It’s actually not hyperbole to say that the future of USL PRO rests on the success of the Los Angeles Galaxy II, the first MLS-owned franchise in lower-league history.
The agreement between the leagues specifies that all MLS franchises must have an affiliate in USL PRO or field a USL PRO club of their own by the start of next season. That makes LA Galaxy II the pioneering experiment in MLS management of a lower-league club, and it most certainly won’t be the last. There are nine currently unaffiliated 2015 MLS franchises — and just seven announced 2015 USL PRO franchises still available as dance partners.
But here’s the thing: Five “big” clubs — Chicago Fire, FC Dallas, Seattle Sounders, New York Red Bulls and expansion NYCFC — have all either publicly expressed interest in following the Galaxy’s lead next season or have been the subject of credible published reports that indicate they’re investigating the scenario.
A sixth — small market Real Salt Lake — has indicated its interest in bringing an affiliate to San Diego. And last week a second small-market MLS club — Portland Timbers — announced that it was studying a plan to purchase its own USL PRO team. The club could be located just down the road in Salem.
If all seven follow through on those plans, USL PRO would grow by a minimum of 11 teams in 2015 (joining Colorado Springs, Tulsa, St. Louis and Austin… the Louisville “expansion” is actually just Orlando City SC moving its lower-league franchise rights to a new market when it moves up to MLS). That’s an unprecedented burst of growth in the lower tiers of North American professional soccer.
So with that in mind: Is it really any surprise that USL PRO gave LA Galaxy II such great terms this season?
The numbers tell most of the story. Los Angeles is second in the league table with 27 points on an 8-3-3 record. They built that record by outscoring every other team in the league (31 goals, for an average of 2.21 gpg). Only Orlando midfielder Kevin Molino (nine goals) leads Galaxy forward Chandler Hoffman (8) in the race for the Golden Boot (Columbus forward Aaron Schoenfeld, on loan at Dayton, also has 8).
Thirteen players have scored goals for the Galaxy (seven of them multiple times). By contrast, the Battery have scored just 11 goals in league play this season.
Yet there is reason to treat LAGII’s gaudy stats with skepticism.
Nine of their 14 league matches have been played at home. Eleven of them have been played in California. Thirteen of them have been played in the West. LAGII has only played one match east of the Mississippi — and it ended in a 1-1 draw at Dayton.
Several other factors play to their favor. The Galaxy will face the top two teams in the East — Orlando and Richmond — just once. They never have to face Richmond, Rochester or Wilmington on the road. And despite all the talk about trying to keep down travel costs for West Coast teams, LAGII got no 2/24 road dates this season. Its toughest scheduling: a Friday/Sunday split at Arizona and Orange County back in April.
Sixteen of the club’s 28 matches this season will be played against expansion Sacramento, fellow-expansion club Oklahoma City, the completely rebooted Arizona franchise, and the nomadic Orange County Blues.
Granted, Sacramento seems to have the Galaxy’s number (two of their three losses are to the Republic). And blue-collar Rochester went out to the Stubhub Center on Wednesday and handed them a 1-2 loss. But the season so far has broken the Galaxy’s way.
The stretch could be more difficult. This will be the first of three Saturdays on the road for LAGII — at Charleston, Arizona and Orlando. And in five road matches so far, the Galaxy haven’t been quite the same offensive juggernaut, producing a 2-1-2 record on 7/4 goals for/allowed.
LA GALAXY II
For an MLS club that owns its USL PRO affiliate, the big benefit is that you can manage your players across both leagues. That’s why 27 players have appeared in their lineup so far — including first-team defenders Tommy Meyer (4), Kofi Opare (1) and attackers Gyasi Zardes (1) and Robbie Rogers (4), a veteran player so highly coveted last season that the Galaxy dealt eventual MLS MVP Mike Magee to Chicago to acquire his re-entry rights from an English club.
As the numbers indicate, the strength of this club is at the tip of the spear.
Twenty-three-year-old forward Chandler Hoffman was a 2012 Generation Adidas player out of UCLA in 2012, selected 13th overall by Philadelphia. After a rookie campaign that included two games on loan with Harrsiburg and seven MLS appearances, the Galaxy acquired him in a trade before the start of the 2013 season. He made just one appearance for the Galaxy.
This year he’s cutting a wide swath through USL PRO, notching eight goals and an assist in 11 appearances.
Forward Charles Rugg, the 19th pick in 2013, has four goals and two assists. Jack McBean, the homegrown striker who signed with the Galaxy in 2011 when he was 16, has three goals and three assists. Teenage attacking mid Bradford Jamieson IV, another Los Angeles product, has scored four times in nine appearances. French forward Laurent Courtois, 35, was a flop after signing for the first team last season, but he’s picked up two goals in seven appearances with LAGII.
But you can only field so many attacker, and the Galaxy have gotten strong play from some non-glamour names. Young defender Andre Auras, signed this year from Brest, France, has three assists in 11 matches. Defender/midfielder Daniel Steres, 23, earned on offseason contract with his hometown Galaxy after a stellar 2013 with the Wilmington Hammerheads. He’s a regular starter.
So is goalkeeper Cody Laurendi, who has manned the pipes 11 times in 2014. A lacerated kidney in his first match as a starter for the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers cost him the rest of the season, but his goals-against average is just below 1.00.
But the unknown at the center of it all is 25-year-old midfielder Rafael Garcia. Garcia made 10 MLS appearances over the previous two seasons, but now leads LAGII in appearances and minutes.
“They’re loaded with some really good, young, talented players,” Battery Coach Mike Anhaeuser said earlier this week. “The thing about them is (the Galaxy first team in on World Cup hiatus) right now , so you might see a couple of players that they want to get some minutes to. A Robbie Rogers, maybe some more experienced guys that were with them (before).
“The big thing is they’ve got some really good young forwards and wingers that are dangerous, but they’re behind Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, so they’re not going to get many minutes and that’s what this is all about. So we’ve got to be prepared defensively, because that’s where they’re very good.
“We’ve got to put them under pressure. Some teams haven’t put them under pressure when they’re getting after them. That’s were we can cause them a problem.”
The Battery got a weekend off after their 0-2 loss at Orlando on May 31, and several players clearly made the most of it. Captain Colin Falvey even took a trip to Miami.
Every Battery player is available for selection except midfielder Zach Prince, who is suspended for yellow card accumulation. On the bright side, he’s replaced by second-time Vancouver loanee Emmanuel Adjetey, a timely reinforcement who started for the Battery at fullback and outside midfield in 2013.
“We’re looking good,” Anhaeuser said. “(Forward Dane Kelly) is healthy. Our forward line, all our guys are healthy right now. So it’s good to finally have that availability to us, especially with Dane being 100 percent fit.
“We’ve got three games in the month of June. As a team, we talked about it, we’re going to try to get nine points. That’s what we have to do. We want to move up the table. And two of those are at home and one’s on the road.
The coaching staff emphasized boosting the team’s scoring confidence this week in training. And the club also views Charleston’s sticky summer weather as a distinct home-field advantage.
“We want to put teams under pressure and make them work,” Anhaeuser said. “We want them to really be drained and not want to play.”
TOP IMAGE: Galaxy forward Chandler Hoffman attacks the Orange County Blues. Photo via chandlerhoffman.com.