Stoppage Time: "The MLS Reserve Division and Beyond; Is MLS Doing All It Can?

STOPPAGE TIME
With Brian Crookham

This Week's Edition: "The MLS Reserve Division and Beyond: Is MLS Doing All It Can to Improve Its Product?"

This time last year Major League Soccer was putting the finishing touches on plans for the first season of the MLS Reserve Division. Was it a success? I think so. Are there wrinkles to be ironed out? No question.

The Reserve Division is an important tool in improving the quality of the league. It provides a place for young or inexperienced players to get critical playing time.

Prior to its inception every MLS team was left with a core of players maybe players numbered 16 though 20 on their roster who were good enough to make the team but rarely if ever had the chance to play in a first team game. Although they trained with the big boys every day it is impossible to replicate the competition that they were missing on the weekends. Many of these players may have been better served by playing consistently in the A-League instead of gathering splinters on an MLS bench. The Reserve Division upon its creation started to give these players the ability to play a competitive 90 minutes on a regular basis which is imperative to their development.

The Reserve Division also now plays an important role for players who have been injured or suspended and need to knock some rust off before returning to the First XI. For a variety of reasons the majority of the players in MLS made at least one reserve appearance last summer meaning the quality of the experience for the younger players was enhanced that much more.

The original blueprint for the Reserve Division looked like this: each team would be given an expanded roster of 28 players. Teams were scheduled to play 12 reserve games with all of the games played the morning after the first team game. No player on the roster could play more than a total of 90 minutes between the first team and the reserve team combined in a single weekend. The league also allowed teams to supplement their rosters (to ensure they'd have enough players to suit up for a reserve game) by signing additional players to three-day contracts normally consisting of a Friday training session Saturday’s first team game and a Sunday reserve game.

MLS also tried to forecast some of the bumps in the road prior to the season starting. During the almost two months between June 26th and August 14th only one reserve weekend was scheduled as it was anticipated that the U-20 World Cup and the Gold Cup would have a major impact on rosters.

It also became apparent that constraints on roster size and/or minutes per weekend would have to be modified further to run a successful reserve division. Injuries and outside competitions quickly took their toll on the rosters and teams were forced to use players on temporary contracts to field a full squad eligible for the reserve games. By the end teams were allowed to use players for more than 90 minutes per weekend in order to ensure that enough quality players were available for the contests.

Throughout the year players also emerged from the reserve division that helped their club at the senior level which was one of the primary goals of establishing the reserve division in the first place. A shining example was DC United’s Jamil Walker. Walker scored nine goals and had three assists in reserve division games before being called up to DC's first team and playing a big part in United’s late season success.

Here in Colorado Fabrice Noel was a great success story for the reserve division. He was able to prove himself with the reserves enough to break into the first team at the end of the season and as many Rapids fans will tell you showed himself as one of the most promising young talented players in MLS. Another notable Rapids reserve player was Sasha Gotsmanov who scored 6 goals for the Rapids' reserve side and has emerged as a player who may be able to help the first team significantly in the future.

The reserve division has without doubt made a positive impact on the league but there is still some fine tuning to be done. A scheduling gap of two months in the middle of the season severely limits the developmental opportunities for players who are not seeing first team action. Last year the break came at a time when reserve games were needed the most. The season had started to develop a rhythm at that point and for the most part players have been cast into their roles.

Additionally players coming out of college are not used to competing at high levels for more than three to four months at a time and can experience a performance drop at that time. Mid-season is an important time to give those younger players a chance to compete before they decide that coming to training everyday has become just another job. Injured players had no other option than to be put back into meaningful games at times without a real gauge for their level of fitness.

The Rapids’ Steven Keel was a player who showed tremendous improvement when in the middle of a string of reserve games. It also may have been very difficult to keep a player like Sasha Gotsmanov off of the field if he had been given the opportunity to play competitive games at that crucial point in the season.

What is the next step? MLS has talked of added roster spots and an expanded schedule in 2006 for the reserves. For the division to be as effective as it needs to be both of these things need to happen.

One priority for MLS Director of Player Programs Alfonso Mondelo is the development of U14 U16 and U18 teams for each club. Although the majority of MLS players are the product of youth soccer organizations in this country player development at the youth levels has been severely stunted by the current youth soccer mentality that winning is more important than development.

In the majority of situations youth soccer clubs are forced to compromise their roster sizes training methods and playing styles to ensure that budgets are met. Recruiting not player development within the club has become the primary method of creating a competitive team. The first loss at the U12 level may mean that players migrate to the club down the road.

If financing were to come from the MLS clubs the focus would shift to developing players for the future of the club. Many clubs have already started a youth scheme in some form or another such as the Rapids who have started their Rapids Academy as a step in that direction. Soccer environments in the areas that surround the teams each provide unique challenges. Mondelo feels that all of the MLS clubs can still fulfill the goal of having their own youth teams in the very near future.

What's the major problem though with that scenario? It's how do you create an MLS youth team without biting the hand that feeds you. Youth soccer clubs are in some instances multimillion dollar enterprises. Taking their top players could cause many of the area youth soccer clubs in any given state to cease their support of the MLS. Right or wrong it is their livelihood.

MLS clubs will initially have to find solutions that work within the soccer climate in their areas while still taking into account the geographical and cultural barriers that will impede their progress. Each team may have to come up with a different solution in the near future but they must come up with a solution nonetheless.

So to sum up my observation is that the MLS seems to be investing in ideas that should steadily improve the on-field product and the long-term stability of the league. So go take in a reserve division game - the Rapids Reserve games are played at the club's Westminster Training Center on an open field on Sunday mornings and there's no admission charged. The games tend to be open fun to watch and you never know which star might make an appearance and which reserve player you might see actually make the jump to the first team. Not only will you be supporting the league I think you’ll enjoy the experience.

Brian Crookham's "Stoppage Time" column runs exclusively on ColoradoRapids.com. Brian is the Assistant Technical Director for the Colorado State Youth Soccer Association and serves as color commentator for Rapids broadcasts on Altitude TV. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's and not necessarily those of the Colorado Rapids or ColoradoRapids.com. Send any questions or comments to Brian at StoppageTime@att.net