[MLS] For months, MLS coaches and general managers have spoken hopefully of a reserve-league revival, and an announcement Monday that the league and adidas have signed a new partnership deal to replace their current arrangement contained a direct reference to player development.
“The goal will be to make a very direct link between our academies, our reserve league, our youth programs with a lot of the other youth programs going on in this country,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. “Adidas can play a very important role in creating that bridge and solidifying all those ties.”
The new eight-year deal runs through 2018. The previous 10-year partnership, launched in 2005, provided adidas exclusive rights as the league uniform supplier and other marketing rights at a cost of between $150 million and $160 million. Terms of the new deal were not disclosed. It takes effect next year.
Costs and organizational and logistical obstacles prompted MLS to shut down its reserve league in 2008 after four years of operation marred by haphazard implementation and questionable effectiveness. Though players such as RSL defender Nat Borchers and U.S. national team forward Herculez Gomez came through the reserve system, the previous incarnation of backup players coached by the first-team staff didn’t take hold.
“While you could argue that having a reserve league is better than nothing, the way it was set up really limited what you could do,” says Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid, who was in charge of Columbus in the last three years of reserve-league play. “There wasn’t enough time to work with those players and not enough games.
“You need 16 or 18 players, and a coaching staff primarily for that team, and a support staff. We didn’t have that. Then you had to keep track of a guy’s minutes so you didn’t go over the limit.”
Reserve games were normally played on the Sunday morning following a Saturday night game, and league restrictions wouldn’t permit a player to play more than a total of 90 minutes combined. Injuries and absences sometimes forced teams to add local players or even staff members to field eleven players.
“I spend most of time worrying about the guys down near the end of the roster, because they don’t see a lot of time with the first team,” said Quakes general manager John Doyle two years ago. “I have to make sure they have their housing and all that sorted out, but another thing I have to do is get them games, and that’s really hard. They can’t get better as players without games and even with the reserve league there’s not enough opportunities for those guys.”
The league has mandated that all teams stock academy squads at the U-16 and U-18 levels, and many of them participate in programs such as the U.S. Development Academy. The league’s marketing company, SUM, stages an annual tournament that includes academy teams.
Real Salt Lake has started a program by which academy players accompany the team to preseason training, and it recently announced the startup of an academy in Arizona. Though guidelines for how academy teams will interlock with a reserve league and U.S. Soccer and other entities have not been drawn up, adidas -- which funds the Generation adidas program by which players forego some or all collegiate eligibility to sign pro contracts – will underwrite a significant share of player development.
“We’ve only been around since 2005, a little more than five years, which isn’t a long time by any means,” said Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerway last week. “We have to strengthen our ties to the community in any way possible, and having these teams – academy teams, a reserve team – I think is a very smart way to do that. Aside from the benefits we might derive by developing players for the first team, fielding those teams in our uniforms gives Real Salt Lake greater visibility.”
There’s certainly a public-relations value to academy teams and reserve teams in addition to the competitive aspect. Still, any advantage the pro teams can utilize to lure elite players is a critical element in improving the quality of league play.
“We need a place for our academy players to play when they get a little bit older and if it’s set up right they can even train with the reserve team once in a while,” said Lagerwey. “It’s a natural extension to the academy system that the league has set up and I think it will be a great step for the league.”