Andrea Canales wonders who will step up to the plate and advocate for the return of the reserve league in Major League Soccer.
It's human nature to be concerned about the here and now, but inevitably, when the future becomes the present, many wish they had been more far-sighted.
Back in 2008, when Major League Soccer announced at the close of the season that the reserve league would fold after three years, I wondered why there was so little protest from players. After all, the reserve league offered injured players an important way to ease back into game action, maintain conditioning even if they were suspended from league play, or only earning limited minutes on the bench. It was another tool in a professional player's options to remain in top shape - obviously not as vital as first team minutes - but key nonetheless.
Yet MLS offered teams and players some consolation that eased the reserve league loss. By eliminating the team spots for developmental players (and the shockingly low salaries some were paid) they added a couple of senior team spots to each roster, at the regular (not so shockingly low) MLS minimum salary.
Coming at the end of a year in which some of the best teams in the league struggled with the demands of a number of new competitions (Superliga, CONCACAF Champions Cup), the chance to add even a few experienced and game-ready players to a squad was welcomed, even at the cost of giving a greater number of fresh hopefuls competitive seasoning.
The biggest reason, though, that the end of the MLS reserve league wasn't protested more by MLS players is because the ones most affected by that decision are at the lowest end of the roster totem pole. The young, unproven players needed the reserve league the most to develop.
"It has an adverse affect on this age group," under-20 coach Thomas Rongen told Goal.com exclusively, speaking on the absence of the reserve teams. "Right now these young players are practice players. They're not real players, so to speak, based on the limited number of games they play."
Rongen's roster contains MLS players stuck precisely in this awkward situation, such as FC Dallas' Peri Marosevic, a tricky little forward who was a high draft pick for the MLS team, but has yet to total 90 minutes of playing time for the first team in the entire season to this point.
"Unfortunately, it shows," said Rongen about the influence of limited playing time. "They need game time to develop at this age. It's a concern for MLS, and it's affecting the U20 national team and will affect the Olympic team and eventually the senior team as well."
The first emails I got from readers after I raised the issue of the reserve league repercussions earlier this week advocated turning the United Soccer Leagues - the next professional level of soccer in the US and Canada, into an all-purpose solution for the problem.
"What if MLS and USL joined together to create regional reserve leagues?" One email asked.
Personally, I think universal health care in the USA would also be very nice, and yet look at the hassle that's creating.
The bottom line is that MLS and USL are two very different entities, and in many ways, their goals and structures differ. For executives and administrators to put all those issues aside and come up with a cohesive format uniting the two leagues would be historic. It's much easier said than done.
The simpler immediate solution would be for MLS to suck up the expense and bring the reserve league back. Yet if there was ever a time when MLS is watching the bottom line, it is now, as the league moves toward a new collective bargaining agreement with the players. A new deal is expected to be hammered out before the previous one expires Jan. 31, 2010.
That negotiation period gave Rongen hope.
"I hope it will (return) through negotiations with the collective bargaining agreement or the owners and the league realizing that they need to give younger players opportunities to play or players that were injured to get back into full swing," said Rongen. "It’s a paramount equation of developing players at all levels."
MLS commissioner Don Garber | Dissolved MLS reserve league in 2008
However, that doesn't seem to be the priority of the players who will be at the forefront of negotiations with the league.
Washington State reporter Don Ruiz, who covers the Seattle Sounders, wrote a recent piece that detailed the concerns of defender James Riley, who is the Sounders' representative to the MLS Players Union, the entity that negotiates the collective bargaining agreement with the league.
Riley's focus was clearly on improving the present state of players in the league, not the future development of players not yet signed.
“One thing that we want is for teams to be able to charter (flights),” Riley said. “We’re definitely working on that for sure."
Another concern was the meal allotment given to the players during travel periods for the team.
It's hard to criticize players for focusing on their own comfort when MLS salaries are so obviously modest compared to those in leagues abroad. It's also probably not realistic to expect players to advocate for a system that may produce players who eventually push them out of their job. Yet the growth of the league will be stunted if more isn't done to bring new talent along.
Just like many don't worry about what their health insurance
actually covers until they need it, though, many players who are
currently healthy and established aren't going to think about how
useful a reserve league is for injured and developing players.
As no reserve league return seems to be on the horizon, this is
making the options to sign abroad, even for a lower-league Scandinavian
team, a more attractive possibility for young players.Others are also choosing to remain in college.
Oddly enough, MLS has invested more resources recently in the lowest
levels of development, putting together a youth team system that allows
the main club to sign such players.
Without the reserve teams, however, a weird gap exists. A stellar youth team player who is signed by the first team can find his skills, which were so sparkling on the academy level, to still be short of what is needed to get regular playing time on an MLS squad. Minus a reserve team, that player is reduced to training, albeit at a high level, but without the competitive pressure of actual games.
Such a player is never going to be at the negotiating table for the
collective bargaining agreement, and it remains to be seen if his
fellow players will represent his interests.
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com North America
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