MLS needs the USL and how MLS benefits from its existence.
By Kyle McCarthy

SEATTLE – No market displays the relationship and the gap between MLS and the USL quite like Seattle.

This year's MLS revelation earned its chops in the USL First Division. The MLS and USL franchises are technically different and the players were mostly different, too, but Seattle spent a long time supporting its USL franchise – which, for most of its USL run, played out in the suburbs – and making it into a success.

That support grew exponentially once Sounders FC arrived in MLS this year and tapped into the wounded Seattle sports psyche with an offbeat and comprehensive plan backed by ample financial resources. Modest success turned into major league impact with the additional capital and the newly acquired top-flight football.

The difference between Seattle in the USL First Division and Seattle in MLS comes down to the wide gap in resources. MLS boasts extremely wealthy investor/operators with long-term vision; the USL First Division mostly relies on rich soccer fans and apparel companies with some money to burn.

Even with the significant financial disparity between the two leagues, there is room and need for both within the American soccer landscape. The problem for the USL is that its place in that landscape is shrinking as MLS continues its growth.

Over the past few years, MLS has carved directly into the USL's footprint. Seattle has already made the leap, while fellow stable franchises Portland and Vancouver will also jump ship over the next couple of years. If Joey Saputo ever decides to sufficiently open up his wallet, Montreal will join them.

Without four of its staple franchises, the USL First Division's future looks increasingly bleak as a financial proposition. The current franchises are too far flung to make traveling reasonable, leaving too many of them struggling financially and relying on ownership to cover deficits. There are a few clubs on stable ground, but many seemingly operate from year-to-year and from camp-to-camp.

The uncertainty will only increase with the USL's impending change in ownership at the league level. Current owners Nike put its share in the league on the market, opening the door to bids from across the country. MLS has shown some interest in acquiring USL, according to Metro Canada.

Although the interest appears counter-intuitive given the supposed competition between the two leagues, MLS' willingness to investigate purchasing the USL makes perfect sense. The future of the USL First Division – and to a lesser extent, the USL Second Division and PDL – is vital to its on-field success.

Though MLS is probably loathe to admit it, the USL's success in developing players and providing them with a place to play consistent minutes has made MLS a better league. A significant group of USL players have made the jump to MLS successfully, including standouts Osvaldo Alonso, Brian Ching and Clyde Simms. MLS teams will continue to pluck talent from the lower leagues with the impending and rapid expansion to 18 teams over the next few years and send its own young talent on loan to get game minutes. The USL's consistent participation (and last year's success) in the CONCACAF Champions League doesn't hurt that experience either.

Developing players for MLS isn't enough of a reason for the USL to keep throwing money into a sinkhole. Changes must be made to keep the USL alive. The business model probably needs to evolve to strengthen a First Division in need of stronger franchises and the silly statements about challenging MLS need to stop to restore the proper perspective. MLS probably won't have the opportunity to purchase the USL (Metro Canada reported earlier this week that a group of investors is closing in on a deal) outright, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't lend strategic and organizational help under the right circumstances.

Cooperation has its benefits even as MLS moves from strength to strength and the USL struggles to retain its niche. As Sounders FC and a host of former USL players in MLS have aptly proven, the seeds of MLS success can be sowed in the USL.

Around The League

- Six teams will face the additional strain of midweek matches ahead of a weekend fixture.

- There are two mid-week MLS games: Los Angeles travels to Chicago on Wednesday night (ESPN2, 9:00p.m.) while New England treks across the country to play Seattle on Thursday night (ESPN2, 10:00p.m.).

- Los Angeles will be without the suspended duo of David Beckham and Eddie Lewis after each player was sent off in Saturday night's 2-0 loss to Seattle.

- Chicago will once again play without defender Bakary Soumare after Fire coach Denis Hamlett ruled him out of the squad to face the Galaxy.  “Baky's situation is he is not 100 percent committed to this team,” Hamlett told MLSnet.com on Tuesday. “As a result, as a coach, I have had to make a decision to put the players on that are committed to the organization and to their teammates. That's it.”

- After fielding a threadbare lineup in Sunday's 2-0 win in Kansas City, Hamlett is expected to have Cuauhtemoc Blanco (rested), Wilman Conde (groin) and John Thorrington (hamstring) at his disposal.

- The big question in Seattle surrounds the health of midfielder Freddie Ljungberg. Ljungberg (disorientation) didn't play in Saturday's win in Los Angeles after experiencing memory loss last Friday. The Swedish midfielder underwent tests on Tuesday, leaving his status for Thursday's match uncertain.

- Seattle will also have to cover for Tyrone Marshall (suspended) after he was sent off against the Galaxy.

- New England will once again take the field without its coach on the sidelines – Steve Nicol is serving the second of a two-match ban, but did travel with the team out to Seattle – but boasts perhaps its healthiest roster in quite some time after a bye week last week.

- The CONCACAF Champions League kicked off its group stage on Tuesday night with two MLS teams in action.

- D.C. United followed up a limp performance in Toronto with a 3-1 loss to Marathon in Honduras. Luciano Emilio's second-half goal may have equalized former United target Walter Martinez's 23rd minute opener, but it wasn't enough to ward off late goals from Jerry Palacios (83rd minute) and Mario Berrios (88th minute penalty kick) and seal a point.

- Columbus used second-half goals from halftime substitute Steven Lenhart (58th minute) and Robbie Rogers (73rd minute) to defeat Puerto Rico 2-0 at Crew Stadium. Crew schemer Guillermo Barros Schelotto made his first start and played 60 minutes as he continues his recovery from a hamstring injury.

- Houston completes a trio of midweek Champions League games involving MLS teams with a home clash with Isidro Metapan (El Salvador) on Wednesday night.

- Although the transfer window closed on Friday, that hasn't stopped team from announcing new arrivals early this week. The reason, according to a source at the league office: the transfer window only pertains to the International Transfer Certificate (ITC). MLS must request the ITC of any player currently under contract with another side prior to the deadline, but final details can be hashed out after the deadline. The ITC can be requested once an tentative agreement on contractual details has been reached.

- Chivas USA held a press conference on Tuesday to announce the arrival of Jesus Padilla from the parent club in Guadalajara. Padilla is expected to give the occasionally impotent Goats another attacking option after not seeing much field time with the parent club. Padilla, a San Jose, Calif. native, holds both Mexican and American citizenship, so he won't take up an international player slot.

- San Jose officially announced Fabio da Silva's arrival from Rio Branco (Brazil). For more on why San Jose decided to bring him into the fold now, flip back to Monday's column.

- Argentine defender Walter Garcia officially joined New York this week. That one signing will definitely turn around those insipid Red Bulls.

- FC Dallas has signed midfielder Marvin Chavez on loan from Marathon (Honduras). Chavez featured in the recent CONCACAF Gold Cup for his native Honduras.

Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSnet.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at kyle.mccarthy@goal.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.


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