UPDATE: See below the article for more details on how the new partnership will operate.
The possibility has been talked about for sometime now, but today it’s official: the MLS Reserve League will operate as part of USL PRO.
A statement on the USL PRO website said, “For 2013, the partnership will include interleague play between USL PRO and MLS Reserve League teams, and the establishment of several exclusive team affiliations.”
The Philadelphia Union and Harrisburg City Islanders have been partners since March, 2010.
“This partnership represents the first step in a long-term alliance between MLS and USL PRO to connect domestic professional soccer through a system that benefits player development, competition and the overall business of our sport,” MLS Executive Vice President of Player Relations & Competition Todd Durbin said in the statement.
The statement says club affiliations will mean that at least four players will go on long-term loan from the MLS parent club to its USL PRO affiliate. “Those MLS teams with formal USL PRO affiliates will not participate in the 2013 MLS Reserve League. Neither MLS nor USL PRO clubs are required to enter into an affiliation, and specific affiliations will be announced in the coming days.”
USL president Tim Holt told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that loans can go both ways—if an MLS team needs a player, it can call upon its affiliate. “We’ve given the affiliates a high degree of latitude this year to do what makes the most sense for both sides.”
Presumably this means that the Union will not participate in the Reserve League this year. Rather, Jonathan Tannewald writes, “Now the City Islanders will actually be the Union’s reserve team.”
The statement continues, “Each of the 13 USL PRO teams will compete in two interleague games against MLS Reserve teams. With the exception of Antigua, which will play both of its games at MLS Reserve teams, USL PRO teams have been paired with a single MLS team to play a home and home series. All interleague games will count in both the official USL PRO and MLS Reserve League standings. Details of the fixtures will be announced in conjunction with the forthcoming release of the official 2013 USL PRO schedule.”
Harrisburg City Islanders will release their 2013 schedule on Thursday afternoon.
An announcement on the website of USL PRO club Richmond Kickers provided a little more information about how the new partnership will work. “Each of the 19 MLS clubs will field either a Reserve Team or establish an affiliation with a USL PRO club. MLS Reserve Teams of clubs not competing in CONCACAF Champions League will play a 14-game regular season in 2013.”
The Richmond announcement also said, “The schedule for the MLS Reserve League will be announced in the coming weeks.”
The partnership between the Union and the City Islanders was first announced on March 1, 2010. Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz said at the time, “Player development is a key component to building the quality club and organization we will be.”
City Islanders Head Coach Bill Becher said, “We’ve worked with MLS clubs frequently over the years, but to formalize a relationship like this is ideal. I think players and staff from both clubs will see real benefits as a result.”
Since then, the affiliation has seen City Islanders training with the Union and Union players on short term loan with the City Islanders. JT Noone, who had trialed with the Union before the start of the 2010 season, was signed from Harrisburg on July 30, 2010 before being waived ahead of the 2011 season. Chase Harrison was with Harrisburg before joining the Union for the first time on Sept. 23, 2011. But the most successful transfer is unquestionably Sheanon Williams’ arrival from the City Islanders on Aug. 31, 2010.
Plagued by large scheduling gaps between fixtures, prone to postponed and cancelled games, and with the games themselves often taking place on less than ideal playing surfaces or not open to the public, the Reserve League as previously organized was far from ideal. The new MLS-USL PRO partnership thus has great promise for players who otherwise struggle to find first team playing time, creating a competitive playing environment for young homegrown players and college draft picks—and the fans that want to see them—that was otherwise lacking in the MLS Reserve League.
A report that first appeared on Tuesday said the Rochester Rhinos would be one of four USL PRO clubs that would initially form partnerships with MLS Clubs, in the case of the Rhinos with New England Revolution.
Speaking to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester Rhinos president Pat Ercoli compared the partnership to the one between the National Hockey League and the American Hockey League said. This raises the question of how the partnership between first division MLS and third division USL PRO will affect second division NASL. Ercoli said of a player who might be considering playing in the NASL, “Now that player has to make a decision: Do I want to be in Rochester where I’ll be seen by the MLS or to do I want to be in NASL where I might not be seen?”
In a post on the Union website, Kerith Gabriel writes,
In the case of the Union, the reserve league format announced by MLS Wednesday is not the exact structure Philadelphia will utilize. Instead, CEO and managing partner Nick Sakiewicz and team manager John Hackworth decided to expand on the club’s partnership with Harrisburg to infuse reserve league players onto the roster of the City Islanders. Those players would still be on the Union roster and the club would still hold all rights, and responsibility of player salaries. In the past where Union players were loaned for a game or two to a developmental affiliate, this new structure allows players to stay, practice and play vital games along their USL counterparts for an extended time – possibly even the entire length of a USL campaign.
At Sporting News, Brian Straus provides more details on how the new partnership will initially operate:
- “MLS clubs will be permitted to sign affiliation agreements with USL Pro teams similar to those common in pro baseball and hockey. Affiliation is not, and likely never will be, mandatory and four partnerships will be in place in 2013.”
- “Each of those four MLS clubs will send a minimum of four players on season-long loans to their USL affiliate…More than four players can be loaned; the number will be up to the individual teams.”
- “The remaining 15 MLS clubs will field squads in the MLS reserve league and can still, on a case-by-case basis, arrange loans to USL Pro for their players.”
- “Twelve of those 15 MLS teams will augment their reserve league schedule with a home-and-home series against a USL Pro opponent that will count in the standings of both circuits (meaning the four USL Pro teams with MLS affiliates in 2013 will play the reserve team of a different MLS club).”
- “Two additional MLS teams will host one extra reserve match against Antigua Barracuda, whose primary mission is to develop players for the Antigua and Barbuda national side.”
- “That leaves one MLS club, unidentified Wednesday, that might not participate in the partnership with USL Pro during the first year.”