The LA Galaxy may not have made any high-profile signings this winter, but the MLS powerhouse announced one of the bolder moves in recent memory by launching a USL Pro teamToronto FC's double swoop for Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe was easily the biggest splash of the winter, but it might not wind up being the most impactful move made by an MLS team this offseason.
That distinction goes to the LA Galaxy for a truly game-changing decision to launch a team in the third tier of American soccer, USL Pro. The move helps give the Galaxy a very important piece to the player development puzzle, and could become the standard other MLS teams follow before long.
So what's the big deal? It boils down to a few key issues faced by all MLS teams. One of the bigger problems for MLS teams is finding playing time for their youngest players and players who still need developing. MLS has begun addressing this by establishing a relationship with USL Pro that has led to several MLS teams forming affiliate agreements that send such players to USL Pro on loan. The move to the lower division helps give those players game time they wouldn't normally receive if they had to stay with their parent clubs.
At present, nine MLS teams have taken advantage of such relationships heading into the 2014 season, but even those arrangements aren't ideal. Teams are essentially giving up, in most cases, up to four players on loan to their USL Pro affiliates, and even if they have good relationships with their partner clubs, those MLS teams still aren't actually overseeing the handling of their players.
What the Galaxy did is unprecedented. By starting a USL Pro team from scratch, the Galaxy can not only establish the soccer ideology of the new team to fit in with the MLS team's goals, it gives LA a missing piece to the player development puzzle, bringing the Galaxy closer in line with the majority of teams around the world.
The Galaxy boast one of the best player academy set-ups in MLS, and by having a USL Pro team, they can now give more academy players a place to ply their trade even if they aren't ready to turn pro just yet. The new team will be coached by Galaxy assistant Curt Onalfo, who will not only be able to work closely with the Galaxy players who join the new team on loan, but also the academy players the Galaxy will fill the team with going forward.
MLS will obviously have to do a good job of establishing guidelines to keep the Galaxy from using the USL Pro team to sign and stash players who aren't part of the club's academy system, but it seems unlikely that the Galaxy would be setting up this new team for that purpose. Given the amount of talent coming through the Galaxy academy system, there will be more than enough quality prospects with Galaxy ties to farm into the new team.
So why hasn't this been done before? It wasn't a viable option until MLS established its relationship with USL Pro, and other teams aren't jumping in with the Galaxy because it isn't exactly a small investment to launch and operate a USL Pro team. That being said, you can rest assured that the league's other big-spending clubs like Seattle, Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls will be watching very closely to see if it is indeed an investment worth making.
The short answer is yes, it is something worth doing for every MLS team that is serious about player development and extending the pipeline from the academy system through to the MLS first team. If a large number of teams adopted this approach, it would be a serious step toward aiding in the development of players who for too long, have struggled for avenues to develop once they turned pro at a young age.
For a league expanding as quickly as MLS is, filling that void in player development is key, and it is a safe bet we will see more MLS teams launching their own lower-division affiliates in the near future, especially if the Galaxy can make the most of being the first team to do so. it will take some time before we see the real impact of the Galaxy's trail-blazing move, but it stands a good chance of eventually being one of the most important things to happen to MLS in 2014.