MLS Soccer

Sounders see USL Pro as better environment than MLS Reserve League

Seattle Sounders FC hopes that players on its new USL Pro team will not only get more games, but more meaningful games.

Matches in the MLS Reserve League sometimes played out like glorified scrimmages, while USL Pro is a freestanding league with playoffs, a championship and even bonus money at stake.

“It’s definitely a better situation for our players to play in,” Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid said. “A lot of times the reserve games — especially away — you were playing in front of 10 people and somebody walking their dog in the park.”

Player development is a key component of USL Pro, but many of the teams matter in their communities, and the teams’ success matters to their players.

“With the USL, it’s points or no points. It’s an actual game,” said Sounders midfielder Micheal Azira, who played the previous two seasons with the Charleston Battery of USL Pro. “You have to give it all. It’s really a good league; it’s growing and it gets better players. It’s not just going from college and getting to play, because most of the players from college don’t get to start there as well. So it’s getting competitive and it’s going to be an actual game, and it’s going to help people increase their abilities as players.”

Sounders FC announced Tuesday that it will field a team in USL Pro next season. The team will be called Seattle Sounders FC 2, which has been shortened to S2. The team will play at Starfire Sports Stadium in Tukwila.

Also Tuesday, the Portland Timbers announced the entry of Timbers 2. The Northwest teams join a rapidly growing league that played with 14 teams last season, but will increase to at least 24 in 2015 with expansion into cities such as Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Louisville, Kentucky; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and St. Louis.

“It will be good for the (MLS) club,” Azira said. “We have a big roster and in most cases you don’t get those minutes. You want to keep yourself going, so I think it will be good for most players who aren’t getting minutes to get minutes there on the team. For the young players as well, it’s a good experience. It’s a good league.”

Azira, 27, climbed the United Soccer Leagues ladder after coming to this country from Uganda. He started with the Mississippi Brilla of USL’s Premier Development League in 2010-11 before moving up to Charleston in 2012-13. His game-winning goal brought the 2012 USL Pro championship to Charleston. He has played in about half of the Sounders’ matches this season and has increasingly worked his way into the starting lineup.

And as much as Sounders FC might like S2 to bring a championship to Tukwila, Schmid stressed that the new team’s primary mission will be developing players for the MLS team.

“We don’t want a bunch of 28-, 29-, 30-year-old guys on the team just to win the USL championship,” Schmid said. “That’s not what the objective of the team is. … When we pick the coach, his main thing is going to be ‘How many players can you produce for the first team,’ not ‘How many titles can you hang up on the wall.’ Certainly we expect the coach to win more games than he loses because I think that’s part of development is players learning how to win. I think that’s part of the growth of players.”

In 2015, all MLS teams will have a presence in USL Pro, either by running teams such as S2, or by working agreements to loan players to existing USL Pro teams.

Schmid said the rules governing player movement between the MLS club and its USL affiliate are not yet settled.

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