Sporting Kansas City has had a long history with USL. The MLS club has had three USL affiliates, once sent retired player Jimmy Nielsen to an affiliate to coach (he remains the head coach of Oklahoma City Energy), and Dom Dwyer used a memorable loan stint in USL to force his way into KC's first team thoughts.
In 2016, the newly-minted Sporting KC reserve team - Swope Park Rangers - made it to the USL's Championship game in its very first season of existence, ultimately falling to another MLS reserve side, New York Red Bulls II. Much like NYRB II, SPR was applauded for playing its soccer the way its parent club wants soccer to be played, providing a platform for prospects to prove themselves capable of performing for the first team. Much like NYRB II, it is exactly where you would expect to find the top emerging talents the club is hoping to bring through to MLS. Much like NYRB II, however, Sporting KC has at least one highly-rated prospect who appears to have sidestepped USL.
While SPR was working its way toward a USL Cup final, Erik Palmer Brown - US youth international and alleged Juventus target - was in Portugal cutting his teeth with Porto B. Was he playing there because he outgrew MLS? Hardly. Brown had a handful of appearances for Sporting KC, but he had a hard time cracking a starting lineup that featured experienced MLS defenders like Matt Besler and Ike Opara.
Not a problem: Erik Palmer-Brown would seem like the prime candidate for USL, a developing talent who needs minutes. However, Palmer-Brown has never made an appearance in USL.
Brown is just one of a small group of players who collectively appear to illustrate USL's limitations as a talent farm: elite prospects don't really seem to belong in the league. In 2016, USL got most attention when a league game saw one player karate kick another in the spine.
The MLS-USL partnership has largely been sold to MLS fans as an exercise in player development. And it is true that the ability to loan players to affiliate teams in the lower league, or (the increasingly popular option) field a full reserve team in USL has been a boost to MLS clubs. Teams like RBNY with productive academies have been able to get more young players under pro contracts than they would otherwise have been able to accommodate on a 28-man MLS roster. But the team with the most enthusiasm for signing players from its academy - FC Dallas - has yet to hop aboard the USL bandwagon. And top talents like Erik Palmer-Brown don't seem to regard the league as an adequate platform for their careers.
The Red Bulls know this problem too well. Buried on the depth chart behind Bradley Wright-Phillips and Gonzalo Veron, MLS minutes were hard for Anatole Abang to come by. However, in limited MLS minutes in 2015, the young forward scored four goals in 392 minutes or a goal every 98 minutes. In two seasons in USL, he picked up eight goals in 14 appearances: a consistent scorer despite limited time. Indeed, while he couldn't conjure any goals at all for RBNY in MLS in 2016, Abang tallied four in eight appearances (544 minutes) in USL last season: a goal every 136 minutes. Brandon Allen, the USL Rookie of the Year and Red Bull II’s top scorer, averaged a goal approximately every 151 minutes in the regular season.
While time in USL suited Allen's development path, it apparently wasn't enough for Abang. With his national team, Cameroon, starting to consider him for meaningful international games, the 20-year-old took a season-long loan to Hobro IK in Denmark to advance his career. When his progress with RBNY in MLS stalled, USL was not the answer.
Another example is Sean Davis. Some would argue that Davis’s MLS minutes were mismanaged in 2016. Outside of a few midweek starts, CONCACAF Champions League, and spot replacements for an injured Dax McCarty and suspended Felipe, Sean Davis only played about 50 minutes of MLS action in the last season.
Despite basically only playing in MLS when absolutely necessary, Davis only played in five USL games in 2016. Why is that? We can only assume it is because RBNY head coach Jesse Marsch considers Davis part of the first-team squad: USL minutes, even USL playoff minutes, were not really considered high quality enough for Davis in comparison to the risk of injury or fatigue. Even Alex Muyl, often hailed as a product of the USL, only played in five USL games in 2016 before being called up to the first team and never looking back.
NYRB II dominated USL with a mixture of academy kids, "elite prospects" and college graduates from conferences such as the MAAC and NEC. But the quality of players like Davis and (starting 'keeper for RBNY in MLS back in 2012) Ryan Meara showed whenever they took the field. USL minutes aid the development of older but professionally inexperienced players like Brandon Allen and Stefano Bonomo. The II team gives young prospects, like Derrick Etienne, Junior Flemmings, and Tyler Adams, a taste of professional soccer over college soccer. But we have yet to see USL prove itself to be the solution to the MLS player development conundrum. We continue to see elite prospects - Palmer-Brown, Abang - choose other opportunities over time in USL, while others (Davis, Muyl, most of FC Dallas's high-performing academy grads) are shielded from the lower league by their MLS teams.
The MLS-USL partnership is still young. Teams like NYRB II are even younger. But in the short time since USL became MLS's preferred answer to its player development issues, it has become clear there are limitations both sides of the partnership are trying to figure their way past. USL spent a portion of 2016 being perturbed by the fact that reserve teams don't generally attract large crowds. It will be disappointing if MLS reserve teams get distracted by USL's commercial ambitions: big crowds in USL don't mean a great deal for the future of RBNY in MLS, for example. Conversely, it seems MLS teams have already seen their top prospects hit the ceiling of what they can achieve in USL.
Players don't just need minutes to develop, they need quality minutes: they need to be challenged. When the challenge stops, development stalls. USL is orders of magnitude better than nothing, a great deal better than the old, broken MLS reserve team system, and has already proven a very useful option for retaining players who otherwise might stagnate in college or bolt to greener pastures abroad. But USL does not seem to (yet) be the answer to developing high-end talent.
The partnership is young. It is a little harsh to judge, for example, NYRB II's contribution to RBNY on just two seasons of work. Still, what we are seeing at the moment, particularly with NYRB II, is that USL is a good solution to the problem MLS teams had with retaining emerging talent, but it is a less effective answer to the problem of developing that talent for MLS. From the perspective of MLS teams, it is that problem - more than USL's concerns about crowd size - that is the most significant hurdle to be cleared by the partnership with the lower league.