Discussing “MLS II” teams in the USL

With the news of Swope Park’s name change, Jason Weintraub and Phill Grooms discuss how the “MLS II” teams factor into the USL Championship.

Jason Weintraub: So, I don’t think either of us is a fan of Swope Park becoming another II team, but I think you might have a bigger issue with them staying in Championship, right?

Phill Grooms: Two years ago, Swope Park were forced by the league to abandon the park in KCMO bearing their name due to not meeting US Soccer Division Two requirements of a capacity of 5,000. Since then, a second venue was denied for similar reasons, leaving the team at the immense Children’s Mercy Park where the senior team features. Since then, the organization has continued to abandon more and more attempts at looking like a Championship side—doubling down on the “2 team”, or academy, model. The team has shed most of its veteran, high USL level talent—the average age of their roster is just under 21 (sorry no beer, kids). Worse, as you can see in Mike Pendleton’s amazing chart below, the club has the worst attendance in the league—worse than all but two League 1 teams. The attendance is down 49% & 56% from 2018 & 2017 respectively. Add to that, Swope Park are second-to-last in the Eastern Conference. The viewpoint from a lover of a supposed up-and-coming soccer league is that the club ISN’T EVEN TRYING.

Thanks to Mike Pendleton for this work

Jason: And see, that makes sense, BUT I also don’t want them in my beloved sweet baby League One! Or any MLS 2 team for that matter. Does that mean I don’t think they’d be able to compete? It’s probably the opposite, I’d get tired of watching Baby Bulls and vs. other Baby Bulls (Texas) in the final every year. I just think it would be hard to build League One into a league that fans, and more importantly, potential investors, take as seriously as they should. It’s hard to really advertise bringing professional soccer to cities when you have teams with a grand total attendance of my 4th grade piano recital (who am I kidding, I had way more people attend than Toronto FC II), and when a good portion of the league prioritizes development over winning. What I would love is if USL got to a position where they could do their own thing and tell MLS they won’t accept MLS 2 teams without specific standards or at all. I know MLS wants to cut corners and avoid an MLS reserve league, but it feels like either MLS has to spend money or USL will suffer. Don’t you think moving 2 teams down makes it harder to grow League One?

Phill: Indeed it does, and I hear you. The only counter to that is that the city size and type targeted by League 1 hasn’t even come close to being tapped. It’s more affordable to join and there are just more cities to choose from at this point in the game. Last year, when I first talked to the league about the inaugural League 1 teams, they made it very, very clear that there will be more independent teams than 2 teams. I think it is very important to them to maintain that majority. At most, I see 2 teams outnumbering independent teams for one year, maybe two, and to be honest, I’d bet it never happens. As far as I’m concerned, if that ratio is maintained, any third-tier league in the world should be happy. I will say, however, that I can understand the concern for the preparedness of academy players for the next level due to the change.

Jason: I think the league has been competitive enough to show it doesn’t affect the preparation of players for MLS, but it gives people an excuse to say it does. (Tsubasa) Endoh has been electric for Toronto in MLS and has scored in 2 of his last 3 games and (Ricardo) Pepi proved to be MLS ready with some FC Dallas appearances as well. I think Championship teams coming down doesn’t hurt League one from a talent gap perspective, but I do think it hurts individuals from those Championship teams. Imagine (Andrew) Carleton playing for ATL II against an Orlando City B defense made up of teenagers that are a lot more well-disciplined than him personality-wise but maybe not soccer wise. I think there’s a chance that it stunts the growth of younger players who have a higher ceiling than the average. Do you think Efraín Álvarez develops the way he did and gets intimate head slaps from Zlatan if he spent his years going up against defenders not old enough to vote instead of former MLS players and the more experienced defenders he faced in USL Championship? 

Phill: Great question and perfect choice of player. I think it delays the process by a year. Instead of immediate intimate Zlatan head slaps, I bet there’s a loan to USLC or better before he’s trusted with a team like LA Galaxy. So in some cases, yeah it definitely hurts the player’s growth. In others, with progressive and trusting organizations, it makes little difference. What worries me most, is whether our USMNT player pool can handle the change—even if it’s merely a delay. 

Jason: Yeah, I didn’t even think of that. I mean, it seems to be working fine with our Northern neighbors with (Noble) Okello and soon to be (Jordan)Perruzza, but I don’t trust triple G (Gregg Berhalter) watching too much League 1 unless Omar Gonzalez gets loaned to TFC II. 

Phill: That’s why it’s my plan to forcibly move Will Trapp and Gyasi Zardes to North Texas, where I’d like to permanently affix Greggy’s eyes. But what kind of hit does our national team take if we aren’t able to give guys like Richie Ledezma, Uly Llanez, Tyler Adams, even Aaron Long a place to develop. A league that forces you, at a young age and with low risk to the club, to learn how to act and think more quickly, learn how to deal with grown man physicality, and learn how to live and die by the sword like a pro. Will USL1 provide that? Then again, does an entire soccer league then take the hit for the nation by providing a high level of competition and an equal share of resources for a mere 400 person attendance in a giant empty stadium where they lose their 18th game of the season? As usual, I see the pull of the two sides and yearn for the best of both worlds, but does it exist?

Jason: Sigh, you’re going to make me say it. Listen, I am not an avid Pro/Rel activist like most and I think that a lot of people don’t realize how many teams would fold if that became the American soccer system. There’s not enough of an incentive for investing to get to the highest level like that EPL TV money and most cities would have a difficult time getting MLS stadiums. BUT, for USL, it would be perfect.  I think if the II teams are investing heavily in their teams off the field and they are living up to the performance on the field, they deserve to be in Championship. No one wants to see the same four teams dominate, no one wants to see our best youth not getting the competition they need to better themselves, and no one wants to see a league that has half the teams playing to win and the other playing to develop. I think one day we’ll get there and I doubt the USL telling potential owners that the league was going to just become a reserve league where their independent team has no room to grow. I believe there’s a chance for it to happen in the future and that teams like Forward Madison, who could have easily gone straight into Championship, decided to go the League One route for this reason. Build buzz while working on potential downtown stadiums, study the league, and grow with a core fanbase instead of trying to meet bigger expectations and monetary goals from day one in a higher division that has higher demands.