Two MLS teams have withdrawn their second
teams from the USL Championship.
The USL made it official last week that Philadelphia Union II (formerly Bethlehem Steel) and Timbers 2 FC won't be back in 2021.
What is surprising is the that Union and Timbers have been two of the more MLS successful teams in recent years -- they are currently second in their respective conferences -- and how they have used their second teams, in their own way, has contributed to their success.
The Union has nine players on its 2020 roster -- and three more arriving in 2021 -- who got their start with its USL second team, either signing a USL pro contract or playing on academy contracts before they signed MLS contracts.
They include Brenden Aaronson, who spent two seasons at Bethlehem Steel before joining the Union first team in 2019. After less than two seasons, the Union has parlayed Aaronson's success into a record MLS transfer fee for a U.S. club with his pending move in January to Austrian champion Red Bull Salzburg. Mark McKenzie, also a target of European clubs, also played at Bethlehem Steel as an amateur player.
The Union was one of the first MLS teams to use its second team as a proving ground for academy players and signing them to Homegrown deals after they initially intended to head off to college. The first one was Auston Trusty, who signed to a pro contract just before he was supposed to head off to University of North Carolina for his freshman season.
The Union's first two Steel products, Derrick Jones and Trusty, were traded in the offseason, but generated up to $925,000 in allocation money, just another way its second-team program has paid off.
Philadelphia Union 2020 roster (second-team alums):
Brenden Aaronson (27 games as USL academy player in 2017-28, signed MLS HG contract ahead of 2019 season)
Cory Burke (46 games on USL pro contract in 2016-17, signed MLS contract in December 2017)
Jack de Vries (6 games as USL academy player in 2019, signed MLS HG contract ahead of 2020 season)
Anthony Fontana (19 games as USL academy player in 2016-17, signed MLS HG contract ahead of 2018 season)
Olivier Mbaizo (signed USL pro contract in January 2018, signed MLS contract in April 2018)
Michee Ngalina (24 games on USL pro contract in 2018, signed MLS contract in May 2019)
Mark McKenzie (9 games as USL academy player in 2016-17, signed MLS HG contract for 2018 season after freshman season at Wake Forest University)
Matthew Real (6 games on USL pro contract in 2017, signed MLS HG contract for 2018 season)
Cole Turner (15 games as USL academy player, then on USL pro contract in 2019, signed HG contract ahead of 2020 season)
Philadelphia Union 2021 roster (second-team alums):
Paxten Aaronson (14 games as USL academy player in 2020, signed MLS HG contract ahead of 2021 season)
Nathan Harriel (36 games as USL academy player, then on USL pro contract in 2019-20, signed HG contract ahead of 2021 season)
Jack McGlynn (14 games on USL program contract, signed HG contract ahead of 2021 season)
Former Philadelphia Union players (second-team alums):
Derrick Jones (26 games on USL pro contract in 2016, signed MLS HG contract for 2017 season)
-- Traded to Nashville SC in 2020 for $175,000 in 2020 GAM.
Auston Trusty (13 games as USL academy player in 2016, signed MLS HG contract in August 2016)
-- Traded to Nashville SC in 2020 for $300,000 in 2020 TAM, $300,000 in 2021 GAM, $150,000 in conditional 2021 GAM.
The Portland Timbers have taken a different approach. Without the ambitious academy program the Union built, the Timbers have only two Homegrown players they'll developed on their current roster.
Bu they used Timbers 2 to park young Latin American signings, including Venezuelan Pablo Bonilla and Costa Rican Marvin Loria, who have both played more than 600 minutes in 2020.
The value of Timbers 2 -- and it was considerable -- was in providing playing time to players unable to break through on the first team. In paid off in late 2018 when Jeremy Ebobisse, the No. 4 pick in the 2017 SuperDraft, finally got his chance with the first team and was a big contributor in the Timbers' run to the MLS final.
"Having a USL team has been very important for us and for any club that is serious about soccer," Portland head coach Giovanni Savarese told Soccer America ahead of MLS Cup 2018. "Having the chance for some players who didn't have a chance to play with the first team to stay game-fit is very important. But they also need to understand that when they go to the USL they need to be competitive, to keep on developing, to keep on growing. They need to understand it is not just a step down to get a game, they are helping the USL team win and they need to stay on the right path so if they are given the opportunity to play on the first team they are ready."
In 2019, Ebobisse tied for the Portland lead with 11 goals and was the only Timber to appear in all 34 league games. In 2020, he leads the Timbers with eight goals.
Eryk Williamson's emergence in midfield (two goals and five assists in 16 games) has been one of the biggest stories of the Timbers' 2020 seasons. He didn't play for the Timbers in 2018 after they signed him out of the University of Maryland, acquiring his Homegrown rights from D.C. United, and he made only seven appearances in 2019. Still, he got plenty of playing time in the USL Championship (15 games in 2018 and 19 in 2019).
Portland Timbers 2020 roster (second-team alums):
Blake Bodily (35 games as USL academy player in 2015-17, signed MLS HG contract for 2020 season after three seasons at University of Washington)
Pablo Bonilla (1 game on USL pro contract in 2020, signed MLS contract in June 2020)
Marco Farfan (18 games as USL academy player in 2016, signed MLS HG contract for 2017 season)
Marvin Loria (31 games on USL pro contract in 2018, on loan from Saprissa, signed MLS contract in December 2018)
Renzo Zambrano (32 games on USL pro contract in 2018, signed MLS contract in December 2018)
Former Portland Timbers players (second-team alums):
Kendall McIntosh (20 games on USL pro contract in 2016, signed MLS contract in January 2017)
-- Signed by New York Red Bulls in 2019 Re-Entry Draft.