USL MLS Affiliation: Tacoma FC and RGVFC Setting An Example For MLS Clubs

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July 19, 2014: Major League Soccer balls on the field during the MLS soccer game between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Sporting KC at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas. Sporting KC won 2-1 (Photo by William Purnell/Icon SMI/Corbis via Getty Images)

Editorial (July 19, 2017) – Earlier this season, the Seattle Sounders announced they are moving their USL affiliate, S2 to Tacoma, WA to become Tacoma FC. This was an excellent decision for a number of reasons. It follows suit with Rio Grande Valley FC Toros, the Houston Dynamo’s USL affiliate.

USL MLS Affiliation: Tacoma FC and RGVFC Setting An Example For MLS Clubs

MLS and the USL have been fostering a mutually beneficial partnership for years. The USL needed more teams and some young talent to grow viewership. MLS had teams with lots of academy kids who needed minutes. While the experiment of MLS-USL affiliations and the MLS2 teams are still in their infancy, the early returns are encouraging but imperfect.

There are a few elements of contention, mostly with the USL purists. A number of the MLS2 teams focus on development rather than competing and trying to win games. Several of them do not try to hide it either. Some of these teams also have issues with attendance, marketing, and the gameday experience. This had to be expected though, as many of the MLS2 teams shared a market and even a venue with their MLS parent club. The MLS teams want fans showing up to their first team games, not the reserves.

For the USL to become a quality second division league, something had to change in some capacity. While MLS teams have been reluctant to change the technical operations, the business side of things could help move their affiliates (and thus the league) out of appearning minor league.

Enter the Rio Grande Valley FC model: Have the MLS team run the technical side of things and have a separate group run the buisness operations. Move the team out of the immediate MLS market. Build a fanbase around supporting the USL side, and not just MLS fans supporting the minor league affiliate. Plant roots by getting the club a soccer-specific stadium. Build a brand outside of the umbrella of the MLS team.

Now Seattle Sounders are following suit. They’re moving S2 to a distant suburb and partnering up with the local minor league baseball team. Tacoma FC will have enough similarities and relations with the Sounders to grow the Rave Green footprint. It will also be distant enough for the people of Tacom to bond to the club as their own.

More MLS teams should look into this. Perhaps Toronto FC can move TFC II to Hamilton or rebrand the club within a specific suburb of Toronto. LA Galaxy II could move out of the StubHub Track & Field Stadium. The Philadelphia Union have already done a great job with their USL affiliate branding, a nod to the history of the ASL and the original Bethlehem Steel.

As more MLS teams start their own USL affiliate, this has to be the model. This will further legitimize the league and they look to become Division II for good. Well run MLS2 teams in the right size market with their own stadium will be key.

It could also be an investment that eventually pays for itself as ticket revenue, sponsorship, and merchandising of the USL side grows. It can’t do any worse than most MLS 2 team jersey sales right now (essentially the MLS team kits with a slightly different logo).

When the league looks to restructure further down the road, they can begin to discuss the goal of competition. For now, RGVFC is showing this method can work. Tacoma FC are just the first through the now open door. We could be entering, dare I say it, USL 2.0. Even if we aren’t, this evolution for MLS 2 teams could be critical to helping the league game Division II status with U.S. Soccer.

3 COMMENTS

  1. You are making an excellent point that will be discussed a lot over the next 5-10 years as USL continues to grow up.
    As far as RGV FC goes, there was a healthy discussion that went on in Houston among Dynamo fans when the Galaxy 2 model became so successful early. I believe that the main impetus for the eventual decision to go to the Rio Grande Valley was economics. The Dynamo didn’t really have the appetite to invest in a USL team because they knew nobody who show up to watch it in Houston and the costs would all be on them. You can glean this perception from listening to Dynamo executives talk a couple of years ago about why RGV was chosen instead of BBVA Compass Stadium or the Houston Sports Park in Pearland (where Dynamo practice facility is located) for the USL team. There are many reasons why the hybrid model is excellent and the RGV FC situation. A couple of years in, it seems to have been a good decision on a number of levels. What you give up though is the idea of having the USL players training right next to the first-team players every day and the benefits that accrue to both the players and coaching staff from that access. There is great value to that too and MLS teams who take this path are not completely wrong. I am really curious to see how FC Dallas balances all of this out when they make their decision soon on the path forward for its USL team.
    It will be interesting to see if the new USL PDL D3 model changes the landscape. I imagine there eventually will be pressure, likely from USL itself as it gets more power, on the co-located USL teams that have no fans to move down to this level.

    • Thank you for the comment, Jeff. You’re absolutely right that the economics for each MLS team has and will continue to affect how they go about having a USL affiliate. There’s a reason some teams have just an affiliate (San Jose-Sacramento) while others have their own MLS 2 club. I didn’t elaborate on it in the article, but I agree the eventual USL II league will shake things up. I think we could eventually get to a state where all the MLS 2 teams are in D3 (USL II), with Pro/Rel for the independent clubs between the USL and USL 2 (PDL, whatever they call it). It’ll be a much better model than the old MLS Reserve League. Thanks again for the reading and comment!

  2. You whiffed on the San Jose/Reno hybrid affiliation. Sacramento is a full independent this year. The affiliation has been a real boon to Reno this year.

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