I was reading Derek Meluzio’s review of the first year of the Philadelphia Union and Harrisburg City Islanders affiliation over on Upper 90 and it is certainly an issue in which I take interest. But I can’t get around to providing a full evaluation of the partnership in the first year as, for me at least, it’s not over yet. I provided a forecast for what the partnership might be like right after the announcement in March and followed that up in April as the Islanders made some interesting, if not uncharacteristic signings. I can’t provide a retrospective yet because despite the end of the USL-2 season not long ago and the recent signings of JT Noone and Sheanon Williams from the City Islanders, I don’t think Nowak and Hackworth are done yet.
MLS has maintained relatively tight roster rules since the death of its reserve league in 2008, and a review of MLS Superdrafts past shows lists of players who never saw an MLS roster, let alone the field. Athletes coming out of college were drafted by MLS teams, but when they weren’t offered a contract or place on the team simply because the roster was full, many of them were frozen out. MLS teams maintain the league rights of their draft picks for two years, so even when one team said no, it wasn’t as though players could shop their game around MLS. There are of course other options — USL or NASL squads or professional PDL teams scattered across the country — but you can usually count the number of guys picked up by MLS teams from lower division squads in a given season on one hand. For many, not catching on with an MLS team after the draft or within the first two years out of school meant never catching on. And for MLS squads, it meant having to make relatively quick decisions about the potential of a player without having worked with them for any real period of time — not a good situation for player or club.
Philadelphia currently holds five draft picks for the upcoming Superdraft and might have more come draft day if Nowak and Co. decide to deal players or allocation cash.
What would the point of drafting a half dozen players be if there wasn’t more than an open spot or two on the MLS roster? Stocking the system.
Instead of freezing players out of MLS for the two years that Philadelphia maintains their draft rights, the Union can provide a place to develop as a player and a professional within relative proximity of the first team squad: Harrisburg. Better yet, already having the draft rights to the player on the Islanders squad means not having to use a discovery signing should the team choose to bring them up after the first season. Certainly this situation is not ideal for an incoming player, but it allows the Union more flexibility in player development and provides an opportunity for the team to continue being aggressive in the draft.
Now, there’s no guarantee that Nowak and Hackworth will take advantage of this opportunity, and with the potential return of the MLS Reserve League next season, how the Union choose to use their affiliate may still be determined. If MLS rosters expand considerably to accomodate the reserves, allowing a draftee or two to play the season in Harrisburg might not be necessary, but the option still exists.
The structure of MLS makes some of these adventures in player development more difficult, but I am hopeful that the Union will look to maximize the benefits for both partners in this affiliation. I am keeping a close eye on the situation, because I am relatively sure that we have not seen the full extent of this partnership yet.