The Galaxy’s present met its future Saturday at the StubHub Center. And it was likely the future of Major League Soccer that was on display as well.
On one side were Robbie Keane, Omar Gonzalez and Landon Donovan, guys you’ve probably heard of. Let’s call them Galaxy I.
On the other side — we’ll call them Galaxy II — were Travis Bowen, Raul Mendiola and Cody Laurendi, guys you probably haven’t heard of. But the organization is hoping those will soon be household names as well, which is why it founded a USL Pro team, basically a minor league affiliate, for whom they can play and train.
“It’s the way our league is moving, 100%,” Galaxy President Chris Klein said. “And we’re just out ahead of it.”
Not far ahead though. This season 10 other MLS teams wil have agreements with USL Pro operations, which will groom young players for their MLS partners, helping bridge what has become a widening chasm between the teams and their development programs. But the Galaxy is the only one that will own and manage an affiliate.
“For us and our thinking, this is the only way to go,” Klein said. “I look at this as one of the more significant things that we’ve ever done. And we signed David [Beckham].
“But to really build it out and do it the right way, we had to fill that gap. And the way to fill that gap and the right way to do it is to own and operate your own team.”
Although the Galaxy trumpets the move as groundbreaking, it’s really just a natural progression in what has been a growing relationship between MLS and USL Pro, a 4-year-old league on the third tier of professional soccer in the U.S. behind MLS and the North American Soccer League (NASL). Fourteen months ago, MLS and USL Pro formalized that relationship when some MLS Reserve League teams, basically teams composed of young players who rarely dress for MLS games, were integrated into the more-demanding USL Pro, a competitive league in which seasoned pros play a 28-game schedule.
Several MLS teams quickly agreed to deals with USL Pro franchises in which the major league teams would loan as many as six players to their lower-level partners. The payoffs were immediate on both sides, although none was more spectacular than the case of Sporting Kansas City and its USL Pro partner in Orlando. Dom Dwyer, on loan to Orlando, led the USL Pro in scoring and had four goals in the league championship game before being called up to Kansas City in time to score the winning goal in the MLS Eastern Conference final, sending Kansas City to the MLS Cup, which it won.
Inspired in part by that success, when the USL Pro kicks off its 2014 season next month only three of its 14 teams, including the Irvine-based Orange County Blues, will do so without formal ties to an MLS team.
“The idea was to begin transitioning away from our reserve league and to begin developing and building out this relationship so we could have a properly functioning, sort of lower-level [league] for our developing players to participate in,” said Todd Durbin, the executive vice president of player relations for MLS. “Because you’re now playing against professional teams as opposed to players that are essentially in your same age group.
“The future is not with our reserve league. The future is with participating in USL Pro.”
And here’s where the Galaxy approach is unique. By starting its USL Pro franchise instead of simply partnering with an existing one, the Galaxy is absorbing hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional expenses in exchange for the ability to tailor the training and playing style of the team to the one Coach Bruce Arena uses for the MLS Galaxy.
Having a USL Pro team won’t expand the pool of players available to the Galaxy since MLS caps that at 30. But it will give Klein and Arena the chance to see and evaluate as many as 20 other players under contract with Galaxy II, some of whom could eventually be promoted to the MLS team.
More important, though, is the opportunity the USL Pro team will provide for teenagers such as Jack McBean and Oscar Sorto who, rather than spending the summer on the Galaxy sidelines or playing a handful of reserve league games on a practice field, will now start as many as two dozen challenging games in front of fans for Galaxy II.
“That’s a different week-to-week dynamic in terms of the intensity of the games and what’s happening on the field,” Durbin said. “So what you get, really, is the best of both worlds.
“It will make the team deeper, it will give a lot more players the opportunity to develop, it will allow us to really get an understanding of who the best long-term prospects are. It’s a great situation not only for the team but also for the players that in the past may have not been able to show what they need to be able to show.”