Canadian Soccer News’ Ben Knight once said that MLS was like watching a series of McDonalds restaurants play against each other -- everything was basically the same, only the colour of the strips changed.
MLS’ insistence on absolute parity may have made all teams competitive (in theory anyway), but it also made the league a tad bit vanilla. Without significant separation between the best and worst teams, it was hard to care about anything other than your local branch of McMLS. And that prevented the league from truly growing.
He said this around 2009. At the time the league had just started to implement some changes that were designed to take the training wheels off and allow some individual expression by clubs within the league. Now, about four years latter, we are starting to see some changes.
Most famously the league started the Designated Player program in 2007, which allowed big names to come into the league so long as the wage bill was paid by the club signing the player rather than by the league. That rule was eventually expanded to allow up to three DPs and it provided even more opportunity for the wealthier or more ambitious clubs to be aggressive. Signing a DP wasn’t a guarantee to make you better (TFC is a glaring example of that), but the rule has helped to create individual identities for clubs.
The league is still a bit McMLS, but far less than it was in 2009.
Of course the DP rule wasn’t the only change MLS made back then. It arguably wasn’t even the biggest change the league made to allow teams to forge their own identity – for that you might have to look at the academy system rule changes.
Although they were instituted with far less fanfare, the academy programs give teams far more ability to shape themselves in their own philosophy. That’s especially the case now that all limits to signing players have been removed.
Today, MLS continued the process it started with the DP and academy rule changes when it formally announced that it is teaming up with USL-Pro to grow the reserve league.
They were clear. The move is about development with an eye to their stated goal of becoming “one of the world’s best leagues” by 2022.
It's badly needed. Bluntly, the current reserve system is a joke. They play too few games and the games they play are not competitive enough to help the development of younger players.
Players need to play and this move will allow them to do so. Unfortunately for the Canadian teams, we are still a year away from the benefit. All three teams will continue to play in the MLS reserve league in 2013 during the transition year of the program. What they do in 2014 is still up in the air, however.
What isn’t up in the air is what they should do. The partnership allows teams to either go in halfway by affiliating with a USL team and loaning out at least four players. That will be fine for the four (and it won’t be much more, based on the small roster size of MLS teams), but not so great for the rest of the non-starting players – including the academy kids that everyone wants to see playing more.
The other option – and the option that all three Canadian teams absolutely should be doing – is putting a stand alone team in USL-Pro.
That option will be far more expensive, but far better for the long-term development of players.
There is no excuse for all three teams – three teams that are in the upper level of MLS teams in terms of profits – not to go full-in on this plan.
And the CSA won't stand in their way. President Victor Montagliani confirmed with CSN today that they have no intention to block the Canadian MLS teams from playing reserve games as part of USL-Pro. The only caveat, he made, was that the reserve teams would not be sanctioned separately from their senior teams and, as such, would not be able to participate in Canadian competitions – most notably the Voyageurs Cup.
It takes time to build a pro team, even if much of the infrastructure needed is already in place. So, it should not be viewed as a negative that the three teams are not participating this year. In fact, it’s probably a good sign they haven’t entered into an affiliate relationship as it means the door is still open to playing as a stand alone team in 2014.
But, this needs to happen.