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Just a few short years ago in 2019, Real Monarchs won the USL Cup, marking the third time in four years that an MLS affiliate had appeared in the title game. The Real Salt Lake reserve team led a group of three MLS reserve teams that qualified for the playoffs. In 2019, affiliates earned 1.2 points per game compared to a 1.4 points per game amongst independent teams, symbolizing the minimal gap between the dueling models.
In 2022, these “two teams” have earned just over 0.9 points per game compared to a 1.5 points per game mark for independents. The MLS affiliates aren’t entirely feckless, but their lack of quality deeply impacts the playoff hunt and the USL’s competitive balance.
HOW ARE THE RESERVE TEAMS DOING?
Atlanta United 2, New York Red Bulls II, and Loudoun United have just nine wins in 51 games as part of the Eastern Conference. Amidst the lack of success, New York fired manager Gary Lewis this weekend. Alongside poor sides in Charleston and Hartford, these clubs spoil the conference’s parity and contribute to the division between the playoff contenders and a lowly bottom tier.
The West is a different story. LA Galaxy II sit in a playoff spot and Las Vegas Lights, LAFC’s affiliate, are just a point below the cut. Why the gulf? Las Vegas and Los Angeles have average ages of 21.9 and 21.6, respectively. Veterans like 37-year-old center back Dekel Keinan and star striker Cal Jennings anchor the Lights, and the Galaxy feature comparable figures in Liam Doyle and Michael Salazar.
Amongst Eastern reserve teams, the average ages fall uniformly below 21. Still, isn’t that youth the point? Atlanta’s 22-year-old Tristan Trager scored four goals this week ahead of a defense anchored by 16-year-old Noah Cobb and 19-year-old Grant Howard. These teams put a greater priority on letting their prospects gain experience.
Still, the quality of the Western reserve teams means that there are half as many “easy games” in that conference. This disparity could have major consequences for the USL Cup. The Eastern Conference champion will likely host a title game after running up their point total against worse competition. Further, Eastern contenders face an easier workload down the stretch – they’ll be able to relax and heal up with points already accrued from lightweight matchups.
MLS NEXT PRO TO THE RESCUE?
No matter the issues in 2022, MLS NEXT Pro provides a light at the end of the tunnel for the USL. Atlanta, Los Angeles, Loudoun, and New York are expected to move over to the reserve league next season, following a group of MLS reserve teams that have already made that same move, ostensibly restoring parity between conferences. At the height of the NASL-USL conflict of the 2010s, reserve sides were a stabilizing force. Now, their developmental mission increasingly fails to align with a competitive set of win-first clubs.
There’s a certain joy in watching the next crop of MLS stars, but USL teams are starting academies of their own, and the future for both parties makes more sense with a split.