Monday, November 24, 2008

R.I.P. MLS Reserve League 2005-08

Buried under the avalanche of developments issued during last Friday's State of the League address was the death notice of the MLS Reserve League. Alas, the forum in which many of the league's young talent plied their trade has passed on to the afterlife of penalty shootouts, soccer kit flair, and the three-game playoff series.

Of course, the difference between the Reserve League and the previously shelved counterparts is that the League actually served a distinct purpose - one that should have continued for many years to come.

The Reserve League wasn't just another useless ploy to "Europeanize" the league. Rather it was a forum in which younger players - college draftees, Generation adidas, and teenage talent - accrued the valuable playing time often needed to develop into professionals.

And that is exactly what the League was. Instead of keeping rookies and sophomores tethered to the bench, the Reserve League provided the match time necessary for them to develop. No longer was training the only place to prove oneself. The pressure to make the first team right out of college had alleviated. After all, in some managerial regimes, a look on the first club was a frosh's only chance to stick around beyond his rookie season.

Unfortunately, many clubs and their coaches never took to the Reserve League, at least seriously. Teams often appeared to treat the league like an open tryout for former college stars and retired pros. Match times and venues were often shifted at the last minute. In fact, one such game this season - a D.C. vs. New England reserve tilt - was inexplicably scrapped altogether.

Making matters worse was the fact that the league was never publicized. The potential for drawing the millions of families to see a free - FREE - game of professional soccer was never explored. Only a deliberate search or a passing reference could enlighten a fan to the Reserve League's fixture list.

Back to the heart of the concept. Perhaps one of the primary beneficiaries of the league was Jeff Larentowicz, who's rookie season (2005) coincided with the first year of the league. The former Brown Bear undoubtedly benefited from the semi-regular match action during his freshman and sophomore seasons. And by the time his third season began, Larentowicz, a supplemental draft pick, morphed into one of the MLS's better central midfielders. It's fair to presume that without a proving ground like the Reserve League, Larentowicz would have likely wasted away on the bench.

Whether MLS realizes it or not, the dissolution of this forum will leave many younger players without the luxury of match action. Without loans or allocations, where will the younger players acquire match experience? How will coaches accurately evaluate its draftees and developmental players?

But more importantly - what will happen to the next Jeff Larentowicz?

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