Photo: Courtesy of Harrisburg City Islanders
The Harrisburg City Islanders are off to the best start in the franchise’s ten year history, posting five wins and a loss through their first six contests, scoring an impressive 15 goals while conceding only five. Though the Islanders lifted the playoff crown in the 2007 United Soccer League (USL) Second Division and were playoff runners-up in 2011’s USL PRO season, this team has come out firing from the start. Rather than rounding into form and charging up the table as the season progresses, the Islanders currently sit third in the USL PRO table, in a relative tie with Charleston and trailing leaders Orlando City, who have both played more games.
What’s the secret to the Islanders early season success, and why should it be of interest to Philadelphia soccer fans?
New MLS-USL PRO partnership paying dividends
There are likely several reasons for the Islanders’ quick start. This year’s squad features a number of returning players, including 2012 USL PRO Goalkeeper of the Year nominee Nick Noble, the Islanders’ 2012 top scorer Lucky Mkosana, and top assist men Sainey Touray and Jason Pelletier. Coach Bill Becher is still the only manager in the history of the club, providing consistency and continuity, and the team has shown the ability to recruit and retain talent season after season. Another factor in that fast start is the contributions of some of Philadelphia Union’s most promising young players on loan in Harrisburg as part the USL-MLS development partnership put in place ahead of this season.
Prior to the start of the 2013 season, it could be argued that the three-year affiliation between the Harrisburg City Islanders and the Philadelphia Union had already produced on-field results for both teams. Union fans will be familiar with the signings from Harrisburg, including current right back Sheanon Williams and former players Chase Harrison, J.T. Noone, and Morgan Langley. Harrisburg fans are familiar with players identified by the Union and connected with Harrisburg like Noone, Williams, Tom Brandt, and Damani Richards. And fans of both teams know the annual friendly game or the co-sponsored open tryouts.
But a sometimes overlooked aspect of the affiliation are the short-term loans to Harrisburg that benefited Union players down the first-team depth chart, like Nick Zimmerman, Antoine Hoppenot, Jack McInerney, Shea Salinas, Jimmy McLaughlin, Greg Jordan, and others.
In the last few years, these loan players have typically gone on single-game or weekend assignments to the City Islanders to get extra game experience and retain match fitness. While these players filled a need for the Islanders due to injury or fixture congestion, more often it appeared that the Union was the primary beneficiary of the loan arrangements.
At the end of the 2012 season, Jimmy McLaughlin and Greg Jordan stayed with Harrisburg for an extended period and integrated into the side. This season’s MLS-backed expansion of loan arrangements to USL clubs in place of full reserve squads has seen multiple Union players integrated into the Harrisburg side, starting in the late preseason. These longer loans are of more benefit to both the Islanders and the Union and are an important factor, though certainly not the only one, contributing to the early season success the Islanders are experiencing.
Five Union players have made appearances for the Islanders so far this season, with four seeing action in four or more of the Islanders’ six contests. Union players on loan have accounted for more than 28 percent of the minutes played in 2013 for Harrisburg. Center back Greg Jordan and forward Cristhian Hernandez have appeared in every game, with Jordan having played every minute for the Islanders so far. Union homegrown winger Jimmy McLaughlin has provided speed and energy from the right flank, and Union Superdraft pick Don Anding was racing up and down the left side from the fullback position before being recently recalled to the first team, effectively swapping roster spots with Union midfielder Leo Fernandes.
This arrangement is no doubt benefiting these young Union players, who have in years past often been limited to the 10 or fewer MLS reserve league matches per season and the occasional friendly. However, with Hernandez scoring two goals, providing two assists, and taking many of the free kick opportunities for the Islanders, and Jordan helping to anchor the backline that has conceded the second fewest goals in the league, the Islanders look to be benefiting from the new arrangement this season just as much as the Union. Hernandez is not even the only loaned Union player on the score sheet, with Jordan grabbing a goal and an assist, Anding picking up an assist, and McLaughlin and Fernandes recording a goal each. That’s five goals and four assists provided by Union players on loan in Harrisburg so far this season.
The impact of young Union players doing more than staying fit on a weekend trip to Harrisburg shouldn’t be overlooked. Union players on loan have accounted for more than a quarter of the minutes played for the Islanders this season and have accounted for fully one third of the goals scored. These longer loans are allowing for more chemistry to develop between players, offering more game experience and game-to-game improvement for developing prospects, and providing fans of both teams a tangible link to the other beyond annual friendly matches.
Union and Islanders fans alike should take note of Friday night’s contest at Skyline Sports Complex in Harrisburg when the league-leading Orlando City Lions roll into town for a 7pm kickoff. There aren’t advance copies of the Islanders starting eleven available, but you can expect that young Union players on loan will play a significant role in that match and continue to play a strong role in the success of the team. Orlando City, currently affiliated with Sporting Kansas City, is another such side benefiting from the MLS-USL PRO partnership with league scoring leader Dom Dwyer racking up ten goals so far this season while on loan with the Lions.
If you can’t make it out to the match, you can watch a free live stream on the USL website.