LAG II makes 14 … and hints at the future

LAG II makes 14 … and hints at the future

In a ground-breaking yet thoroughly anticipated move, the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer will field a USL PRO team this season, the USL PRO/MLS axis announced Wednesday.

The entry makes the Galaxy the first MLS club to form its own vertically integrated USL PRO affiliate, an option established in the 2013 agreement between the leagues. The new franchise, to be dubbed Galaxy II, will play its home matches at the StubHub Center, the parent club’s 27,000-seat soccer-specific stadium in Carson, CA.

From an MLS perspective, Galaxy II’s experience in 2014 will be watched carefully by the seven top-league clubs that are reported to be favoring the same option in 2015: Seattle, Salt Lake, Chicago, Dallas, both New York franchises, and Orlando, which is expected to carry over its USL PRO franchise rights when the team moves up to MLS.

But from a USL PRO perspective, the Galaxy II entry represents a preview of what appears to be a stunning transformation. With two announced 2015 expansion clubs (Tulsa and Colorado Springs) already in the works and the prospect of adding as many as six additional franchises through MLS-club ownership, it’s easy to imagine a USL PRO explosion that could boost the league to as many as 22 clubs just 12 months from now.

Is that likely? Probably not. There are still too many question marks, too many scenarios that could still produce lesser outcomes.

But with the 2013 agreement between the two leagues finally taking root in increasingly tangible ways this month, the Galaxy’s experiment will be the test case for MLS ownership of USL PRO clubs. If it works out well from an MLS perspective, next year’s USL PRO growth could be unprecedented. The large-market aristocracy of MLS has largely avoided affiliation so far, reportedly because the wealthier teams are interested in owning their own affiliates, giving them greater control over player movement and development.

Once the Seattles and Chicagos and New Yorks get in the game, things can really change. Quickly.

And let this number sink in: 21. That’s how many MLS teams we’ll have in 2015. And according to the 2013 agreement, 2015 is also the year that each of them is expected to have a relationship with a USL PRO club. If the affiliation process goes through with a one-to-one match (and it might not), that’s a 61 percent expansion of North American soccer’s third tier from 2013 — and a potential windfall for small clubs like the Battery.

Without TV money, home dates are huge

Think of it this way. Paid attendance at Blackbaud Stadium is typically around 80 percent of capacity, meaning that even if the club sold-out each of its regular season matches, that happy outcome would only increase the take at the gate by about 20 percent.

But if you increased the number of regular home games from 14 to 20, that’s a 43 percent increase in home dates. Even if per-attendance remained constant, that kind of league growth would re-write everyone’s revenue (and overhead) projections.

To put that in context, the Battery’s 2013 schedule produced 20 home matches. But to reach that number you have to figure in three Carolina Challenge Cup matches, one preseason friendly with Wilmington, a U.S. Open Cup match, and a first-round playoff game. Figure in the CCC, a decent run in the USOC, and a modest performance in an expanded playoff format, and it’s not hard to imagine the Battery playing as many as 25 to 27 home games, with a schedule that stretches well into October.

There are some big questions that come with that number, of course. Will the three unaffiliated USL clubs from 2014 (Phoenix, Charlotte and LA Blues) all continue past 2014 as-is, or will someone drop out? Will the two outlier MLS clubs (Chivas USA and Montreal) affiliate with USL PRO clubs as expected? Will we see more deals like the Portland/San Jose joint affiliation with Sacramento? Will the quest for the final spots in MLS expansion continue to drive ambitious ownership groups to invest in lower-tier soccer? And with MLS affiliation providing a variety of benefits, will future USL PRO franchises be able to compete financially without an MLS partner?

Affiliation by the numbers

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The Galaxy deal means we’ll have 14 teams in USL PRO in 2014 — up one from last season. That’s 26 matches against 13 USL opponents.

It didn’t get as much attention on Wednesday, but MLS may have inadvertently cleared up one of the uncertainties of the 2014 schedule when it announced that Galaxy II would play a 28-game schedule. Though there’s been no official announcement, that suggests Galaxy II, along with the rest of USL PRO, will play two matches against MLS Reserve sides, a carry-over from 2013. More on that in a moment.

From a home-game standpoint, however, the loss of Antigua means that the number of regular season home dates will remain level at 14 (Antigua played all its matches on the road in 2013).

In other words, last season the Battery played 14 regular-season matches at home and 12 matches on the road. This year, that number will be 14 and 14 — no additional home-date revenues, but travel charges for two additional road dates, with all the growth occurring west of the Mississippi. Boil it down to the bottom line, and it’s not quite as good a deal of the club got in 2013, even though we’re adding three teams (Oklahoma City, Sacramento and Galaxy II) and losing two (Antigua and Tampa).

Of the Battery’s 13 USL PRO opponents, 10 will be affiliated with MLS teams. The remaining three teams — Charlotte, Phoenix and the LA Blues — are each in very different situations. The Charlotte Eagles have reached a deal to sell the club to a new ownership group that plans to run the franchise as a for-profit venture that will compete for one of the three remaining MLS expansion slots (the Eagles’ sale is pending league approval). Expansion Phoenix collapsed in 2013 and returns only with league assistance and a newly composed ownership group. Call it a second attempt at a successful expansion year. And the LA Blues remain a mystery — the third professional team in a city with two MLS clubs, ignored by Western Conference MLS front offices so desperate for regional USL partners that Sacramento wound up affiliating with both Portland and San Jose.

Last year, only four USL PRO teams got full-year MLS affiliation loans (five if you count Charleston, which added three Vancouver prospects — two of them off the Whitecaps PDL roster — in March and April). This year, 11 clubs will receive MLS loaned players. And since the MLS club must pay all or part of the contract for those loaned players (I’ve never gotten a solid answer on how that works), having an affiliate helps keep club wages down. Barring any late developments, Charlotte, Phoenix and the Blues will have to get by without that advantage.

About that MLS Reserve series

In 2013, the Battery played the Houston Dynamo reserves home and away, winning both matches 5-1 on aggregate. And while the Dynamo Reserves were one of the better MLS reserves teams (Houston won the Eastern Conference Reserve League title with a 1.67 PPG average), that lopsided outcome wasn’t an anomaly. To the surprise of many — including me — USL PRO teams dominated MLS reserve squads in 2013. The results of the series counted in USL PRO and MLS Reserve League standings.

However, with 11 of the 19 MLS teams now affiliated with USL PRO teams, there are now only eight eight MLS Reserve teams left to play against 14 USL PRO clubs. Independent soccer journalist Brendan Doherty, writing at the New England Revolution blog The Bent Musket, cited a December radio statement by Rochester President Pat Ercoli to the effect that the home-and-away series is history and that each USL PRO team will play against two different MLS reserve sides in 2014.

That looks almost certain in light of today’s announcements.

So in a sense, 2013 was an unbalanced schedule, because each USL PRO team played a different MLS opponent, and the difference in quality (Houston 1.67 PPG, Toronto 1.o0 PPG) was considerable. This season will also be unbalanced, but the quality should be spread out a bit more evenly since 14 USL teams will be sharing 8 MLS teams and playing only one game against each.

By the way. The best reserve team in MLS in 2013? The Galaxy. It went 5-1-4 for a 1.9 PPG average.

On the road

USL PRO said its 2014 schedule will be released this week, but one thing we can expect is that the Battery will be spending more time out West than ever before.

In its pre-NASL/post-MLS-contraction salad days, USL enjoyed the advantage created by the massive Southeastern hole in the MLS footprint. With Major League Soccer avoiding Dixie like the Ebola virus, that left some quality markets here for minor league teams. And that meant good regional rivalries and — more importantly for the clubs — lower travel costs.

As the league has expanded, those costs have grown. With the addition of Phoenix last season, most East Coast teams barnstormed through Arizona and Los Angeles on one compressed swing as cost-saving measure. How the USL PRO schedulers will handle two LA-based teams, plus Phoenix, Oklahoma City and Sacramento, plus the vagueries road matches against reserve teams in Seattle, Real Salt Lake, Chicago, etc., remains a fascinating mystery.

Will the league schedule be balanced, with home and away against every team in USL PRO? Or will the league office opt for something more exotic and less competitive to save on travel costs?

Stay tuned.

Check my figures

Here’s how I counted the changes. I’m not perfect, so if you spot a mistake, lemme know…

MLS teams affiliated with USL PRO clubs in 2013 (4): Philadelphia (Harrisburg), New England (Rochester), D.C. United (Richmond), Sporting KC (Orlando).

MLS teams affiliated with separate USL PRO clubs in 2014 (10): Philadelphia (Harrisburg), New England (Rochester), D.C. United (Richmond), Sporting KC (Orlando and Oklahoma City), Columbus (Dayton), Houston (Pittsburgh), Toronto (Wilmington), Portland and San Jose (Sacramento), Vancouver (Charleston).

MLS teams with their own USL PRO clubs in 2014 (1): Los Angeles (Galaxy II)

Unaffiliated MLS clubs, 2014 (8): Seattle, ChivasColorado, Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas, Chicago, New York Red Bulls, Montreal.

Unaffiliated USL PRO clubs, 2014 (13): Charlotte Eagles, Phoenix FC, LA Blues.

MLS expansion clubs, 2015 (2): New York FC (unknown), Orlando(possible club-owned USL PRO affiliate in Louisville, KY),

USL PRO expansion clubs (announced) 2015 (2): Colorado Springs (expected to affiliate withColorado Rapids), Tulsa (unknown).

MLS clubs reportedly working toward creation of their own USL PRO affiliate for 2015 or beyond (7): Seattle (unknown), Real Salt Lake (reportedly interested in establishing aSan Diegobased franchise), FC Dallas (unknown), Chicago (unknown), Red Bulls (unknown),  NYFC (unknown), Orlando (interested in moving its USL PRO franchise toLouisville).

Total MLS clubs in 2015, plus possible USL PRO additions in 2015: 21 clubs, 11 affiliated with existing or announced USL PRO clubs, eight fielding new USL franchises, two (Chivas and Montreal) in limbo.

Estimated USL PRO field for 2015 (22): 13 stand-alone franchises and one MLS-owned franchise (Galaxy II) from 2014, with one franchise moving from Orlando to another location (Louisville?), plus two known expansion teams (Tulsa, Colorado Springs), plus as many as six additional MLS-owned clubs (Seattle, RSL/SD; FC Dallas, Chicago, Red Bulls, NYFC). This assumes that the three unaffiliated clubs from 2014 (Charlotte, Phoenix and LA Blues) do not fold.

TOP IMAGE: Do I think this is what USL PRO will look like in January 2015? Not exactly. But this might not be too far off. illustration by Dan Conover

1 Comment

  1. Great article Dan! Love to read about the intricacies US soccer hierarchy and way forward. I wonder if Boeing has been approached by the Battery regarding sponsorship; either way, hopefully the Battery isn’t adversely affected by the growth of MLS/USL Pro leagues.