With the 2022 season just around the corner, we’re seeing some clearer plans emerge for a sanctioned MLS DIII circuit that would serve a variety of purposes for Major League Soccer teams.
When three MLS-owned teams in USL Soccer–Philadelphia Union II, Portland Timbers 2 and Orlando City B–with from USL Championship and League One in 2021, the stated goal was to play in a new MLS U-23 league come 2022. Other teams, such as Tacoma Defiance and Orlando City B, were also rumored to be interested in the new MLS circuit.
But now it looks like the new league would be more ambitious than just a U-23 league and instead be an MLS DIII circuit–at least at first–and include mostly MLS-affiliated squads, though some independent teams, including some existing USL teams, may be part of the mix. The goal is to bridge the gap between the academies and first-team rosters, developing talent that may take a little longer to develop. From The Athletic:
While the launch of a new competition is likely to raise questions about a potential clash between MLS and the USL, it’s worth repeating part of The Athletic’s reporting from October: MLS is expected to file a third-division sanctioning request for the new league to the U.S. Soccer Federation this week, per a source. This would allow the league to function with far lower sanctioning requirements as it gets up and running, most relevantly the minimum 1,000 stadium capacity. This would allow for participants to either play in their first-team stadiums or at smaller venues which may provide a unique atmosphere for fans watching up-and-coming players.
Given the wide range of possibilities for how MLS clubs could utilize these teams, one source indicated that the new league is being viewed as a hybrid of the NBA G League and the England’s EFL Championship (without promotion and relegation, of course). Teams could either serve as full development sides or keep an eye on local engagement in another community. There is some precedent for unique club branding in the MLS2 era, such as North Texas SC (the affiliate of FC Dallas), the Tacoma Defiance (Seattle Sounders) and Loudoun United (D.C. United).
One additional benefit to having an in-house league in the U.S. third division would be the chance to utilize it as a testing ground for potential implementations. In the past, MLS has worked with FIFA to test new rules, including the concussion substitution pilot program currently in place.
If this sounds a little reminiscent of Major League Baseball’s takeover of Minor League Baseball carried out for the 2021 season….it is. One prime rationale for extending total control by MLB to the minor-league side was to complete oversight of what happens in the development process, ranging from player treatment and to media rights and venue specifications. Right now MLS has little direct say over what happens to players lent to USL teams.
Photo courtesy Portland Timbers 2.