The MLS’s DC United have had a formal affiliation with the Richmond Kickers since 2013, allowing some of its players to gain professional playing experience in the USL. The current agreement is slated to run through next season, and it seems the official partnership might not extend beyond that. The Washington Post’s Steven Goff reported that United filed an application to operate a USL team of its own in 2018.
If approved, United would join 10 other MLS-owned franchises that currently run teams in USL. LA Galaxy were the first MLS group to field a USL team when LA Galaxy II began competing in 2014. This season New York Red Bulls II became the first “MLS2” side to claim a USL championship.
United’s desire to enter the “MLS2” crowd is comprehensible. The relationship between the two leagues has started to produce a pipeline from the USL to the MLS for players and coaches alike. Operating a team in USL would afford United the opportunity to develop players in a competitive, professional environment. Yes, this opportunity exists in the current partnership with the Kickers, but an “MLS2” team would provide United total control over player development.
A contingent of American soccer fans, though, will groan at the idea adding another MLS-owned franchise to the USL. Some are of the opinion the USL team directory has been diluted by too many reserve teams. Some have speculated a decision regarding USL’s application for D2 sanctioning had been delayed, in part, by the number of “MLS2” teams competing in the league. Others point to perceived advantages that the “MLS2” franchises hold over independent USL clubs.
Detractors of MLS-owned franchises in the USL can all point to one fact that cannot be ignored. “MLS2” teams may be successful on the pitch, but they are generally terrible at the turnstiles. From the MLS perspective, the emphasis for the reserve team is player development, not ticket sales. It is not at all shocking that most “MLS2” franchises seemingly put forth minimal effort to fill the stands, but it’s a bad look for the USL.
A solution may exist in the form of a hybrid affiliation, one in which United would control all technical aspects of a USL team owned by a separate group. The independent ownership would be charged with managing all aspects of the business not directly related to the game of soccer, including sales and marketing.
The hybrid affiliation model was already pioneered in USL this season, when the Houston Dynamo partnered with expansion side RGV FC. Next year, San Jose Earthquakes will form a hybrid affiliation with Reno 1868 FC for its inaugural USL season. DC United should consider following suit.
Supposing that DC United takes the advice offered here, with whom would they affiliate? The answer may be just up the road in Baltimore. It is no secret that Wilmington Hammerheads FC owner George Altirs has his eyes set on a USL team in Baltimore after relegating the Hammerheads from the USL to the PDL. Scratching the Pitch has learned there are other deep-pocketed investors looking to begin a USL franchise in that city.
United could partner with any (or all) of these potential ownership groups to form a hybrid affiliation. A large metropolitan area, underserved by professional soccer, would get a USL team. DC United would have a nearby club for the development of young players. The independent ownership group could run the business. It has all the appearances of a winning combination.