The phrase ‘Pathway to Pro’ is perhaps one of the more overused phrases in American soccer. For clubs, leagues, and organizations it is a great way to sell to interested soccer players that their group has the keys to take a footballer’s skills to the next level. Very often, beyond a few buzzwords and some cool graphics, there is little substance to the phrase. So when someone touts a new ‘Pathway’ in a press release it is usually met with a collective yawn.
In June, Major League Soccer woke the soccer world up. With the announcement of their Pathway to Pro program, the league fundamentally altered the American soccer pyramid. The question is now: What is next?
The new league, which has yet to create an official name, will be an under-23 league that will reportedly feature many of the MLS2 sides that currently play in the USL Championship and League One, the second and third divisions of US Soccer. The league will also be open to non-MLS sides and will serve as the go-between for the top level (MLS) and youth academy league (MLS Next). The league has applied for Division III sanctioning from the United States Soccer Federation and is expected to run a calendar from March to December.
For MLS, the creation of a U23 league makes sense on a number of levels. While the league has operated a U23 league in the past, it is in a much better financial position than it was in the past to run such an operation. There has also been a shift in philosophy within most clubs moving from signing high-priced veteran players from Europe to using their academies more to develop players. Clubs such as the Vancouver Whitecaps, New York Red Bulls, and FC Dallas have provided the blueprint to selling players abroad with a clouded pathway. Where there was once a disjointed pathway to make it to MLS, things are now much clearer.
Of course, when it comes to American club soccer things are never easy. The biggest question is: Where does this leave the USL? Due to US Soccer running a disconnected system with different leagues having different motivations, a MLS U23 league comes into direct conflict with the USL. While the USL would be more than happy to part with the MLS2 teams that struggle with attendance and in the standings it does mean that there will be a shake-up within their system. That USL President Jake Edwards has reportedly started to push for promotion and relegation means that there may be a bigger change coming soon.
The other major question is to whether the league will actually be a professional league. Teams that typically play Division III soccer usually have rosters filled with a mix paid professional athletes and college athletes who are unpaid. Given MLS’ desire to centralize development and the crunch that college soccer programs have had in offering men’s soccer scholarships this league may break the trend and go full professional.
The MLS U23 League has certainly sent shockwaves throughout the American soccer system. But what will come out of it is anyone’s guess. As the league looks to create a more organized structure under their branding how others outside of the bubble will react will have major ramifications for the American game.