By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 4, 2005
On a recent gray Sunday morning, 12 hours after they had finished a wild early-season MLS match, D.C. United and the New England Revolution were facing each other again. Players in full uniform warmed up, coaches paced the sideline, front-office officials from both teams gathered in one corner, the referee conferred with his assistants.
It had all the makings of a real game, except the setting and the objective were far different than the previous evening. Instead of playing inside RFK Stadium, the teams were on the adjacent training grounds, an unremarkable corner where C and 21st streets NE converge with Oklahoma Avenue.
On an adjoining field, a local amateur league game was unfolding. An Orange Line train roared by before disappearing below Lot 7.
This is the backdrop for MLS's new player development program: a reserve league. Modeled after the European system, MLS has joined forces with the U.S. Soccer Federation, the sport's governing body in this country, to place more players in competitive environments and, in theory, expand the talent pool for the league and the national teams.
"It's exactly what the league needed," U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena said. "It's a start toward developing a real soccer club, and it's going to benefit everyone."
On the surface, MLS's reserve teams might be confused with the junior varsity on the high school level or Class AAA in the minor league baseball system. However, everyone participating in the MLS reserve games is on the full-time team roster and eligible to play in regular season matches.
Although young players most benefit from reserve games, it's also an opportunity for a veteran to regain his fitness following an injury or a borderline starter to prove himself. That's not possible in regular MLS games because only three substitutes are allowed, leaving half the roster watching from the sideline or the stands.
"I take it like a real league game because I know that's the way for me to get closer to a Saturday game," said United's Jason Thompson, a 23-year-old forward who appeared in only two MLS games last year. "However I perform is going to affect what happens to me in the future.
"It's against good competition, not just a minor league or college team. Knowing that these guys are getting paid just like us and their jobs are on the line just like ours, it's a real game out there. The intensity is not too far off from a regular game."
The reserve league already has paid off for Thompson. Having played well in the first two matches, he was included on the 16-man travel squad to bolster an injury-depleted roster for this past Saturday's regular game at Kansas City. Nana Kuffour, a 20-year-old midfielder from Ghana who made five MLS appearances last year, is United's leading scorer in reserve play with two goals in two games.
To supply enough players for reserve games, MLS expanded team rosters from 24 to 28 this past offseason. Each reserve squad is scheduled to play 12 games -- 20 fewer than the full MLS team -- and the winner will earn a $20,000 bonus. United won its first two reserve games and will play its next one May 14 at New England immediately following the regular season match between the teams.
The financial commitment is in the millions and is being shared almost evenly by MLS and the USSF, according to two MLS team officials. Besides the addition of 48 players to the league payroll, travel expenses have increased because, six times per season, each team must take its full roster on the road; game officials must be paid; and some teams have facility-use issues.
In the prestigious English Premier League, each reserve team plays 28 games (compared with 38 by the regular squad) and the competition is divided into two divisions.
"It's a good starting point for us," said Mike Burns, a former MLS player now working in the Revolution's front office. "It's giving guys who normally don't play a chance to show what they can do. In the long run, it's going to make every team stronger and the league stronger."
To avoid burnout, players are forbidden from competing for more than 90 minutes during a weekend. So someone who plays 20 minutes in the regular match is limited to 70 in a reserve game. Each team is permitted to make six substitutes instead of the usual three.
United doesn't charge admission for home reserve games, but the team isn't widely publicizing them in order to avoid bigger crowds and security issues. Those fans who do show up are able to watch in rickety grandstands just a few feet from the sideline. Their comments are easily heard by the players, and vice versa.
"I fouled a guy and the fans were laughing," Thompson said, referring to the 200 or so spectators. "I gave them a little smile."
The start-up hasn't gone perfectly, however. Despite the expanded rosters, New England had to use a backup goalkeeper as a defender against United because of injuries. United was supposed to play a reserve game against Kansas City last weekend, but a previously scheduled rugby exhibition at Arrowhead Stadium forced postponement.
Nonetheless, everyone seems happy with the program's progress.
"You can see the difference in attitude among some of the younger guys," United President Kevin Payne said. "A player maybe realizes he's not among the top players yet, but he still has something to look forward to. For the coaches, it's great because now you have a chance to really evaluate these guys and say, 'You know what? This guy is doing pretty well.' There's been a few of those so far who have opened eyeballs."