Putting the MLS Reserve Division out of its misery, unfortunately, is the merciful, and sensible, thing to do with the league also cutting down on roster spots for developmental players.
The result will be a leaner league, with fewer players just barely hanging on to hopes of playing a few first-team minutes per month. Instead of the split roster - 18 first-team regulars, 10 developmental slots - MLS teams in 2009 will be allowed to utilize 18, 19, or 20 first-team players, and as many as four developmental players. And there will be no reserve games.
Now, those four players who otherwise would have played a dozen - if that - reserve games spread over several months will face these scenarios, none of them ideal: scrap for a spot in the USL, take the PDL route (if they're eligible), head to a foreign land, or get a real job. If they stick with it, the pressure to find and earn and keep a spot in a competitive environment is far more likely to hone their abilities than the back end of the MLS bus.
For those fringe players not included on the 18-man squad next year, their MLS coaches will have more time to work with them and also to find opportunities for them to play on loan. If the backups can't push the regulars and the fringe players can't push the backups, there's not enough pressure on players to improve and fight and stay ahead of the next guy.
Without the resources to field full reserve teams in addition to the 18-man regular roster, throwing little used backups into "reserve" games served little purpose.
"Ideally, you'd have a bigger roster so you can separate out the players more in training and really have two teams," says CoachSigi Schmid, who guided Columbus to the 2008 MLS title. "That's not going to happen in the short term. But just look at the players, like Jeff Larentowicz in New England who made it through there, or Adam Moffat, who played in the USL, then made it to our reserve team, and was playing very well for our first team when he got injured.
"Ideally, it would be great if we could have something of the European model, which is different than the English model, where your reserve team actually plays in like the third division. You could partner up with a team in your area, and basically your players and their players are one and the same and you can move players up and down. In Germany, they play two divisions below the top division."
Yet reserve leagues in Europe also vary wildly. When officials of Tottenham Hotspur came to California to announce a partnernship with San Jose, they and Quakes officials discussed many facets of team operations. "They have the same problem," says Quakes GM John Doyle. "We had Chelsea at the meetings and everybody approaches the reserve league differently.
"The 10 guys we brought in this year to be our developmentals, I spend 90 percent of my time dealing with their issues. All of us are trying to take care of their situations. Financially they can't make it."
Much ballyhooed when launched in 2005 season as another step in the league's evolution, instead the Reserve Division devolved into an embarrassment. Only a dozen games per team were scheduled, and some didn't manage that many, because of cancellations. Staff members, assistant coaches, and local players were drafted to fill out squads in some matches when teams were denuded by injuries, call-ups and suspensions.
The halfway, stop-gap method of allotting 10 developmental slots to supplement the regular 18-man roster, while better than nothing, never had a chance to generate a regular stream of first-team candidates and capable replacements. Examples can be cited - Nat Borchers, Larentowicz, etc. - of developmental players cracking not just the first team but a starting XI, yet they were few and far between, and with the league expanding its per-team allotment of international players to eight, the odds against developmental players increased.
The league, as usual, has been fuzzy about what portion of monies allotted to the reserve league - for travel, game expenses, salaries, etc. - will be plowed back into the salary cap. Adidas underwrote much of the reserve league's operations and also supplements the salaries of Generation adidas players, who do not count against the team's salary cap
Not every team took its reserve team as seriously as did Houston, which won the Reserve Division title under assistant coach John Spencer and consistently supplied head coach Dominic Kinnear with capable players. Stuart Holden and Corey Ashe, to name just two, advanced their careers in the Reserve Division.
"The reserve league has a good purpose, to give the younger players a place to play," says Kinnear. "Also, you give players who've been injured or suspended some time before they step back into the first team. But you have to look it another way, and that MLS is a job that depends on results, and maybe some people don't find it necessary or don't find the time or comfort to rely on young players to win right away."
For potential first-teamers needing extra games, reserve matches filled the need. But for most younger players and their teams, the Reserve Division fell woefully short.
Every year, I hear MLS general managers and a few coaches smugly claim the USL is tapped out. And every year, lower-division teams beat MLS teams head-to-head and/or a few USL products do quite well in MLS, with Moffat and Red Bulls' keeper Danny Cepero being just two examples from 2008. Puerto Rico and Montreal reached the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals and neither won the USL-1 title.
There are complexities - logistical, financial, and political - to loan deals with USL clubs. Yet next year, they will be an essential part of the player development puzzle.