Last Wednesday, USL introduced Rio Grande Valley FC as the first official expansion team for the 2016 season. The 25th entrant into the fast-growing league is owned by Alex Cantu, owner of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the NBA Development League. RGVFC will play its home matches at a 9,400-seat soccer specific stadium already under construction in Edinburg, Texas.
RGVFC is not only breaking ground for the new stadium, which is modeled after BBVA Compass Stadium and Avaya Stadium, but it is also breaking new ground in USL through its affiliation with Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer. The novelty does not lie in the fact that an affiliation between the teams exists; USL and MLS teams have been reaching affiliation agreements since a partnership between the leagues was forged in 2013. The innovation comes in the structure of the affiliation.
In what is being labeled as a hybrid affiliation, Lone Star LLC, of which Cantu is a majority owner, will manage all aspects of RGVFC with the exception of soccer operations. Soccer will be handled by the Dynamo. The model for this type of affiliation was developed by Lone Star and the Houston Rockets for the D-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers. It is the reason that the Dynamo approached Cantu for USL affiliation.
The hybrid affiliation is unlike any existing relationship between USL and MLS franchises. Over the last two seasons, an MLS ownership group followed one of two routes with respect to getting its players minutes in USL. It either formed its own USL club (LA Galaxy II, Real Monarchs SLC, etc.), or it formed an affiliation with an existing independent USL franchise to which it could loan players.
The decision over which path to follow depended on a cost-benefit analysis. The benefits of owning a USL franchise for an MLS ownership group include complete autonomy, which means control over the players and technical staff. The downside is the cost of owning and operating an additional club. Affiliations avoid costs that some MLS groups find prohibitive, but at the expense of loss of control over a player’s development and playing time once he is sent to the USL team.
RGVFC and the Houston Dynamo will execute a third option in the hybrid affiliation. The hybrid model appears to offer the MLS ownership the best of both worlds when it comes to partnering with USL. The control of technical aspects reside with the MLS side, while the costs of operating a club are pushed off to another ownership group.
Could it really be that simple, though? Doesn’t the line between business operations and soccer operations become blurry in some circumstances? It’s one thing for the technical staff to target players for acquisition, but doesn’t the business side of the house need to get involved when it comes time to negotiate a contract with a player?
Bert Garcia, RGV team president, helped to explain the situation by drawing on experience from the affiliation between the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and the Houston Rockets.
“We were the very first to do it (hybrid affiliation) in the NBA developmental League, and the way we have done it in the past is basketball operations are responsible for recruitment of the players, the signing of the players, the technical staff, coaches and trainers involved,” said Garcia. “That is what our agreement is and will be.”
If the Dynamo are responsible for signing players to RGVFC, will the contract dollars come from the Dynamo or the RGVFC ownership group?
“I’m not sure I’m able to answer that question at this moment because of conversations that the Dynamo and RGV are having,” explained Garcia.
It would seem that it is not really that simple and that some of the details involved in the hybrid affiliation between RGVFC and Houston Dynamo have yet to be hammered out.
There is also the question of different priorities for the two separate groups. It is safe to assume that Houston is interested in developing players to bolster its MLS roster in the future, while RGVFC is interested in winning matches and filling the stands. How will this play out in the affiliation? Garcia again referred to the success of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers when pointing out that the two objectives are not mutually exclusive.
“From our history and our experience in the NBA Developmental League, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and the Houston Rockets, we have always been of the mindset that you develop the player in the best way possible and you still put a good product on the court,” said Garcia.
The Rio Grande Valley Vipers have certainly proven that player development and winning can go hand in hand. In eight seasons of existence, the Vipers have reached the NBA D-League playoffs four times, winning the championship twice. In that same span of time, the Vipers have had seven players called up to the NBA, including Mike Harris and Andrew Goudelock, who were named as NBA D-League MVPs in 2010 and 2013, respectively.
The combination of player development and winning games has helped the Vipers stay near the top of NBA D-League attendance. If RGVFC can bridge the gap between the Houston Dynamo Academy and the MLS squad while contending for championships, it will go a long way toward filling the stands in the new soccer stadium.
If successful, the hybrid affiliation model could represent the next step in the evolution of USL/MLS partnerships and expansion. It certainly was in the case of the D-League. A total of eight hybrid affiliations are now established between the NBA and its D-League franchises.