MLS 2 sides in USL have always been a debatable topic around the league—many supporters have opinions for and against MLS 2 sides—but there is no denying that these clubs have had success at this level.
Since LA Galaxy II took the field in 2014, an MLS 2 team has won one title (New York Red Bulls II in 2016), and has appeared in the league final in the past three seasons—Los Dos in 2015, the all-MLS 2 final in 2016 of NYRB II and Swope Park Rangers, and Swope Park Rangers again in 2017. While it does seem like a majority of these “2” teams are in the bottom half of the league (I am looking at you Toronto FC II), the continued success by these elite sides shows the potential of how well an MLS 2 club can be in USL.
As we prepare to embark on the 2018 USL season, we have one sole MLS 2 side joining the league this year, Atlanta United 2. I wanted to take a look back at the first seasons in USL of all previous MLS 2 teams (current and defunct), in attempt to determine what are the expectations of an MLS 2 side in year one, and to predict how Atlanta United 2 may perform this year.
Since 2014, USL has had 13 MLS 2 teams compete in the league at some point—three of these sides no longer play in USL (Vancouver 2, FC Montreal and Orlando City B, who are on hiatus). In the past three seasons, MLS 2 teams have seen varying degrees of success in their maiden year. Last season, Reno 1868 FC set the record for the most points per game for an MLS 2 team in year one, earning 1.84 PPG—the previous record was held by 2014’s LA Galaxy II.
The worst points per game performance by any first year MLS 2 side was 2015’s Toronto FC II, who earned 0.82 PPG, a record almost equalized by Bethlehem Steel FC who earned 0.93 PPG in 2016.
Furthermore, Reno destroyed the old goals per game record among first year MLS 2 teams last year, averaging an astounding 2.34 goals a match. Again, that broke a record previously held by 2014’s LA Galaxy II (1.75 goals/game). On the other end, Toronto II scored a measly 0.93 goals per game in their first season in 2015 — the only MLS 2 team not to average above a goal a match.
Defensively, Rio Grande Valley FC in 2016 had the best goals against average during their first year, giving up less than a goal a match (0.80 GA/game). No other MLS 2 side allowed fewer than a goal a match in their first year. Vancouver 2 set the high mark in this category, allowing on average, 1.89 goals a match in 2015.
How well do MLS 2 teams do in the playoffs in their first year? Out of the 13 inaugural season’s for MLS 2 sides, seven of those seasons ended with the club in the playoffs, including Swope Park Rangers in 2016 who made it all the way to the final, before bowing out to New York Red Bulls II.
Of those seven clubs, four did not make it past their first playoff match. However, of those seven clubs, five hosted the playoff match in which they contested. For any new MLS 2 team entering USL, having an expectation of making the playoffs is not unreasonable by any sense, by what should we make of Atlanta United 2 going forward?
What about Atlanta United 2?
Using past data on MLS 2 sides, I am willing to predict that Atlanta United 2’s final points total would be between 27.93 points (using Toronto II’s worst ever PPG for MLS 2 sides) and 62.69 (last year’s Reno PPG average), with an average points total of 45.10 points being expected from Atlanta 2. If Atlanta 2 performed to the average projected points total, they would be most comparable to the 2015 Portland Timbers 2 team, a side that finished 8th in the then 12 team conference, seven points out of a playoff spot. I think realistically, this is the expected goal of Atlanta 2 for performance this season.
*Author’s note: these averages were taking into account USL moving to a 34 match regular season.
In terms of goals scored and allowed, Atlanta 2 could fall within a wide range of results for attack and defense. I expect the club to allow as few as 27.20 goals (RGVFC’s average from 2016) to as many as 64.36 goals (Vancouver 2 of 2015), with an average of 49.41 goals allowed (closest club is Orlando B of 2016).
Goals scored has a much wider range available. However, it could be on the low end with 31.57 goals (2015’s Toronto FC II) or on the high end like Reno was last year with what would be a USL regular season record of 79.69 goals. On average, Atlanta 2 are likely to score on average 48.67 goals (closest to LA Galaxy II of 2014), given the past data.
When comparing this data to last year’s table, at its highest 62.69 points, Atlanta 2 would be atop the East with Louisville, but still five points off supporters’ shield winning, Real Monarchs SLC. At its lowest projected points total of 27.93 points, they would sit only in front of Toronto FC II in the East. Finally, if they were to perform to the average, Atlanta 2 would be considered a borderline playoff team, needing help in tiebreakers to make the postseason.
I want to highlight that these predictions are just based off of past data from MLS 2 teams during their inaugural season, and like the Reno team we saw set a multitude of records last year, we may see an Atlanta 2 side that comes into the league much better than that—or they could come in much worse than that.
It is also unknown which players will get the majority of minutes for Atlanta 2 this year (only eight players were listed on their roster page on the USL site as of March 14). This exercise was merely an interesting look at the range of results an MLS 2 team averages in their first year, and what are reasonable expectations for Atlanta 2 going forward this season.
I firmly think Atlanta 2 could finish 2018 at either end of the spectrum. Only time will tell if the side becomes the next MLS 2 powerhouse, or just another FC Montreal.