With today’s announcement of an exclusive partnership with USL-2 side Harrisburg City Islanders, the Philadelphia Union has laid the ground work for a highly developed farm system. Already with a working partnership with PDL side Reading United AC, the Union have now established links to the college game (PDL) and to lower division professional soccer (USL-2). What does this mean to Union and Isles fans? What does this mean to the Philadelphia Union as a developing franchise? In short, it’s huge.
With the death of the MLS Reserve League and the chopping of rosters from 28 down to 24 before the beginning of the 2009 season, MLS teams were left with few options to get their young, developing players field time. And no matter how much you practice and train, there is a certain amount of confidence and calm that only comes with minutes on the pitch.
The Union will likely utilize the City Islanders franchise as a place to get their young talent game time, without having to sacrifce quality in their MLS starting XI. The City Islanders have done loan deals with both the Red Bulls (Danny Cepero, GK [Penn]) and D.C. United (Tiyi Shipalane, F) in the past, but have now signed to exclusively deal with the Union. This is big in terms of player movement back and forth, as well as the consistency of the system and proximity to Philadelphia.
Founded in 2004, the Harrisburg City Islanders are the flagbearers of a long-standing soccer tradition in the capital area. Stretching back to the Hershey Impact of the AISA/NPSL, the Harrisburg Heat of the MISL, and the Hershey Wildcats of the A-League (later USL-1), the Islanders filled a void when the Heat folded in 2003. Playing their home games on City Island at the 4,000-seat Skyline Sports Complex, the Islanders have been a consistently successful franchise in the United Soccer League’s Second Division, finishing 3rd or better in the table 4 times in 6 seasons and bringing home the playoff crown in 2007. This move actually comes at a huge time for the Islanders as rumors and sound bytes from aroung the Mayor’s office had hinted at a lack of support for maintaining the sports facilities on City Island which host the Islanders and the Washington Senators’ AA affiliate, the Harrisburg Senators.
This move, and the move to bring Reading United AC on board with the Union, will have long-reaching impacts. Both Reading and Harrisburg are cities in Pennsylvania with long soccer traditions. Both have vocal and loyal fanbases for their respective clubs. And both come complete with a youth academy system – not only has Philadelphia gained potentially huge assets in terms of playing time for its young players, but it may have established pipelines for fans and young players into soccer-loving communities.
Beyond the on-field product the Union would be developing, Reading and Harrisburg will likely be breeding grounds for Union fans. Supporters of the Reading Rage, now Reading United AC, and the Islanders, have a great transition into rooting for and following MLS’ newest team. If the Union loan out some of their teenage wunderkind to Harrisburg over the summer, Skyline will likely be packed to the thorn bushes. J.T. Noone, currently training with the Union and standing as the frontrunner for the team’s final developmental spot, is a local product from Harrisburg’s Central Dauphin H.S. and would likely draw even more fans into the stands. In terms of building a fan base outside of the Philadelphia area, this move is superb.
From a historical perspective, this is not the first time that a USL club has aligned with an MLS side and not the first time that an MLS side has courted a PDL affiliate either. Largely, the USL to MLS model has been abandoned by the MLS clubs which tried it, opting instead for in-house academies and systems. What remains to be seen is how the Union take advantage of these relationships. In terms of academcy production, the Union may not see gains from this move for 4 or 5 years; however, I would expect the results for developmental players already on the roster and for fan support to be visible within a season or two. And the planned annual friendlies in Reading and Harrisburg shouldn’t hurt either.
At the moment, we can’t even be sure of the full implications of this affiliation. Will Philly’s ABC6 share its broadcasting rights to Union games with ABC27 in Harrisburg to bring the Union games to more fans? What relationship will the coaches at Harrisburg and Reading maintain with those of the Union? Most interesting to me is, who might get loaned down this season for extra minutes? Jack Mack? Amobi? Perk? I’m now doubly excited to watch my Isles in action.
It seems that there is an underlying theme to almost every move the Union has made since the expansion draft – planning for the future. The expansion draft featured a handful of veterans and some young talent, not the high-priced, flashier players some had predicted. The FO brought-in a youthful starting goaltender, one with bright hopes for the future professionally and internationally. After some wheeling and dealing, the Union drafted 3 teenagers in the first round of the Superdraft in a league dominated by twentysomethings. And the team has locked up several long term sponsorship deals while expanding its footprint regionally with two established affiliates. Aside from the accidential leak of the home kit, the moves of the Union seem calculated for future success. Hopefully, the Union will be competitive enough in its first season on the field, so as not to dispel the enthusiasm about its well planned future.