Earlier this year, Atlanta United signed an affiliation deal with the Charleston Battery of the USL. This gave Atlanta a place to loan out players like Alex Tambakis, Andrew Carleton, and Jeffrey Otoo. The Battery’s friendlies have also given other Atlanta academy players opportunities to face Rangers and the Nigerian Olympic Team.
Once Atlanta United gets started in MLS, would it be more beneficial for them to field their own USL team?
It could happen as early as 2018, with Scratching the Pitch reporting that the USL is expecting to add five more teams to the already incoming Nashville FC. The league will be adding a Central Conference and would have 36 total teams.
MLS teams have been fielding their own USL squads in growing numbers. Eleven MLS clubs now own and operate their own USL teams. Other have stuck with the affiliation model Atlanta currently uses. All are seeing the value of younger players getting playing time in USL as opposed to sitting the bench and not getting consistent games in MLS.
The Los Angeles Galaxy broke new ground by starting their USL team, nicknamed Los Dos, in 2014. The USL teams run by MLS clubs are allowed to have an unrestricted number of first-team players on loan, they are allowed to sign players directly, and they are allowed to field up to 5 academy players on amateur contracts (as of 2015) so they can keep their college eligibility.
One of the biggest benefits of operating a local USL team is to have these players train with the first team as much as possible and to truly use the second team as a development tool. Young MLS players can get the training with the first team, but then play matches with the second team if they are not in the plans for the upcoming MLS match. Players returning from injury can also get time in the USL. It is much easier to have MLS players sent to play with the USL team if that team is based next door, rather than a 4.5 hour drive to Charleston.
Jeffrey Otoo is a prime example of a player who would benefit from this sort of situation. As an independent team, Charleston’s mission is to win games and championships. Developing a player like Otoo that does not even belong to them is not part of that, and he has not played in a league match since joining the team. A MLS second team has different priorities and will typically focus on player development first rather than strictly results.
There is a cost to fielding a USL team, with most budgets ranging from $1-3 million. FC Cincinnati CEO Mike Mossell projected a player budget of “a couple of million” when the team was announced late last year. Budgets for USL teams owned and operated by MLS clubs are reportedly around $1 million per year. With the investment Atlanta United is making in its academy and training facility, a USL team could be seen as the proper bridge to the first team.
There are also a few different ways Atlanta United could tackle hosting its own USL team. Some MLS teams have their USL team play in their stadium or training facility. Others have them play in a nearby city or town. The proposed DeKalb County training facility for Atlanta United had a small stadium component, the current facility being built in Marietta does not. However, there are plenty of potential venues in the metro area and beyond for a USL team to use.
They could even look at an example from Orlando. Melbourne, just over an hour east of Orlando, is the home to Orlando City B’s USL matches. With Atlanta United focusing on growing its brand across the region, a USL team that plays in another location could be part of that effort. Orlando City fans in Melbourne might not make the hour drive for MLS games every time, but they can still be part of the club by supporting the USL squad.
Atlanta United has consistently preached that they are creating a full club from the top down to the youngest academy players. A big part of that bridge from the U18 academy team to the professional level is a USL team. Our friends at The Mane Land are seeing the advantages right now of using a USL squad to prepare academy players for the next step.
From being a competitive development system to a marketing tool, owning and operating a team in the USL would provide a host of benefits to Atlanta United.