MLS: Bigger rosters, reserve league

The biggest news out of Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber's state-of-the-league teleconference Tuesday wasn't particularly newsy at all. But it was big.

Yes, rosters will be expanded, from 24 to 30 players, with more slots for those 24 and younger. Yes, there will be a reserve division again. And if neither of these moves were unexpected -- the reserve-league thing was a done deal weeks ago -- that doesn't diminish their impact on the league and, especially, the league's role in developing talent.

Larger rosters will enable teams to better weather injuries, international call-ups and crowded schedules, and a reserve league -- this one, Garber promises, has been better thought out than the 2005-08 effort -- will provide needed game time for those players, mostly younger, at the bottom of each team's roster.

More opportunity for players, better opportunity for teams.

"I think it's great ...," Chivas USA director of soccer Stephen Hamilton said of 30-man rosters Tuesday. "It allows you to have the necessary depth to get through a grueling campaign. Next year we’ll have the Open Cup and the regular season and, hopefully, the playoffs to get through, and having those extra slots allows us to do some things."

"It helps in terms of developing players," Galaxy general manager/head coach Bruce Arena said. "In theory, it probably will not have an affect on your first team, except you have injuries and that type of thing, and supplemental games. ... I think the more players, you have potentially the opportunity to have a little more of a rested team."

The clubs had been clamoring for a reserve league, one better organized and funded than the previous attempt, and it's been all but assured since adidas and the league agreed on a $200 million sponsorship deal last summer. The eight-year agreement, set to begin next year, includes a strong youth-development component.

That also plays out in MLS's expansion of its Homegrown Player initiative, which enables clubs to sign players directly from their academies. There had been a limit of four signings per season, but Garber said clubs would not be allowed unlimited Homegrown Player deals. The extra roster spots and reserve-league games will "give us a great opportunity to develop those extra players, those younger players," Hamilton said.

"There are a lot of benefits in the reserve league even for established players, in terms of returning from injury and everything else," Hamilton said, "so I think it’ll help our coaching staff make evaluations going forward in regards to players that perform well in the reserve league and having the confidence and the trust to play them in first-team games."

U.S. under-20 national team coach Thomas Rongen told The Associated Press that his team's struggles at last year's FIFA U-20 World Cup could be blamed in part on there being no reserve league.

"We go from full-time residency [with the under-17 team] to a black hole ...," Rongen said. "There's no game sharpness, there's no game fitness and no game rhythm. Because of the MLS dropping the reserve league, the black hole will become deeper and deeper."

More top players are signing professionally while in or just out of high school, and many who do play in college depart for the pros after one or two seasons. Too many of them do not receive the amount of game action needed to continue their development. The reserve league would, theoretically, provide that.

Arena said the primary issue with the reserve league would be scheduling, that it's "going to take some maneuvering" but "in the long run it will be positive."

Garber cited Golden Boot winner Chris Wondolowski of the San Jose Earthquakes and Colorado Rapids forward Omar Cummings and midfielder Jeff Larentowicz as examples of players who started their careers in MLS's reserve league and developed into league stars. Wondolowski, he noted, "probably wouldn't be in MLS without the reserve division."

The reserve league, Garber said, would consist of 10-game regular seasons -- far too few, in our opinion -- with all games within their six-team regional division. The top eight clubs would advance to playoffs. Reserve teams also could play games against outside competition, including teams in the new NASL, in the United Soccer Leagues and possibly against college sides.

The reserve league, Hamilton said, gives young players "a bridge from the youth-development team to the first team. ... It is a big jump from one to the other, but [the reserve league] will give them an opportunity to develop and compete against men, against guys that are professionally day in and day out."

Also worth mentioning:

  • With the league expanding to 18 teams next year, with ther addition of the Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps, MLS will play a 34-game home-and-home schedule. The league's format could change, and there's a possibility conferences could be eliminated and a European-style single table adopted. However, Garber said, "we will never do away with playoffs."

  • Changes to the playoff format will be made, and awarding the MLS Cup final to the highest seed in the playoffs is up for discussion. If that rule were in place this year, this weekend's title game, to be played in Toronto, would be held at the Home Depot Center.

  • The Montreal Impact will become the 19th MLS club in 2012, and the league is "very focused" on making a second New York franchise MLS's 20th team. Garber said the league is talking to the Wilpon family, which owns the New York Mets, the group looking to restore the New York Cosmos and "other investors who have expressed interest." He said the hope was "to get something done for 2013."

  • Discussions have been held with CONMEBOL, South America's governing confederation, about including MLS clubs in Copa Libertadores, the continent's club championship. Clubs from Mexico, which like the U.S. is a member of CONCACAF, have competed in Copa Libertadores since 1998.