Stability. Expansion. Rising standards of play. A crowd of 20,000-plus flocking to the Citrus Bowl to watch a wild championship game lit up by 11 goals.
Earlier this month, USL PRO concluded another quietly impressive season, and while there are plenty of reasons for the third-tier professional league to feel bullish about the future, perhaps the most dramatic one is its new player-development partnership with MLS.
“We're off to a great start,” United Soccer Leagues president Tim Holt told MLSsoccer.com earlier this month. “We've learned a lot from the first season. The four team-to-team affiliations all went exceptionally well, so year two is about trying to expand that – hopefully at least doubling the number of affiliations within the leagues, and then potentially an MLS team or teams actually fielding their own USL PRO side.
“This is as exciting a season as we've had, in every possible way. Undoubtedly the level of play on the field for us got better this year ... any team that didn't improve drastically from 2012 to 2013 went backwards in the standings.”
After years of informal exchanges, last winter the two leagues formalized an arrangement in which MLS Reserve League teams were integrated into USL PRO competition, and in subsequent months D.C. United, the New England Revolution, Philadelphia Union and Sporting KC inked player-loan partnerships with their lower-division counterparts in Richmond, Rochester, Harrisburg and Orlando.
Always meant as a long-term relationship, the new agreement was only formalized in January but quickly bore fruit nonetheless. Three of USL PRO's four playoff qualifiers were MLS affiliates, as several young D.C. prospects led the Richmond Kickers to the best regular-season record. And Sporting prospect Dom Dwyer spearheaded Orlando City's run to the championship trophy after leading the league in scoring – setting a new goals record, in fact.
“Dwyer's impact was obviously profound, in terms of what he did with Orlando,” said Holt.
The hungry striker played so well in Central Florida that he was recalled to Kansas City in midseason before rejoining the Lions in dramatic fashion, scoring four goals in front of a festive home crowd – in Holt's words, “as special a soccer atmosphere as I've been at in a while” – as Orlando City won that breathless title match 7-4.
In the process, Dwyer became the embodiment of both his ambitious loan club and the promise of the intraleague relationship.
“The statistics are impressive – he tore it up – but I think the best thing about that wasn't that he broke scoring records and had a championship MVP performance,” noted Holt. “He's a Sporting KC player; they had a lot of talented attacking players on that team and he was fourth or fifth in that pecking order. Without this relationship, without that opportunity, he doesn't get any meaningful games. He gets the occasional reserve league game, but he doesn't really get any meaningful games.
“Instead he comes down to Orlando, he embraces the opportunity, he comes back a confident player and one that's sharp. … He performed at an exceptionally high level. I think it's a great story for the league – if one person epitomizes the affiliation partnership in year one, it'd be Dwyer.”
Holt and his colleagues are fully aware that their reigning champions and biggest success story of the year may not be around for long, with Orlando City aggressively pursuing a path towards MLS entry. But he says USL PRO actually encourages those ambitions.
“Orlando City is making a great case right now to be in that conversation, and we hope they get there,” said Holt. “We're comfortable in what we are and where we fit into this. … The professional game in this country needs more alignment in that respect. We're trying to be a part of the solution.
“[The championship] was a good night for the league, in terms of blowing away the previous attendance mark and showing what's possible for all of our teams,” he added. “Orlando's been really inspiring that way, to a lot of teams that have been around for a long time to say, 'I can do some of this stuff,' and the new teams like Sacramento and Oklahoma City that are saying, 'We can do this here in our market.' They've set the bar pretty high, but it's achievable. A fun story.”
The opportunities will multiply next season. While member clubs are not required to craft relationships with MLS counterparts, Holt expects a majority of his league to be affiliated in 2014. The LA Galaxy, Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders have expressed interest in fielding USL PRO teams, whether in their own market or a more distant region. USL plans to have the specifics sorted out by late October.
Growth is evident across the board. USL PRO will also welcome new clubs in Sacramento and Oklahoma City, and Holt says a steady stream of municipalities, potential owner/investors and even supporters' groups from across North America have expressed interest in expansion opportunities.
“The perception of pro soccer as a viable business is changing among people. I'd like to think that the increased interest we have is in part because of the model that we've put in place, but it goes way beyond that,” he said. “It's cliché to talk about tipping points, but we've gone over that. Things have changed in this country. The perception of 'When's soccer going to make it?' – it's here, it's happening. We're going through it right now.
“I've been with USL for 15 years, and the last 18 months are unlike anything that I've seen. It's completely changed, and it's not going to slow down.”