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Major League Soccer is launching a lower-tier professional league aimed at developing young players from its academy system.
The new league, which will rank below the second-division USL Championship, will begin play next year and will include teams affiliated with current MLS clubs as well as independent teams.
The name of the league has not been announced. Some 20 clubs are expected to participate in the first season, which will start in March and run through the fall, concluding with a championship game in December.
MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott said the new league is an outgrowth of the MLS Next platform and team academies, providing elite players who may not be quite ready for the top division with an accelerated pathway to a professional career.
“The key missing piece for us was this place where our young players could get meaningful minutes in high-level competition,” he said.
MLS Next, launched last year, is designed to fill the gap after U.S. Soccer disbanded its development academy.
Beyond player development, MLS also sees business opportunities for clubs participating in the new league, especially in markets that don't currently have an MLS teams. Likewise, it will provide career opportunities for coaches and support staff.
Abbott said the new league is not meant to supplant the USL Championship or League One, but he expects the MLS clubs currently participating in those leagues to migrate. The new league has applied for Division III sanctioning from U.S. Soccer.
“Our anticipation, is that the USL, who we have a great relationship with, will remain a very strong and vibrant league, and continue to do as much for player development as they have and continue to help grow the sport in this country," Abbott said. "I think we’re going to see that league continue to thrive. But over time I would anticipate that most (MLS) clubs will all ultimately be in this league.”
In a statement, the USL said: “The more pathways there are for young players across the country, the better. We wish MLS success in their efforts and look forward to continuing our work together to grow the sport of soccer in the United States.”
The new league will be run out of MLS headquarters in New York. A commissioner has not yet been named.
The league is considered by MLS to be crucial to player development in the United States as a record 20% of roster spots on MLS clubs are filled this season with players from the academy system.
As a pro league, players will earn salaries unless they aim to retain college eligibility.
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Anne M. Peterson, The Associated Press