Major League Soccer's reserve league will return in 2011, another step in improving player development.
The reserve league will have a 10-game regular season and playoffs, giving young players match experience on a consistent basis. Most top European soccer leagues have similar systems.
"Our technical committee ... it's their strong view that we need to have a reserve division as an essential part of our player development ladder in the United States," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Tuesday in his annual state of the league address.
The reserve league was disbanded in 2008 after four seasons because of costs and logistics problems, but its return had been expected since Adidas extended its sponsorship deal this summer. The new eight-year deal, which begins next year and is worth more than $200 million, included a significant investment in youth development.
MLS and its teams are already devoting significant resources and attention to their development academies, which groom high school-age players and have already produced first-team starters such as MLS Rookie of the Year Andy Najar. But it's hard for most players to make the leap from high school or even college straight to an MLS game-day roster, and there is a fear future American stars are stagnating while they fight for playing time.
When the U.S. was eliminated in the group stage of the Under-20 World Cup last year, coach Thomas Rongen blamed part of his team's erratic play on the lack of an MLS reserve league.
"We go from full-time residency to a black hole," Rongen said then. "That's the reason we are erratic from game to game. There's no game sharpness, there's no game fitness and no game rhythm. Because of the MLS dropping the reserve league the black hole will become deeper and darker."
MLS rosters will expand from 26 to 30 players to accommodate the reserve division, with six spots designated for players 24 years old and younger. Development academy players will eligible to play on reserve league teams, as will players on tryouts with MLS franchises.
In other news:
-Garber said he expects changes to the current playoff format, including the possibility that the MLS Cup could be held at the home of the highest-seeded team. The championship game is currently held at a neutral site chosen months in advance, just like the Super Bowl.
This year's MLS Cup, featuring FC Dallas and Colorado, will be played Sunday in Toronto.
-With expansion to Vancouver and Portland bringing the number of teams in the league to 18 next season, Garber said MLS will consider doing away with conferences and going to the single-table format the top European leagues use. That will not, however, mean an end to playoffs, Garber said.
"We will never do away with playoffs," Garber said. "There is absolutely no reason to do that."
-Garber continues to talk with New York City officials, the Wilpon family, the group that owns the name of the Cosmos and other potential investors about adding a second franchise in New York, and hopes to have something done by 2013. (Montreal begins play in 2012.)
-This season's Best XI are: goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts (Los Angeles Galaxy); defenders Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers (Real Salt Lake), Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles Galaxy); midfielders David Ferreira (FC Dallas), Dwayne De Rosario (Toronto FC), Sebastien Le Toux (Philadelphia Union), Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake), Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy); and forwards Edson Buddle (Los Angeles Galaxy) and Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes).