Narrow gap exists among USL, MLS teams

A merger of the two leagues, USL and MLS, does not appear to be anywhere on the horizons.  Trying to figure out which league is stronger remains a difficult chore.  One of the only barometers out there is the US Open Cup.  USL had a tremendous night last night in the Cup, giving MLS executives a lot to think about.

After last night’s performances, any comparison of the two leagues must include some of the D-2 teams.  A lot of discussion by bloggers, primarily ones from this site have already addressed the issue of talent among USL and MLS.  Last night only reinforces their viewpoints and invites more doubters to the supremacy of MLS as the premier professional Soccer league in the U.S.

Of course, many MLS supporters see the US Open Cup as only exhibitions because second-teamers are playing or maybe because MLS brass refuses to promote the tournament and so the fans follow suit.  What happened last night is certainly not an aberration and has been well documented on this site by other bloggers in the last year or so.  Any MLS supporter wanting to talk down the significance of yesterday’s multiple victories by USL teams over MLS teams is only making excuses. 

If MLS executives were to take the tournament seriously and encourage participation of its teams and promote the US Open Cup more, one wonders what significance it might have on the final scores.  But, because they choose not to do this, they leave the door open for critics and pundits to believe their product is not superior. 

If MLS does not have the best product in the U.S., it is leaving itself susceptible for either a take-over or a bankruptcy.  Why pay $40 million for a franchise in a league that’s not even first class in its own country? 

What must the owners of the Seattle Sounders be thinking?

29 thoughts on “Narrow gap exists among USL, MLS teams”

  1. The best thing that happened last night for American Soccer and the USOC as I will discuss later today was the elimination of the Minnesota Thunder. The Open Cup strives for credibility and to have the worst professional team (note I said team based on this years squad not organization, since the Thunder is actually perhaps the oldest continues organization in this country and has had some very good teams as recently as last year)in this country win a third Open Cup game. Thank goodness for Josh Wolff!

    Chicago’s new ownership should be ashamed. Under their previous ownership and two previous GMs they emphasized this tournament so much that they won it five times in nine years. Now under a new regime they emphasize Superliga and money making friendlies at Toyota Park and play reserves and thus lose early in the Open Cup.

    The new Fire ownership has devalued the competition.

    Charleston is always good at Blackbaud and their win over Chivas cannot be considered an upset by any objective analyst.

    Rochester-Columbs was always going to be a toss up.

    That leaves us with Harrisburg who has a history of beating MLS teams over the Revs as the only true upset given all the circumstances I described. Minnesota beating KC would have been and also would have been a disgrace and an embarrassment for the Open Cup so I am most thankful it did not happen. The competition was saved with KC’s PK win and the refs decision to not have the PKs in front of the Beer Garden at the NSC.

  2. Good Thoughts Mitch-

    Not only is the gap narrow between the two leagues, but USL-1 is much more watchable since many of the teams use actual tactics unlike MLs where managers with the exception of Dom Kinnear and Curt Onalfo generally are tactically inflexible or don’t play with any tactical setup at all. I actually think the talent level in MLS far exceeds USL, but that where USL teams have gone out and hired good foreign managers, many MLS teams simply hire former players and or elevate staff who don’t have a good sense of the game.

    It is very funny Kartik mentions how bad Minnesota is because as a traditional club they have taken the MLS approach constantly hiring former players as coach and have seen their fortunes wane because of it as their USL-1 opposition continues to look abroad for qualified managers.

  3. “What must the owners of the Seattle Sounders be thinking?”

    “Boy, 32k fans and national TV are much better than what we had before!!”

    Also, MLS teams had 2 home games, 4 away games, and went 2-4 including 1 PK loss and 1 AET loss where NE was down to 9 men due to injuries. Not as bad as it looks, and I’m still willing to wager that an MLS team wins the Cup.

  4. It’s virtual policy in the MLS to ignore the USOC. Might as well claim that Aresenal is a substandard team because they play reserves and lose in the league cup. The real gap is between MLS starters and MLS reserves caused by the oppressive salary cap. That’s why you end up with USL squads that are, on the whole, more talented than MLS benchwarmers. Still, there were quite a few MLS stars that were on the field to witness USLers put it to them last night. Here’s to hoping the Dynamo pull through tonight, even if it a reserve squad. 😉

  5. That article is a piece of garbage. It is stuff like this that hurts the credibility of this site, despite some good Confederations Cup work. It is clear to any objective viewer that MLS teams do not care about this tournament. Perhaps they should, but they don’t. Also, this year was set up so that USL teams were at home for the majority of these matches. As Berlin points out, all that the Open Cup ever proves is that the gap between USL starters and MLS bench sitters is a small one. That is all about the salary cap and has nothing to do with the “actual tactics” by USL managers. Give me a break and get a clue.

  6. Berlin,

    “Still, there were quite a few MLS stars that were on the field to witness USLers put it to them last night”

    Yup, about 18 of them according to Climbing the Ladder

    5-Chivas USA
    4/5/6-New England (hard to tell with all the injuries)
    3-DC United
    1-Kansas City

  7. I should also add that the demise of the reserve league is a big factor here. MLS teams are going to be even more likely to play squad players in the Open Cup b/c they aren’t getting regular matches otherwise. Just a point of fact, Chicago played one regular last night, Columbus 3 (and I’d argue they are only regulars b/c of injuries), DC United started 2 regulars, etc. Only Chivas actually had more than three regular starters in their line-up (5). How can you make any qualitative statement on the “narrow gap” based on that data?

    Also, your line about what the owner of the Sounders must be thinking is hilarious. I’m sure he’s upset about the decision to go to MLS where they are selling out matches with 32K per game. Yeah, they are really sweating that move from USL.

  8. If the Open Cup Champion still gets a place in CONCACAF Champions League, then it’s even more of a disgrace that MLS clubs and even the league (Garber) do not pay attention to the tournament. As we all saw with the past Champions League, USL teams made quite a statement that they can compete with any club in the region. The fact that MLS (generally) does not understand that real competitions (not superliga) lead to greater club reputations and greater profits.

  9. Mitch. I interviewed Andrian Hanauer after their road match against RBNY. I can definetly tell you that he is ready for this US Open Cup match & He can’t wait to take out the Portland Timbers.

  10. The comment by Jon is harsh. Mitch admits in the piece exactly what you admit. I submit that we are told MLS is this great product but never get a chance to judge MLS against any other product in a fair manner. Garber and the talking heads on the MLS produced show Extra Time tell us that this league is superior to most in this hemisphere and imply we should be grateful to have it here in this country yet we never see MLS teams go all out to win a trophy that involves non MLS competition. MLS teams begin to take the Open Cup seriously in later stages and always win it, but no other prominent first division in the world loses 40% of its cup games to its second division. I have actually researched this stat. So this is a bridge beyond the league cup.

    Superliga is a tournament played in the Mexican off season and now being played by second tier Mexican clubs that field youth sides and some according to reports don’t even send their first team coaches. Yet we are told ad nausea that MLS is great, yadi, yadi ya and forced to accept this nonsense time and again.

    Great piece Mitch.

    As for Kartik, you have clearly made an attempt in the last 10 days to walk back from what were very valid criticisms of Bob Bradley and worse yet have begun to praise MLS or simply avoid the subject. I don’t think your opinions which I have always felt were well thought out and valid about MLS and SUM have changed but what you have attempted to do is confuse the subject. My guess is that you are scared to lose access to people in the MLS. Thankfully Peter C and Mitch continue the good crticial work of this site while you start praising people left and right.

    Your above comment about Kansas City saving this tournament is probably the most pathetic piece of writing I have seen from you on this site in the year and a half I have been coming here. Again, uyou don’t want to be seen as in the tank for USL as so many have accessed of being, and thank god because no one covers USL like you, or I should say covered USL, but now you are clearly trying to talk about how great MLS is and how Minnesota’s advancement would have ruined this tourney when the Thunder probably have more history in this tournament than the Wizards. Shame on you.!

  11. In defense of Kartik he is probably simply doing what any creature does when on the defensive for his razor sharp analysis of the game in this country. It’s simply human nature.

    This having been said, he is dead wrong. I expected him to be leading the charge on Superliga being a sham and the USL success in this tournament but instead we get silence. Well thank goodness for Mitch!

  12. SuperLiga is a joke, but if the Thunder had advanced, the Open Cup would be too. The Thunder are atrocious…

  13. Eric-

    If Mitch admits in much in his article, then why is it titled the way it is? There is no evidence to suggest there is a narrow gap, especially if the MLS teams that do take the cup seriously tend to end up winning it in the end. If the piece is supposed to scold MLS teams for not taking it seriously and giving us a chance to make those determinations, then fine, that’s a legitimate critique. But there is no substantive data in my mind to make the claims he makes in the title.

    And as for your data on other countries, what other national leagues have a salary cap? In the EPL, the second teamers are all quality and the teams have the luxury of carrying 40-45 players on a roster. Your comparison to other league cups does not wash.

  14. The US Cup needs a MAJOR CORPORATE SPONSOR with MAJOR MONEY to create an incentive for teams to play. Bonuses get paid for semi-finalists and finalists ONLY.

    Teams should be allowed to play trialists (non-active roster tryout-types). Those players get paid by the team (and don’t count against the salary cap), but qualify for the bonuses if they get signed BEFORE the team makes the semi-finals.
    Once in the semi-finals, they have to play 75% 1st teamers.

    Just my two cents.

  15. This is one of the stupidest articles I’ve read recently. Despite the fact that MLS teams normally play their reserves in this tournament they’ve still won more than 70% of the games. Epic fail Mitch. Next time do your home work. This is the epitome of lazy journalism.

  16. The reserve league being eliminated certainly has an effect on lower quality MLS teams being fielded for the US open cup. The tournament getting some sponsorship money or any sort of TV coverage would certainly help get MLS to take it seriously though.

  17. MLS will always look to where the money is, that’s why Superliga gets all the attention while the poor USOC gets ignored. Major corporate sponsorship would be great, but there also needs to be interest from the MLS clubs themselves. A great way to get the clubs interested? Supporters of MLS teams need to be vocal in demanding their team perform to the highest standard in the USOC. Going to the games in large numbers in the run-up to the round of 16, when MLS clubs are playing each other in elimination games, shows the front office that the demand is there. Seattle is showing that support this season. Perhaps, with pressure from the fans, other MLS teams will take this tourney more seriously in the coming years. But without butts in the seats, there is no reason for them to do so.

  18. “What are Seattle’s owners thinking?”
    Well if I was a Seattle owner I would be thinking, “Gee last year we drew 5,000 now we draw 25,000. Last year we were featured on something called USL Live, this year we are on ESPN multiple times.” There is no way the Seattle owners made the wrong choice.

  19. The assertion that MLS reserve teams losing to USL teams in a cup that only hardcore soccer fans know of will lead to MLS bankruptcy is comical.

  20. The US Open Cup and Superliga are both unnecessary. They are great ideas to raise revenue and give non-stars playing time, and the US Open Cup tradition is one that I think we all agree would have been ideal to nurture. It’s a great concept, and if it had a 125 years of history behind it like the FA Cup, then I’d be all for my MLS team trying all out during the middle of its regular season to win the cup.

    But it doesn’t. Nobody cares about it except for USL fans and teams. Furthermore, nobody WILL EVER care about it in the future. It didn’t develop like the FA Cup did. Sorry, but the MLS is correct in dismissing it. They’ve got enough to deal with already, unlike the USL teams, who spend all season preparing for their match against some unsuspecting MLS benchwarmers.

  21. Not sure about your comment about the US Open Cup, it may not have the storied history of the FA cup, but it has been around for 95 years now. It’s not like some half baked Don Garber scheme

  22. Dave, I disagree. Superliga is the bigger scam, while we need the US Open Cup. Being an MLS Supporter as well I think the Cup is needed to give the lower levels a chance to knock out the big boys. Most of the MLS Squads to care about it, so far only Houston’s Dom Kinnear doesn’t want to bother with it.

    It’s all about financial backing, all clubs with their own stadiums and not paying any rent for playing time and more TV coverage outside of the Final on FSC. Just the Final does no one any good. Also FSN Northwest who shows Portland Timbers games, just broadcasted their US Open Cup 3rd Round match against the Seattle Sounders. A positive step in the right direction, but their needs to be more.

  23. Daniel, I think the USL lost the war when MLS convinced those teams in the Pacific NW to leave USL and join MLS. And given that Montreal will likely be jumping ship, it looks like the MLS will have successfully cherry-picked the most successful, wealthiest USL clubs, which will lead to the eventual widespread belief that USL is the minor league.

    I think the Open Cup format is not something most American fans are used to (even American soccer fans). Heck, most people here don’t even understand that the US Open golf tournament is actually open to you and me if we’re good enough to qualify.

    As I stated above, it’s a great concept for those who grasp it. But people here don’t. There’s no analogous cup in baseball, football, basketball, etc., at least not here in the USA.

    Also, it’s hard to argue with the notion that the two leagues are equal when Seattle’s attendance jumped a couple hundred percent upon joining MLS, and while the MLS’s attendance is more than 10,000 fans per match higher than USL’s.

    All USOC “upsets” do is undermine what MLS is trying to achieve. The upsets give nay-sayers more ammunition to call MLS a “minor” league, which is something it needs to protect against (given so many of its own players choose to move to the “major” leagues of Europe).

    To me, the USOC represents division amongst US soccer fans at a time when we need to be united. I’m sorry that some older USL teams have lost out. But it happens. No use crying over spilt milk. And I really hope that USL develops just as quickly and extensively as MLS has been developing. But until USL starts drawing 15,000 fans to its matches and paying its players MLS-equivalent salaries, I think the MLS is right in dismissing the tournament. MLS has nothing to gain by participating in it. Just like the Boston Red Sox have nothing to gain by staging a big tournament with the Pawtucket Red Sox.

  24. Dave, I have to disagree with about everything you just said. However, your statements appear to be right in line with the MLS front office thinking. Thinking that goes something like this…

    “Why should a MLS club put its best 11 players out on a field against a lower league team in the USOC? If they lose, MLS might be criticized as not being as good as we want people to believe, and we can’t have that. It’s better that the MLS clubs don’t start their best players.

    “Why try hard in the CONCACAF Champions League? These are the best teams in the region, and if they beat a MLS club, then we might be criticized as not being on par with the Mexican First Division, or even Costa Rica.

    “But here’s and idea. Let’s create our own tournament. We can call it the SuperLiga and we can play all the games here in the U.S. so that our teams will have the home field advantage. And even better, we can schedule it during the Mexican League offseason so they won’t be in shape. And then, when the MLS teams do well, we can argue that we’re the best league in the region.”

    I don’t blame this mentality. MLS club owners have a lot of money invested in the league and are looking to protect their investment by making sure the league’s image doesn’t get devalued. But do you know what would add value to their image? Trying hard in every game they play! What happened Tuesday night was an embarrassment for MLS, no matter how you slice it.

  25. Bill, I agree with you on the superliga. It’s redundant and just an excuse to sell more tickets (the bragging rights already lie in the CCL or the old Concacaf Champions Cup, which the MLS should try its hardest to win). However, everything else you said supports my belief that the MLS has absolutely nothing to gain by participating in this USOC tournament. Nothing.

    If they win, then they were “supposed” to win. If they lose, then their overpriced talent just got beat by a bunch of minor leaguers. MLS fans don’t seem to brag about or show much pride in a USOC championship. And, the tournament does NOTHING to determine which MLS team is the best. They already have a way to determine that – first, the MLS Cup, and second, the regular season.

    You say that they should try hard in every game they play. That’s easier said than when you consider the amount of games they play: 4-5 preseason games, 30 regular season games, 4-5 playoff games (for good teams), CCL games (which could be 6 or 8 games), and national team duty for certain players.

    If the USOC was meaningful, then maybe they should be expected to give 110%. Or if the players were being paid $8 million per season, maybe then.

    If you can tell me one thing the MLS has to gain in the USOC, then maybe I’ll change my mind. But as it is, I’m not only happy that the MLS is not trying, but I also advocate withdrawing completely from the competition ASAP.

  26. Superliga can be a big deal depending on the teams. Dynamo have gained a lot of respect in Mexico because of Superliga (as well as champions league/cup). The games i’ve seen vs Pachuca (x2), Chivas, and America during superliga have been the most fun games ive seen.

  27. Wow, almost every subject has been hit in this conversation.
    With apologies to specific commenters I’d like to chime in as well.

    US Open: plain and simple, it is the US national soccer championship. Any thought that MLS should withdraw completely would be an insult to the game in the US. I might go so far as to say that MLS would lose me as a supporter if they did such a thing. As for MLS playing too many games for them to put effort into the USOC, Man U played 67 games, excluding exhibitions and preseason. And before anyone replies ‘well, look at how much they get paid’, that’s not what the game of soccer is about once you hit the field.

    SuperLiga: Money, Money, Money. A SUM owned property, all revenues flow to the league, which then goes to support the roughly 9(?) teams that will lose money this year. Reschedule it, yes, play with the format, sure, eliminate it? when 75% of the MLS teams run in the black.

    lack of depth: rosters reduced to 24(from 28) and no reserve league, compared to the Euro rosters of 40+ surely has an effect. So where did the money formerly spent on the reserve league go? Why didn’t the salary cap go up more this year?

    respect for MLS: I agree wholeheartedly that winning competitive international club competitions is the way. That means CONCACAF Champions league in particular. Imagine this, an MLS team wins the CCL, plays in the FIFA Club World Cup and plays a great game against Barca(OK I’m dreaming there) or Estudiantes. Win or lose, playing well against great teams earns respect.

  28. To all concerned. I think 90% of US soccer games are BORING! I watch the Fox soccer channel and LOVE the EPL games. Those are exciting! Us games are snoozefests. One exception though – just watched LA play NY – good soccer! I live in Tampa, and was embarrassed to watch Tampa play Miami recently – A Shortened field! WTF? But, I think some of the boredom is the camera-work.

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