FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – While the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between Major League Soccer and the MLS Players Union was agreed upon in principle last March, the lasting effects of the five-year pact have only truly come into focus recently.
The newly-minted Re-Entry Process garnered considerable attention in December as out-of-contract veterans were provided a mechanism to move within the league for the first time, representing a significant step in player freedom.
While the Re-Entry Process represents one of the major benefits of the new CBA for the league’s veterans, two features of the agreement will greatly benefit MLS’ younger players as the 2011 season gets underway. After a two-year hiatus, the league’s Reserve Division returns for the upcoming season with a 10-game schedule designed to provide playing opportunities for players not seeing regular first-team action. In conjunction, roster sizes have been expanded to allow clubs to carry up to 30 players, a significant increase from last year’s limit of 24.
For those SuperDraft and Supplemental Draft picks who’ll spend preseason fighting for a roster spot and the regular season battling for playing time, both changes provide a tremendous opportunity.
“It’s huge,” said Ryan Kinne, a 21-year-old New England native who was taken in the third round (42nd overall) of the SuperDraft by the Revolution. “It opens a lot of spots for everyone on every team in the league. It’s a great chance if you’re not in the starting [lineup] to still get some game time.”
“It’s an unbelievable opportunity,” added fellow third-round (39th overall) SuperDraft selection Steven Perry, a 22-year-old forward from Notre Dame. “To get 10 games in during the season as opposed to none, it’s a great chance to [maintain] game fitness.”
Primary amongst the benefits of the Reserve Division is the chance for young players to further their development in game situations as opposed to just training. Such circumstances helped pave the way for Chris Tierney, who was part of the last rookie class with the advantage of the Reserve Division in 2008. Tierney saw the field in only six league games as a rookie, but an additional eight appearances with the reserves helped spur his growth.
“There’s nothing that can simulate game situations except for actually being in one,” said Tierney. “There are a lot of quality players who play in the reserve games. The level was good my first year and it definitely helped me along in preparing for when I did get that chance to go in and play with the first team.”
Although he’s yet to experience a reserve league game, Kinne provided some insight into the differences between training and game situations.
“You [rarely] get a chance to open it up and play 11-v-11, full-field in training,” he said. “It’s mostly small-sided on a shorter field. An 11-v-11 reserve league lets you open up, get a real game feel and play against good competition from other teams. It’s a live game and that’s the best.”
Beyond development, reserve games also provide younger players with a chance to state their case for increased minutes with the first team. While consistently impressive performances in training may offer a convincing argument, nothing garners attention like production in a game situation.
“If the coach sees you scoring two goals a game in reserve matches, he’s going to give you a serious look,” said Perry. “A lot of guys score in practice, but if you start translating it into the game, then maybe you can translate it to the next level in the first-team games.”
While the benefits of the Reserve Division are obvious with regards to younger players still shaping their game and fringe first-team players fighting for minutes, the positive effects of its return – along with expanded roster sizes – extend to the first team, as well.
One advantage pertains to regular first-team players looking to regain match fitness while recovering from injury. Rather than spend their first two or three games back struggling to find their legs over 90 minutes, first teamers can now work on conditioning in reserve games before returning to league action.
The benefit of the expanded roster size is just as critical. With only 24 players on their roster in 2010, the Revs were often decimated by injury and managed to dress a full game-day roster of 18 players in just 50 percent (15/30) of their regular-season games. With a roster potentially six players deeper in 2011, the inability to dress 18 players on game day should be a thing of the past.
Still, the primary focus of the Reserve Division will undoubtedly be the progression of younger players.
“The most important thing for young players in the league is just getting games,” said Tierney. “The reserve league coming back obviously provides that opportunity. I think it can only be a good thing for the development of young players.”