One of the most fascinating developments in the ever-changing USL and its relationship with MLS is the hybrid affiliation arrangement coming to fruition in Texas.
In the short history of the leagues' affiliation, two official types of relationships have existed: a loan affiliation between an MLS franchise and an independent USL team, or a reserve team owned outright and operated within the walls of MLS.
To lower-division purists, the inclusion of reserve squads with highly fluid rosters including some current MLS starters has been a pain point in their support, but the issues don't stop there. Indeed, an oft-criticized aspect of the "MLS2" model is those clubs' relatively low average attendance and by extension, the appearance of marketing apathy overall.
It's a fair point. Low attendance and an absence of serious marketing could have the effect of making the whole league look undesirable to potential investors and players. It may only be cosmetic in the grand scheme, but perception is reality.
With this in mind, early in the 2015 season, which saw the addition of seven such clubs in the USL (several of whom have an excellent following for this level, to be fair), I began to wonder out loud to anyone who would listen whether MLS clubs could have the best of both worlds: a reserve team with the technical aspect controlled from club headquarters, and an independent organization that was engaging new fans in a new city under the pressure of paying for itself.
I was thrilled, therefore, when in July of last year, the Houston Dynamo announced that they would have just such a hybrid arrangement. A new club, Rio Grande Valley FC Toros, owned by Alonzo Cantu and backed by the experience gained from his NBA D-League club RGV Vipers, would operate its business in Edinburg, Texas, but share soccer operations with Houston.
Mr. Cantu has been doing something similar with the Houston Rockets since 2009, with significant success. The Vipers draw good crowds to their games at State Farm Arena, and with a glittering 9,400-seat stadium in Edinburg expected to be complete in time for the Toros home opener on April 30, Cantu and his organization are optimistic about achieving that same level of success.
I'll be watching this experiment with great interest, as dozens of other clubs certainly will, but at the moment, RGVFC have the very real responsibility of fielding a full professional roster ahead of their March 26 inaugural match.
Appointed on December 2, head coach Wilmer Cabrera knows that he's building a new USL team from scratch. But make no mistake, he knows what kind of players he's looking for.
"We're going to have young players," Cabrera told ICS recently. "They need to be polished.... They have talent, for sure. Now we need to organize, and we need to polish that talent with smart ideas, plus good attitude... In that case, they're going to be able to start looking and competing to get back to the first team."
Like any reserve team however, Cabrera signaled that many of these players will come from the Dynamo's own academy.
His most recent head coaching job having come to an end when Chivas USA shuttered in 2014, Cabrera is visibly eager to work in an organization serving a market that is hungry for its product.
He said, "They don't have a soccer team around, and this is going to be important because they love soccer in that area. We're going to try to do the right things from the beginning.... It's going to be a very good communication within the team, and the fans, and the cities, and the whole Rio Grande Valley. It's going to take time, like building a house or building anything from scratch; it takes time. We have to be sure that we put the right pillars so it's going to be (there) for a long time and it's going to be very strong."