(Editorial) – The USL announced this week that Rio Grande Valley FC will be its 25th franchise and will begin play in 2016. The club will be owned and operated on the business side by Alonzo Cantu and his ownership group. Cantu owns the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the NBA Developmental League affiliate of the Houston Rockets. RGVFC will be operated on the technical side by MLS club Houston Dynamo in a new hybrid affiliation. It will be a similar operation to the RGV-Houston NBA affiliation that has proven successful for both parties.
By all accounts, this looks to be another great move by the league as it continues the #USLRising movement that began this year. The league has ballooned with expansion. Existing markets have seen a rise in attendance. The league front office continues to show a vision with aggressive and forward thinking initiatives like the stadium partnership.
USL Rising: Evolution of the MLS-USL Affiliation
The USL’s affiliation with MLS has expanded the player pool and improved the quality on the field. This partnership has benefited MLS by developing young professionals. It has also given rise to MLS expansion clubs like Orlando City SC.
These MLS-USL affiliations have changed and evolved each year. In that, they have improved. This hybrid affiliation with Houston and the soccer specific stadium (SSS) plan shows that RGVFC has upped the ante for MLS affiliates in the USL.
2013: Dom Dwyer And Orlando City Lead The Experiment
The league partnership began in 2013 when MLS and then USL Pro agreed to allow clubs from the two leagues to form affiliations.
At the time, USL Pro had only 13 teams and was in need of a boost. MLS could see that its reserve league was broken and inefficient at developing talent. Most MLS teams had a full academy system at that point, but the reserve league did a poor job bridging the academy teams to the first team. There weren’t enough matches and the season was spread out too long. Some reserve teams had games occur months apart. MLS needed a way to get more games in the schedule. They looked to schedule matches between reserve MLS sides and USL Pro teams.
The two parties came together in a multi-year deal that would see incremental increases in involvement. For 2013, MLS clubs could either keep their reserve team or form an affiliation with an existing USL Pro side. The reserve teams would continue to compete against each other as well as have matches against USL Pro sides. These interleague games would count in the standings for both USL Pro and the MLS reserve league.
Only four MLS teams opted for the USL Pro affiliation. In this, the MLS side would loan at least four of their players to the USL Pro side. The advantage was that those players would be practicing and playing full time against real professionals rather than other reserve players and academy products. The risk was that MLS sides did not have control over the USL Pro side, thus the loaned players were not guarenteed playing time.
In retrospect, the most significant partnership of this year was Sporting KC and Orlando City SC. Sporting would loan out a then 22-year-old striker Dom Dwyer. The Englishman had just turned pro in 2012 and made only one first team appearance in his rookie season.
He went on to score 19 goals in 14 appearances as The Lions would become USL champs. Dwyer was a co-Gold Boot winner with Jose Angulo. The striker was called up towards the end of the season. With Kansas City, he made 16 appearances that season, scoring two goals, including the game winner in the Eastern Conference Final.
Sporting KC would go on to win the 2013 MLS Cup. In 2014, Dwyer started 31 matches, scoring 22 goals. He finished second in the Golden Boot race. A year later, Orlando City would make the jump to MLS.
Dwyer’s development can be directly connected to his loan to Orlando and getting playing time there. Orlando City’s brass cite the relationship with Sporting as a big reason why they were able to make the move to MLS. They learned how to operate a club from a technical and business perspective at a higher level. Sporting helped them to figure out how to scale it up.
This year showed that the partnership could not only work, it was the way of the future for every team in both leagues. It needed to be expanded upon.
2014: Los Dos Become The First
The second year saw MLS buying in on this new model. The league announced a new requirement that every MLS team had to either field a reserve team as a member of USL Pro or have a USL Pro affiliate by 2015. In choosing to operate their own team, the reserves would get a full 28 games (rather than at most 14 under the 2013 system).
After seeing the success of Dwyer and the KC-Orlando partnership, over half of MLS formed an MLS-USL affiliation. One team however chose to form their very own USL side. The LA Galaxy created LA Galaxy II, who quickly became known as Los Dos.
The Galaxy saw the immediate benefits as they had a plethora of young academy kids who immediately got professional playing time. Operating their own team (while more expensive) gave them full control and allowed them to scout other players closely as members of Los Dos. Having the two clubs in the same location also made loans easy. While other MLS clubs had to wait a day while their players traveled, the Galaxy could make loan decisions the day of a match depending on whether a reserve player made the 18 or not.
At any given time, the Galaxy have loaned up to 10 players from the first team roster down to Los Dos. By having fewer LA Galaxy II contracts, that opens up more roster spots for full time and partial loans from the first team roster. Bradford Jamieson IV and Jack McBean are developing nicely as pros. Oscar Sorto is being groomed as the right back of the future for Bruce Arena‘s side. Raul Mendiola is leading the USL in assists and is pushing for a spot in the first team’s 18.
If the financial resources are there and the MLS club has a large enough pool of academy players coming up, the 2014 LA Galaxy II showed that it is worth the investment in the long run.
2015: Everybody Gets a II
This year saw an explosion in USL expansion. The league nearly doubled in size from two years prior as seven new MLS-run USL sides came into existence. Clubs that didn’t start their own team started an affiliation. Only four of the 24 USL teams are without an MLS affiliate this season.
Clubs with the less involved affiliation were sending down more players and were working with their USL affiliate to find what worked best for both. Those players are more regularly starting and being significant pieces with their team, such as Sean Davis and Anatole Abang of the New York Red Bulls organization.
MLS clubs starting their own USL side took it to another level with the facilities and fan engagement. Several clubs began playing in quality college soccer venues and have formed relationships with the university’s soccer programs. Timbers 2 play their matches on the campus at the University of Portland. Whitecaps FC 2 play at Thunderbird Stadium, which is owned by the University of British Columbia.
Many of these teams get to play the occasional match in the first team’s stadium, giving the players a chance to play on an excellent surface in a big stadium.
Possibly the best SSS situation for an MLS-run USL team right now is Starfire Sports Stadium. Sounder 2 immediately inherited a quality 4,500 seat facility that Seattle had previously used for the occasional Open Cup match. For a reserve and third division side, this is an excellent SSS venue. It can be expanded if needed.
Sounder 2 also killed it with the formation of the Sounders Community Trust, allowing fans to become minority owners of the USL team. This was unprecedented in American Soccer and engaged the fans in ways no other MLS-run USL affiliate had before. It was a dream for Sounders supporters to become officially a part of the club.
Coming Soon: RGVFC Raises The Bar
Much like the evolution of the SSS, the MLS-USL affiliations have evolved and gotten better and better with each year and each new partnership formed.
Rio Grande Valley FC and the Dynamo have taken it to another level. This new hybrid affiliation will allow ownership full control of the off-the-field operations. They can grow the brand and market the team in Edinburgh, TX and the surrounding area. The ownership is giving full control to the on field product to a good technical staff in the Houston Dynamo.
Unlike any of the existing MLS II teams, RGVFC will be in a different market than the MLS team. The four-county area is a five hour drive from Houston. The area will support the team as their own rather than an MLS market supporting the first team and only occasionally showing up to a USL match. Five of the six lowest attended USL teams are MLS II teams. The best attended MLS II team is Timber 2, who draw at the league average (about 3,200 fans/game). That is good for 10th in attendance.
The Rio Grande Valley will see this team as their own and could support it with the level of excitement that USL expansion teams this year are getting. Three of top five attended USL teams are expansion clubs this year.
The kicker for this club is the plan for the SSS. The renderings look beautiful. This state of the art 10,000 seat stadium is being modeled after BBVA Compass and Avaya Stadium. Two open end zones leave room for expansion, which could be a big deal in the future.
Everything about RGVFC gives it the change to succeed in ways like Sacramento Republic FC and Orlando City (and then some). It simultaneously gives the Dynamo the full benefits of the affiliation while a separate ownership group helps cover some of the expenses.
RGVFC and Houston have raised the level and expectation for MLS-USL affiliations. Your move everyone else.