MLS Influence Strong In PDL Final FourU-23 teams from Seattle, New York still with a chance for PDL title
by Ray Marcham | Thursday, July 30, 2015
The USL Premier Development League Championships are this weekend, and it has a very strong MLS look to it.
It’s also a sign of the strengthening ties between MLS and the USL.
The annual event to crown the champion of the 4th-division league is being hosted by Seattle Sounders U-23s, and is taking place at the Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, Wash. The Sounders U-23s earned their place in the final four by winning the PDL Western Conference Final over FC Tucson.
Starfire also happens to be the training base of U-23s’ parent club, the Seattle Sounders. To help with ticket sales, those who bought tickets to Friday’s PDL semis can also get tickets to the crucial Sounders-Whitecaps match at CenturyLink Field on Saturday night.
This will be the second time that the Sounders U-23s have made the PDL’s championship weekend. They also made the semis in 2012, when they had a young defender named DeAndre Yedlin. They lost to the eventual champions, Forest City London.
The other teams in the PDL semis are a mix of familiar and new. Ocala Stampede FC, based in Florida, made the championship weekend last year before losing in the semis. K-W United, based in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, is in their first semifinal. They hope to join local rivals FC London (2012) and Thunder Bay Chill (2008) as the only Canadian teams to win the PDL crown.
The fourth team is a club who made it to the semis in their first season. They are the New York Red Bulls U-23s, who are trying to win their second title in two years, but in two leagues. They won the NPSL title in 2014, defeating Chattanooga at Red Bull Arena.
That the Red Bulls decided to switch from the NPSL to the PDL (a lateral switch, because both of 4th Division leagues) showed how strong the MLS-USL connection has become. The Red Bulls joined Chicago, Toronto, DC United, Seattle, Orlando and Portland as clubs having PDL teams as part of their growing in-house academy and developmental programs.
Other MLS clubs have affiliated with other stand-alone clubs to be their U-23 sides, much like they have done with the USL itself. For example, Real Boston Rams is affiliated with the New England Revolution, Reading United is with the Philadelphia Union and the Michigan Bucks are connected with the Columbus Crew. The San Jose Earthquakes even dropped their in-house U-23 team to start an affiliation with the Burlingame Dragons.
While some have had PDL clubs in-house from the beginning, other MLS clubs rebranded existing clubs. Seattle Sounders U-23s were originally Tacoma Tide FC, and they still play their home games in the Tacoma area (except one match a season vs Portland Timbers U-23s that is traditionally played in Tumwater, Wash., because it is near the halfway point between Seattle and Portland). Orlando City’s U-23 side was originally the Central Florida Lionhearts, then the Central Florida Craze, before OCSC bought the club.
For all of the focus on academies and in-house development that is leading to the growth of MLS sides, not many have won the PDL title. The Michigan Bucks (Crew SC) have won the title twice (2014, 2008), while the Timbers U-23s won the crown in 2010, while the parent club was still in the USL. The Chicago Fire U-23s, back when they were still the Chicago Fire Reserves, were the regular season champions in 2004.
Thus, the PDL title record of MLS-backed sides isn’t the best. While the Sounders U-23s and the Red Bulls U-23s are likely the favorites, history says that Ocala and K-W United may be the better picks. The one advantage that the Sounders U-23s have, though, is playing at home. Five of the last six PDL champs won the title in front of their home fans, including Northwest sides Kitsap Pumas in 2011 and Portland Timbers U-23s in 2010.
But in the grand scheme of things, titles at the PDL level may not be the ultimate goal of the MLS clubs or those affiliated with MLS teams. Remember, the middle name of the league is “Development”, and that’s exactly what the teams do. They develop college and other amateur players for their parent clubs, becoming a major part of the academy system that each MLS team is creating. They also allow clubs to decide which players can be signed directly to the main club as a Homegrown Player.
And, in the end, that’s what every player in the PDL is aiming for; a chance to play in MLS. While the independent clubs provide the chance for players to get in quality games in the summer while retaining their college eligibility, MLS clubs are hoping to use their teams as the springboard from their academy teams to the pro sides, either with their USL clubs or the main MLS club itself.
So when you see the semifinals and finals this weekend, whether on the PDL YouTube channel or live at Starfire, you’re seeing some of the future of American soccer, both at the NCAA level and maybe the pros, playing in a big environment.
You will also see, with two clubs, how the MLS-PDL connection works, and how that connection could be a big part of the continued success in Seattle & New York.
It’s the present, and future, of MLS this weekend.