Confirming reporting by the Athletic from the beginning of June, MLS released plans to launch a brand new 3rd Division development league beginning in 2022 alongside the MLS regular season. Teams will play a 20-26 match schedule plus playoffs from March to December.
“We are excited to launch a new league to complete the professional pathway between our academies and the MLS first teams,” said MLS President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott in a league release. “In addition to providing more opportunities for MLS-caliber players, the new league will develop a diverse talent pool of coaches, referees and front office executives while also attracting fans who previously were unable to support a local club in their hometown.”
The new league will begin with 20 MLS minor league affiliates but intends to expand this new league with independent teams likely drawn from MLS NEXT clubs. The original teams are all current MLS affiliates from USL League One and USL Championship. By 2023, all MLS clubs with USL teams are expected to participate in this new as-of-yet-unnamed league. This new league will offer a clearer path to the professional game for MLS academy players, replicating the 2s experience, if not replacing it.
MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott emphasized three main benefits he sees coming from this league: (1) Completing the pro pathway from the youth level to MLS, (2) taking professional soccer into new media markets, and (3) providing more opportunities in various soccer-related to roles to a more a diverse pool of candidates. As part of the official release, Abbott shared that he hopes, “the new league will give rise to more professional opportunities on the technical and business side of the game, developing new jobs for coaches, referees, and executives to become involved in the growth of the game.”
While all of this may sound good in theory, the biggest change may come to the USL. Part of the USL’s meteoric rise from its turbulent past came from first the MLS affiliation with independent teams and then the stable expansion of MLS 2s teams that swelled the league’s ranks as it filled out US Soccer’s second and third divisions. While beneficial, the club philosophies and objectives between MLS teams and independent USL clubs were often at odds. USL’s independent clubs were focused on winning and chasing championships, while MLS teams prioritized development opportunities for academy players and reserves. With a significant number of their current teams departing, the USL has an opportunity to focus on new markets, building a winning culture, and continuing their quest to be the best lower division league in the world.
The USL has made great strides in establishing their own academy and development infrastructure so this represents a wider trend emphasizing homegrown talent. A USL spokesperson who spoke to ESPN said: “The more pathways there are for young players across the country, the better. We wish MLS success in their efforts and look forward to continuing our work together to grow the sport of soccer in the United States.”
It remains to be seen whether clubs like Atlanta United will retain some presence in the USL to develop players who do not come through their academy system.