Welcome to From The Upper Deck, my blog about RSL and soccer in general. I have a lot of passion for the beautiful game. I am just a fan that likes to sit in the upper deck and take it all in.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

RSL Round Table- RSL's Future with USL Pro and PDL

Today we are unveiling something new here at From the Upper Deck. Today marks the first in a series of round table discussions featuring various people in the RSL community. We will take topics of interest and discuss among ourselves how that topic will effect RSL. Hopefully you will find our conversations as interesting as I do.

There has been a lot of talk recently about RSL starting up PDL and USL Pro teams to provide development environments for RSL's homegrown players from the academy as well as other younger RSL players. It looks like this will be unfolding over the next 2-3 years. The question is: What will be the biggest impact to RSL, and how will the fans be able to see and measure the value these programs will provide to the club?

With this in mind I gathered some people to discuss this topic. To go along with myself we have Pat Eyler (@gnupate). Pat writes for From the Upper Deck specializing on all things with the RSL academy. Next is Wes Brown (@wesbadia). Wes writes for Soccer Newsday and also contributes to RSL Soapbox. Matt Montgomery (@TheCrossbarRSL) who is the manager and main writer for RSL Soapbox and James Rust (@JamesRust15) who was the former host of both On Frame and the RSL pre/post game shows joins the panel for part 2 of this series.

Today we talk about the USL Pro and PDL teams for RSL and part 2 looks more at how the fans will react to these new teams. (For an explanation about the USL Pro and PDL leagues, see here)

I think the implementation of a PDL and USL Pro teams will be vital to the future of RSL. Garth has already said that RSL is the type of club that will grow more internally through their academy than they will by bringing in big name players. The academy appears to be doing great things and we are starting to see the fruits of their labors. But the step up between the academy and RSL is a huge one. It will be so beneficial to have a level or two between the academy and the main club for these players to continue to get playing time and continue to grow.

Take for instance Benji Lopez. He was signed last year out of the academy but didn't see any playing time with the first team. That leaves the reserve league as the only place that he can gain experience. A player like Lopez needs more playing time than just that. In the past, RSL has loaned out players for short stretches of time which is good. But it would better for these young players to be playing in the same type of formations that the first team plays in. That way a player can move from the academy, to PDL/USL Pro to RSL and not have to learn a new system. By the time they reach the big club they would have been playing in the same formation for years and will be well accustomed to what is expected of them.

To build off what Charles is saying, it's obvious that expanding throughout the pyramid for the club is vital to the growth of homegrown talent. And the example Charles gave about Lopez is a great one because it focuses on a player that is young with a bright future ahead, but also old enough to start contributing to the club in a tangible way. But at 19 (his birthday was Feb 16), the likelihood of him featuring with the first team is extremely slim. There's the example of Carlos Salcedo at 19 making contributions last year, but I see that as an exception rather than the rule.

For this reason, I see the importance of creating first a PDL level team. The odds are that the academy will produce more talent annually than will be brought in through any other means (draft, trades, etc). Building from the ground up is crucial to giving an outlet to these younger guys because without it they'll have three undesirable options:  1) stagnate on the bench of the first team while competing for time with established vets; 2) go off to college, enter the MLS draft process, and possibly be picked up by one of our rivals; or 3) after signing with RSL and not seeing valuable minutes, start seeking other clubs to play for instead. The first is a waste of resources as there are no fruits being grown; the second is mis-allocation of resources as investment is diverted into essentially developing players for your rivals; while the third is the most desirable of the three because you at least get a return on investment, albeit for a player developed in a specific system which could see a smaller pool of suitors step up.

With the PDL essentially playing in the U-23 age group, having players from the academy that are freshly signed step right into the PDL team would be a seamless way of integrating them into the full RSL "pyramid". It'd also allow them to "play up" a level; ie 18-21 yo's playing against U-23's, and our U-23's playing against D3 veterans. Again, with the academy producing faster than other means, PDL first makes sense. The second team (reserves) can have a bit more time in the status quo until a USL Pro team is developed, but ultimately this is ideal too... of course.

While I agree with your logic, I'm not sure that RSL has a choice. MLS has set a 2015 deadline for USL Pro affiliation or team formation. Perhaps RSL can affiliate during 2015 (though they have avoided that so far) and then stand up the USL Pro team the following year, but making guesses about how MLS will interpret/enforce/modify rules is a chancy business.

Two more pieces of the puzzle are:
How RSL can "tag" players in the PDL system?  This will be important not just to protect players from other MLS teams, but also to protect the investment in Academy players who might sign overseas (e.g., Brooks Lennon seeing interest from Liverpool).
How many of the RSL development players will be ready to opt out of college/PDL/U-23 play early? Justen Glad seems like he could be one, Corey Baird is another. I think we'll see a number of those players signed to a USL Pro contract or an MLS contract and being loaned down to the USL Pro side.

You're absolutely right about the club not having much of a choice in getting the USL Pro team off the ground at the same time as PDL. I think it's rather clear that management/ownership is unwilling to affiliate with a team now just to break that affiliation later to do things "right" by creating their own team. That necessitates the club's creation of a D3 team for 2015, just in time for the deadline. My comment was more in regards to the status of the other clubs in the league as far as PDL teams go. Only a handful of MLS teams have effective U-23 squads in existence right now (PDL or NPSL). It doesn't make sense for RSL to wait on creating one,
and, in my mind, being forced to either affiliate with or create their own D3 squad by 2015 also necessitates the creation of a PDL team as well. Making it a full ladder (that's not missing any rungs) is crucial to moving RSL's academy products up the pyramid as they develop.

My article for Soccer Newsday the other week praised the club for thinking along the lines of filling in the pyramid, but I have concerns about their ideas of how to execute these moves. With talk of San Diego as a possible home for the USL Pro squad, I question if this is the best idea. I understand the wanting to go after a large potential pool of players by focusing on SoCal, but are there better markets that exist? San Diego is largely Xolos country now, and those that don't sign for Tijuana end up being scraped up by the Galaxy system. Not to mention the four NPSL (National Premiere Soccer League) franchises currently in the area. 

I'd like to know what other markets have been looked at... and which ones in the region haven't. Charles and I have talked privately about the idea of scooping up more of the mountain region market by possibly looking at places like Boise which could theoretically support a division 3 club. Getting to a city like that before the likes of Portland or Seattle might be a good investment down the road, especially as we factor in growth factors (top 10 in fastest growing US cities).

Finally, talks of putting the PDL team simply in SLC might be another misstep inside a market the club already controls. Would the PDL club attract non-RSL fans in the SLC market, i.e. expand the footprint of the organization? Or would a closer town suit better? Some have mentioned Provo (another very high growth rate cities), but you'd be contending with BYU's PDL program. Additionally, Ogden lost its PDL team last season, but from what I understand that was more of an issue with ownership than attendance or quality. Ogden is right behind Provo in growth factors, and they also have a potential venue in Lindquist Field which is in a downtown setting.

In summary, what the club is doing deserves to be praised, especially focusing on the PDL first. But my chief concern is with the markets they're looking to get into with these new teams.

I'm not sure that the assumption a So-Cal USL Pro team will help funnel players into RSL's development pipeline is valid.  I haven't seen anything from MLS about expanding the development/homegrown regions, and I think that would throw the system out of balance as wealthier teams decide to plop down USL Pro teams in under-recruited regions.

I agree that trying to expand the local base makes sense from a marketing perspective though.  If you work from Boise to Casa Grande and look for potential locations, there are a few PDL and USL Pro options.  Of course, you have to think about cost too, but if the team is willing to start something in San Diego, you've got to think that's not as much of a factor.  I think you could make a case for Boise, Ogden, and maybe Phoenix (if the existing USL Pro ownership there folds again) at the USL Pro level.  Any of those plus Flagstaff or SLC make sense for PDL too.

I include SLC because I think the PDL team is a lot less about growing the fan base and a lot more about getting the college and older academy players more time together and more immersion in the RSL way. If they're near Rio Tinto, they could step right into practice with the full team whenever it made sense.

Along similar lines, I think San Diego makes less sense because of the difficulty in bringing the USL Pro and MLS teams together for practices, scrimmages, and other interaction.

Given my druthers, I'd like to see Ogden (or Boise as a second choice) for USL Pro and SLC (or Phoenix/Flagstaff) for the PDL.

Both Pat and Wes made some great points. The more I think about it the more it makes sense that the PDL should be in Ogden. I am not sure if the PDL team really will have much of an affect on building the brand of RSL itself. But if you could build a fan base up in Ogden for the team then they would be probably more willing to travel to the Riot to watch players they have followed previously on their PDL team. Also Ogden is close enough for RSL junkies like myself to on occasion travel to Ogden to watch a match as well.

I do think that having a PDL team close to the main team would be very beneficial. How great would it be for the players on the PDL team to be able to train on occasion with the first team? And it would allow the coaching staff to keep a close eye on the players right out of the academy.

The USL Pro team is a little bit different in my mind. With the team being in a higher league I do think it would be beneficial to place this team in a larger area farther away from Salt Lake. Pat and Wes mentioned it already but I have always thought that Boise would be a great spot. The demographics between SLC and Boise are very similar. I really think that a team would do well there.  It is still close enough to shuttle players back and forth without much problem and I think the RSL brand could really grow. But all indications seems to be that the team will be in San Diego. It will be interesting if we could build the RSL brand in Southern California.

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