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RBNY II? LA’s USL Pro team raises new question for New York

The LA Galaxy announced the creation of a team to compete in the upcoming USL PRO season on January 29, 2014. LA Galaxy II, as it will be called, marks the first time in Major League Soccer history that a franchise owns and runs a second team in a lower division league.

“We’re going to be guinea pigs for everyone in the first year,” Bruce Arena, head coach of the Galaxy, said to mlssoccer.com. “It’s not going to be easy to figure out how to do this and do it right, but it’s a step forward.”

USL PRO is the “strongest U.S. men’s professional soccer league on and off the field below and in support of MLS,” according to the official website.

With the announcement in Carson, CA, immediate questions and pressure began to creep up on certain individuals in the New York Red Bulls hierarchy in Harrison, N.J. Why did the Galaxy manage to do this first and when do New York fans get their own shiny new toy to play with?

The answer is complicated. Like any initial, entertaining idea, multiple pros and cons factor into the many discussions to be had. Despite having a powerful, known corporation funding the team, the Red Bulls may not create a RBNY II, at least anytime in the near future. Arena, however, believes that other teams in MLS will quickly follow their historical lead.

“I think this is important, and I think you’re going to see that the rest of the league will follow in the near future doing the same thing,” he said in the same article. “It’s a very impressive move by our ownership to make the commitment financially to do it. I think it’s something that needs to be done and I think it will pay dividends down the road.

Let’s evaluate whether operating a USL PRO team is a wholly beneficial move.

PROS:

Abundance of past and present, talented academy alumni:

  • Ethan Decker (Connecticut), Adam Najem (Akron), David Najem (Columbia), Dan Metzger (Maryland), Sean Davis (Duke), Scott Thomsen (Virginia), Brandon Allen (Georgetown) and Alex Muyl (Georgetown) were the academy alumni playing division one collegiate soccer the past 2013 season. As one can easily observe, the higher education institutions hosting Red Bull products are all recognizable as powerhouses in the college game. These prospects are rated differently, but all would probably warrant a homegrown signing and a few years in the USL PRO to prove themselves.
  • Ismar Tandir, 18, is an American and Bosnian dual citizen that signed with French team Sochaux reportedly as early as last year. A product of the Red Bulls academy, Tandir notably started at forward in the U-16 team’s run to the USSF’s Developmental Academy championship and led the U-18 team in scoring before his departure. The US Soccer Federation has infamously never called the 6 foot 5 striker up at any youth level. Is his national team absence a telling insight, or did the USSF (and RBNY) make an oversight by letting another talented youth not feel wanted (Neven Subotic anybody)? Certainly, had the Red Bulls II existed when Tandir was deciding on career options, Roxbourgh may have convinced him to sign in Harrison to begin his career.
  • Lesser known academy products like Sammy Adjei and Winder Saint-Cyr, both trialists in the 2014 preseason, could receive an extensive evaluation over the course of a season or two rather than a few weeks. Some can argue that these players deserve more after performing in annual rookie rituals.
  • Waived homegrown signings could have moved down to the lower level and prove themselves worthy of another chance in the first team. Demotion, rather than a cut from the roster, was probably a better fate for former homegrown players, Matt Kassel and Sacir Hot. Giorgi Chirgadze, released from the team due to personal reasons, attempted to earn back his a roster spot in 2012 but unfortunately did not perform well enough for one. He is another useful candidate for a USL PRO team.
  • The most recent academy class announced their college commitments on February 6. Evan Luoro (Michigan), Chris Lema (Georgetown), Arun Basuljevic (Georgetown), Steven Echevarria (Wake Forest) and Kevin Politz (Wake Forest) were the notable names on the list. The former three were all preseason camp invitees in 2014.

Young talent already signed need valuable competitive minutes:

  • Players down the depth chart such as Ryan Meara, Matt Miazga, Ruben Bover, Marius Obekop and Connor Lade need time to develop further and prevent stagnation that many past players under 25 experienced with the Red Bulls. The “now mentality” that head coach Mike Petke preached about Amando Moreno’s departure is immediately alleviated by hosting a lower division team for fringe players to compete on.
  • Would Moreno have stayed for the upcoming season if the opportunity to play regularly in USL Pro was available? The move was described as a “tough” decision for Moreno by Petke, according to empireofsoccer.com. The homegrown player was reportedly out of contract and rejected a new offer without the salary raise he was originally guaranteed, according to a statement released by sporting director Andy Roxbourgh. Perhaps Moreno would have stayed on the same wages if he foresaw playing time in 2014.

USL PRO is a competitive league home to former and aspiring MLS players:

  • Dom Dwyer, the young forward from Sporting Kansas City, is perhaps the poster child for what success in the USL PRO can lead to. He recorded a league-record 15 goals in the 2013 regular season for Orlando City as one of four loaned players in an affiliate deal. In addition, he infamously scored four goals in the USL PRO title game to lead Orlando to the championship. All the fame garnered in the lower division led to a recall to Sporting KC, where he eventually scored the game winner in the Eastern Conference Final against Houston Dynamo and started in MLS Cup 2013 versus Real Salt Lake
  • Like Dwyer, current Toronto FC forward and Nigerian international, Bright Dike, embarked on a similar loan in 2012 to the LA Blues of USL PRO. After a short loan stint away, which led to six goals in 10 games, Dike returned to the Portland to set MLS career highs with five goals in 12 games (9 starts). Despite the drop in division, the playing time and exposure in USL PRO remains valuable for individuals like Dwyer and Dike.

No immediate and ideal affiliate options:

  • Can a partnership with Charlotte be successful? The team personifies consistency as their head coach, Mark Steffens, held the position since 1997, according to his profile. If the Red Bulls deem Steffen’s managerial skills worthy, then they need not worry about instability midway through a season. He has a long track record that Roxbourgh and Petke can easily discern whether Charlotte is the right fit, which they may discover is not the case. Still, North Carolina is an odd pairing with a high profile New York team.

 Extend presence in local community:

  • Hosting annual tryouts is potential inspiration for many talented players currently out of the professional game. Although many MLS teams hold professional tryouts occasionally, most are simply public relation gimmicks to appease their fan base. Amateurs seeking an opportunity in the pro game have a more realistic chance in a lower division tryout than one at the highest level.
  • An atmosphere at an unknown, possibly smaller, venue, can help fortify the positive public perception that the Red Bulls administration are constantly trying to reinforce. Seeing members of the south ward chanting and singing at a smaller venue may attract more casual and first time fans to attend a first team match at Red Bull Arena.
  • Additional games at Red Bull Arena or another venue can lead to more game-day job opportunities for the immediate community. The staff that run the concession stands and parking during home games are affable and friendly and deserving of extra employment if they wish for more.
  • Local legends like Tony Meola and John Wolyniec could vie for the head coach position and attract more media attention to the team.
  • Could the Red Bull organization in Austria allow public relation confusion by naming the lower division affiliate, the Metrostars? One is entitled to his or her fantasies…

CONS:

Owning and running a second team is expensive:

  • A full time coaching staff and maximum 26 playing roster are only the beginning of the new expenses. Travel fees, including flights and gas for bus rides, and hotel fares for 14 away games, are costly factors to consider when considering the creation of a second team.
  • The Rochester Rhinos schedule in 2013 was not as demanding travel-wise as one might expect. 14 away games still come with problems though. Their longest road trip was an approximate 8 hour, 2500 mile flight to California to play the LA Blues. Using the Google flight calculator, the best single ticket options for the trip to play the LA Galaxy II  on June 11, is $497. Now multiply that number by 26 (18 man roster and coaching staff)The potential cost of one round trip to Los Angeles from Rochester is approximately $13-14,000. A second trip to Phoenix FC would probably yield a similar price range. Though the Red Bulls are known for possessing deep monetary pockets, these costs are not to be scoffed at in negotiations.

Where do they play:

  • The obvious answer of Red Bull Arena poses many issues. The grass is at risk of deterioration from further use of 14 games throughout the year. Read this in-depth insight into the difficulties of maintaining the pristine field conditions of RBA with Dan Schemesh, the director of grounds for RBNY, by The New York Times.
  • The cost of running the stadium with significantly lower attendance is also a possible issue. How many tickets and chicken tenders need to be sold before the team makes profit from running the stadium for a night? In addition, there could potentially be a conflict with MLS and USL scheduling.
  • What other local options exist currently – a college stadium? Fans who were excited about the Red Bulls tenure at Montclair State University ending may be disappointed for a possible return.

Requires consistency from first team administration to be truly effective:

  • Petke needs the opportunity to stay for many years to form an identity in tactics and structure so that reserve players can easily transition into the first team. It is not enough for young players to remain in lower division soccer. The program must produce success stories that impact the first team.
  • Will the Red Bull hierarchy allow Roxbourgh, Peke and Jerome De Botin to remain in charge for many years in the event of limited return on trophies and success? From the team history of firing American coaching legends like Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena, the answer is a probable no.

CONCLUSION: 

The major hurdles for operating a team in the USL PRO include money concerns and administrative consistency. If the headquarters in Austria are willing to employ Mike Petke and Andy Roxbourgh after failing seasons and fund the entire project, then the dream can become a reality. A second team makes too much sense. This is mostly because of the serious investment already reaping benefits with the academy teams. Homegrown players of the past, present and future, possess enough talent to become established professionals, however, they need (and needed) playing time to develop. A team in the USL PRO offers the perfect opportunity.

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