The New York Red Bulls II have been a major player in the USL Championship since the team’s inception in 2015. The group as never missed the playoffs in the four seasons it’s played, have always reached at least the semifinals in the postseason, and won both the regular season and league title in 2016 – the only Major League Soccer owned team to do both.
Despite this and the on-going successful 2019 season which sees the club currently in second place in the highly competitive Eastern Conference, the team’s future may include a new setting.
A recent article by Sam Stejskal of The Athletic (subscription needed) reported that the nine current teams owned by MLS organizations in USL Championship (Second Division) could be moved down to USL League One (Third Division) by 2021. This comes from sources in both USL-C and MLS with ties to the possible move.
According to the article: “The nine MLS-owned teams are all in the bottom 10 of the USL Championship in average attendance. Tacoma Defiance, owned by the [Seattle] Sounders, draw the most of the group with an average of 2,202 per match. Five of the remaining eight teams average fewer than 1,000 fans per home game. Combined, the nine MLS-owned Championship teams draw an average of 1,731 fans per match; the 27 independent clubs average 6,066.”
RBNY II are not excluded from this problem. Through July 21, the team is averaging about 736 fans per game this season according to attendance trackers done using announced figures. This puts it at 33rd overall for average attendance this season in USL Championship out of 36 teams. (41 when including teams from USL League One which is also professional). The team’s last home game on Saturday, July 13, against fellow MLS reserve side Atlanta United 2 drew 802 fans which was the 12th most attended USL Championship game that week out of 13.
It’s not hard to understand why fans aren’t interested in attending 2 team games. It’s hard to invest in lower league soccer when the overall feeling is that it isn’t even the main product. Red Bulls II players all want to play for the MLS team, and that’s probably the overall goal for everyone involved. Fans will have a harder time investing in a secondary product when the first one fulfills their soccer fix.
It doesn’t help when stadiums are either A) not filled in the case of LA Galaxy II who play in the same venue as the first team, Dignity Health Sports Park, but only average about 1k when the stadium holds 26,000 or B) isolated from where the first team plays in the case of both RBNY II and ATL II who play at colleges miles away from their first teams. To their credit, the Red Bulls have turned Montclair State University’s soccer park, MSU Soccer Park at Pittser Field, into a fantastic facility over the last few years. But New Jersey Transit is spotty getting their on the weekends, weekday games are hard to attend after work, and the overall feeling of parking in a college parking structure to go see a professional soccer game will not rub someone the wrong way.
On the other hand, of all the MLS Reserve / owned teams the New York Red Bulls II have been the most consistently successful team in USL Championship. The team won the league back in 2016 and since its inception, the team has always won at least one playoff game.
There have been other reserve teams that have done well in the league with Swope Park Rangers, the affiliate of Sporting Kansas City, reached the USL Championship game in both of their first two seasons and LA Galaxy II reaching at least the semifinal in both of its first two seasons – including the title game in 2015. But as of late the teams have been struggling with four reserve teams reaching the playoffs besides RBNY II, and all but one were from the Western Conference. Three reached the Conference Semifinals and only one, RBNY II, reached the Conference Finals.
Overall in terms of season results the USL playoffs will always feature between 2-4 reserve teams a year but when the league is home to nine in 2019 and a total of 16 of the 36 teams make the playoffs this isn’t a huge accomplishment. To better look at results, since 2015 at least one reserve team has made the conference finals each year with two making it in both 2016 and 2017. But it has been the usual offenders, Swope Park Rangers and RBNY II, to do so and with SPR recently falling on hard times standings wise it isn’t likely they’ll return in 2019.
The problem judging competitive play with MLS reserve teams is that at best they all depend on the strength of the top team’s academy and development system. The New York Red Bulls have a strong youth system and players like Tyler Adams and Brian White are good examples of this. Another is Mathias Jørgensen or Marcus Epps who were signed from other professional teams but are currently developing with RBNY II. The mix of these players combines for a competitive force in USL Championship.
If a team like the Tacoma Defiance, formerly Seattle Sounders 2, which has only made the playoffs one time since its’ founding in 2015, is focusing more on youth development than getting results it will show in their performances. Meanwhile, fully independent clubs like Louisville City FC, Charlotte Independence, or Saint Louis FC, for example, may have connections to MLS clubs via affiliations but are totally focused on results – be it in the league or the U.S. Open Cup which has banned MLS Reserve sides since the 2016 instalment.
This issue is not cut and dry and a fair amount of the MLS teams involved in the league will not be happy joining USL League One like Toronto FC II and Orlando City B did to start 2019. The Athletic article claims to have reached out to several of the nine MLS Reserve teams and claims this.
“Sources from several of the MLS teams in question said they’re strongly opposed to the idea of dropping down a division,” continued Stejskal in the Athletic article. “Unlike USL, they’re not worried about poor results or weak attendance with their Championship teams. Their main concern is in using USL to develop players for MLS. In the Championship, they feel like they can achieve that.”
“Whether they’re signed to the first team or on USL deals, 16 and 17-year-old academy products are tested against grown men in the Championship. They might thrive, they might sink. Their team might be strong, or they might finish last in the league. Regardless, clubs gain valuable data points and players have a chance to improve against significantly stronger competition than what they experienced in the youth ranks.”
“The MLS team sources felt that fielding teams in League One simply wouldn’t be as valuable for their clubs. One said that they felt moving all the MLS-owned USL teams into League One would turn it into a ‘Under-21-type’ circuit, in which young players would play almost exclusively against fellow young players. They feel like the benefits of having academy teenagers go up against stronger, more experienced players like they do in the Championship, would be mostly lost.”
So where does that leave New York Red Bulls II? It’s unknown if they were one of the seven sources for this article but the success the team has enjoyed in the league would make one think the team doesn’t want to endanger that. There is some hope since the article claims if clubs met certain, unclarified standards they would be allowed to stay up but it’s unknown if these are in regards to attendance numbers, which New York would probably fail, or league results, which the team would probably succeed in achieving.
There is a lot of uncertainty right now and contracts between the league and MLS are due to be re-negotiated soon. There is no telling what will happen to teams such as Reno 1868 FC whose technical side of the club is controlled by the San Jose Earthquakes.
There is the possibility that if MLS teams want to keep teams up in USL Championship their second division sides could go “independent” like this – something New York could take inspiration from another Red Bull team, RB Leipzig, which famously joined the German professional football system despite being heavily tied to a corporation which is not allowed in that country.