USL-1: A League of “Left Overs?”

Walter_Ramirez

As most readers of this site know, I have recently been used as a color commentator on some USL-1 matches hosted by Miami FC for USL Live.  USL-1 is a league I support, and enjoy. If I didn’t support it, I wouldn’t constantly defend the league from MLS snobs who tend to ignore the other tiers of soccer in this country and if I didn’t enjoy the product I would have stopped going to games long ago.

But I must admit the MLS-centric commentators have made me think a little bit. Duane Rollins of the 24th Minute in Canada is a fantastic soccer writer. In Canada, the view has often been articulated that the A-League/USL-1 is the better league when compared with MLS. Duane, perhaps because he’s in Toronto has been overly defensive of MLS in the past. I have often disagreed with some of his arguments, but more recently he’s made me think about things in a little more depth.Then we have the very troubling news from Minnesota, reported and explained by our friend Brian Quarstad of Inside Minnesota Soccer.

The Thunder have a proud tradition of success in the A-League and now USL-1. But their continued troubles tell me something is very wrong with USL-1 right now. Additionally, Match Fit USA recently ran a piece about using USL as a “farm system” for MLS. I explained in the comments that this had been tried ten years ago and the deal between the two leagues didn’t work. Since that time the A-League and D-3 leagues (now USL-1 and USL-2) have struggled in many markets, while the PDL has become the gem of American soccer developing and producing talent that borders on world class.

The Puerto Rico Islanders in particular have a fantastic program, they are able to cherry pick players from around the Caribbean, since USL has no foreign player limits. They also, thanks to two successive CONCACAF Champions League appearances are in a position to outbid other USL-1 teams for the services of cast offs from MLS clubs. But the rest of USL-1 has become since the breakdown of the partnership with MLS, a league of “left overs.”

Yesterday, the Rochester Rhinos became the latest USL-1 team to be defeated in a key Open Cup match by an MLS team. The game was close with the Rhinos perhaps leaving unlucky losers. But to me the storyline was that Rochester was undone by a PDL and USL-2 product Boyzzz Khumalo, who scored the winning goal. (Khumalo did spend a short stint in the A-League but spent far more time in USL-2 and the PDL)

It is certainly true that many USL-1 players are better than the counterparts they were waived for in MLS. But that is because they are older and take up a larger salary slot under MLS’ tough cap rules. As I wrote today on Major League Soccer Talk when discussing some of these same issues:

Some of these left overs tend to be better than what is left in MLS thanks to a salary cap that squeezes guys in the middle of a payroll while keeping developmental players in the league.

Long term, this is a good thing for the US system because the developmental guys may actually bloom into national team prospects for the USA, while the mid range guys fit the category of journeymen players.

So essentially USL-1 is a league of journeymen players. How much of a journeyman league is it? If you look at European rosters for players who once played in the US the breakdown is somewhat like this: I quickly estimated by going thru all the Yanks Abroad in Wikipedia and looking at where the played previously.  My percentages could be slightly off, but they are not wildly off

MLS alone- 50%
USL 1 alone 2%
USL 2 alone 2%
PDL alone- 20%
USL-2 and MLS 7%
USL 1 and MLS 2%
PDL and MLS 15%
PDL and USL-1 1%
PDL and USL-2 1%

My numbers are rough and I could be somewhat off, but basically 74% of players who go to Europe by my estimate play in MLS at some point, while 37% again estimated played in the PDL at some point. USL-2 even has 10%. It is USL-1 which is higher on the pyramid than USL-2 and PDL that have the fewest players going to Europe at any point, with just about 5%. So from a development standpoint, the 2nd tier league is the least useful in the top 4 tiers. Now, of course player development cannot just be measure by who plays in Europe, but that was one quick way for me to compare.

So, clearly USL as a league is doing a fine job:  Half or slightly more than half the American players that end up in Europe play in the USL at some point. But the vast majority of them never play in the top USL league, the league that has teams in big markets and the league that has all its games either on Cable TV or free Broadband.

Going forward, a decision has to be made about the former A-League, now known as USL-1. The division be more agresssive in its marketing and more competitive in signing and developing players. Otherwise, the league may be useless in time: the bigger markest get absorbed by MLS, the smaller markets by USL-2 (if they are in the east or midwest).