End of reserve league is a step back for MLS
Of all the news to come out of MLS during the offseason, the biggest story went largely ignored -- the dissolution of the reserve league. Yes, while all eyes were focused on Columbus capping one of the most fantastic finishes in league history, the demise of the reserve league is perhaps the most damaging news to hit MLS in a long time.
Look at the list of players who benefited from their start as developmental players, whose first meaningful professional action was in this setting. Whether it be Chris Rolfe, a MLS All-Star and a forward on the U.S. national team or Herculez Gomez, the feel-good story of MLS a few years ago, the league is filled with players who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made their mark in the reserve league first. It is the way it is done around the rest of the world, and while that is a bad reason to emulate something, the reserve league was a benefit to MLS. And the decision to cut it is shortsighted.
In an effort to tighten budgets in the midst of a recession, an economic drop-off that could be a severe damper to this still-fringe sport, the league has decided to expand the senior roster slots to between 18 and 20 players. The number of developmental players has been more than halved, from 10 down to four. In his address announcing the changes, commissioner Don Garber said the savings will be applied by teams to improving their rosters and their academies. Truth is, the reserve teams are already doing that.
Look, for instance, at the only MLS side still alive and kicking in the CONCACAF Champions Cup. Houston has advanced out of group play and into the knockout rounds, utilizing its depth and versatility to navigate more than 50 competitive matches this season. In the midst of a season in which Houston also reached the MLS playoffs and advanced to the finals of the SuperLiga, the Dynamo maximized the reserve league to their advantage. The Dynamo had relatively little choice in the matter -- during an 18-day stretch, the Dynamo had six competitive games on their schedule. In a vital 1-1 tie against Luis Angel Firpo in El Salvador, the majority of the Houston lineup was comprised of fringe players, with many of the starters coming from Houston's reserve team. It proved the value of players such as Corey Ashe, Patrick Ianni and Kei Kamara -- all of whom averaged less than 30 minutes an appearance in the MLS regular season -- who turned in solid performances on the road, in a hostile environment.
Granted, the Dynamo's second string might just be an exception to the rule; this unit won the reserve division title this year and the play of the reserves in the Firpo game was more fluid than most starting MLS teams could muster. Yet, it was the success of this group, which stepped in and played so well, that made Houston's late-season charge toward the postseason a reality.
So why end something that has proven to work? Yes, maybe the Dynamo is an anomaly, a team that maximized the reserve league with shrewd draft picks, but other teams should be given this same opportunity. The division has existed for three years and while the numbers of matches -- 12 total -- is limited to say the least, it should be expanded and not contracted. The Dynamo model should be encouraged as teams play a heavier international schedule each year. Cutting back the rosters doesn't necessarily mean there will be more quality depth available.
The competitive advantage gained by players from playing real games -- even if the number of fans showing up to watch games in the reserve league can be counted on one hand -- can't be understated. Keeping players sharp, putting them in games that mean something and giving them a chance to replicate actual game conditions under the watchful eye of coaches and management is worth the benefit. Look no further than New York's John Wolyniec.
It was Wolyniec who came from the far end of the New York Red Bulls' bench this postseason to help propel the club's playoff run. Wolyniec hadn't scored all season and saw bit action for the first team. Yet, Wolyniec continued to play for the reserves, staying sharp and game ready. As a result, the veteran scored two goals and recorded an assist in the playoffs.
Now, MLS wants to close the door on those opportunities.
How and where these second-team players will find quality opposition in games that mean something is yet to be seen. Take, for example, former Red Bull Jozy Altidore, sold to Villarreal in La Liga last season for approximately $8 million. Altidore first began to get experience in the pros at the reserve level with the Red Bulls. Altidore scored freely for the New York reserves when he joined the league in 2006, and as a result, quickly worked his way into the Red Bulls' starting lineup. But will the next Altidore, whomever that might be, get the same valuable minutes that served the striker so well?
And you have MLS, which is too busy jumping over dollars to pick up pennies, to thank for that.
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper METRO. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.