Friday, January 25, 2013

1.25.2013: USL Pro/MLS Partners, But What Club Will Crew Affiliate With?

1.25.2013: USL Pro/MLS Partners, But What Club Will Crew Eventually Affiliate With?
By Ryan Kozlowski

US Soccer and it's pyramid have been busy this off-season.

Two days ago, Major League Soccer and USL Pro announced a surprising, long-term partnership

The first official step in that partnership includes each MLS Reserve League team competing against a USL Pro team in a home-and-home series in 2013; where the results of those two games will count both on the USL Pro schedule and the MLS Reserve League schedule.

Beyond that it gets a bit confusing.. From USL-Pro's website:

Each club affiliation will be customized to meet the needs of the respective teams, but all will include at least four players on long-term loan from the MLS parent club to its USL PRO affiliate. Which will make USL-Pro much more competitive. 

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.

So, if you have a USL Pro affiliate you can't participate in the 2013 MLS Reserve League. So far, DC United and Sporting Kansas City have partnered up with the Richmond Kickers and Orlando City respectively. Therefore, some of their reserves will have to spend the 2013 season with Richmond or Orlando City depending on club, since their Reserve side has been dissolved.

The 2013 USL Pro/MLS Reserve Schedule below appears to reflect that (as DC and SKC are not mentioned, Chivas USA will not play a part this year, teams like Philadelphia Union and Portland must be looking at an affiliate this year because there unmentioned).

The Columbus Crew is mentioned, their reserves will face the Dayton Dutch Lions first team twice in a home and home series.

Antigua Barracuda FC vs. FC Dallas & San Jose Earthquakes
Charleston Battery vs. Houston Dynamo
Charlotte Eagles vs. Chicago Fire
Dayton Dutch Lions vs. Columbus Crew
Harrisburg City Islanders vs. Colorado Rapids
Orlando City vs. Seattle Sounders FC
Phoenix FC vs. Real Salt Lake
Pittsburgh Riverhounds vs. Toronto FC
Richmond Kickers vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC 
Rochester Rhinos vs. Montreal Impact
Wilmington Hammerheads vs. New York Red Bulls

Since this schedule is set I'm guessing the decision has already been made on which teams have selected an affiliate this season, and a decision can't be made until next season on an affiliate for the Columbus Crew (or any MLS team above) because it would akimbo this schedule.

Which is fine because you should feel out who you want to be affiliated with anyway. 

If the Crew pick an affiliate next season. There are only perhaps four clubs left worth partnering for the Columbus Crew in terms of the USL-Pro..

The solid organizations (Rochester Rhinos, Charleston Battery)~

Rochester Rhinos home, Sahlen's Stadium

Rochester Rhinos- Upside Organization has been around as long as MLS, since 1996.  Have had a soccer specific stadium since 2006. Have been in 1st or 2nd place in the USL Pro standings for the last three seasons. Have a talented young roster, with Isaac Kissi and some former young MLSer's like Tam McManus and Danny Earls. 

Beautiful stadium.. 

Downside Had around 10,000 fans for first 11 seasons, now have dropped to around 5,000; makes one wonder if organization is on downturn or it's just constant league changes for the club.

Also, have seen some other constant changes, the name of the stadium has changed from PAETEC Park, to Marina Auto Stadium, to Sahlen's Stadium over the past three years (and usually that isn't because of an increase in cash for naming rights, but companies dropping out of a naming rights partnership).

Charleston Battery- Upside Been around since 1993, before MLS. 5,100 seat stadium has been around since 1999, as long as the first MLS soccer-specific stadium (consequently also the Columbus Crew). Average attendance of 3,500 nearly forever.

Downside- Pretty far away if you want to check on your reserve players.

The Close, Upstart or Revamped Organizations (Dayton Dutch Lions F.C. and Pittsburgh Riverhounds)~ Worked with Dutch Lions F.C. and have met/interviewed some Pittsburgh Riverhounds staff, think both are most likely.

Dayton Dutch Lions F.C.- Upside First off, I think since the Dutch Lions took Aaron Horton off the Crew's hands on loan instead of Pittsburgh last season, it appears that's who Columbus has had more relations with. 

Partnering with the Dutch Lions would eventually mean your partnering with two clubs, because they'll eventually have the Texas Dutch Lions at a different level in the US soccer pyramid as well and they have that overseas connection with FC Twente. Which down the road could lead to a filter of Dutch youth to Columbus Crew to shape up before going back overseas for Twente's reserve or first team, if perhaps Columbus was a better fit compared to DDL's first team for that respective player. 

If DDL gets enough Dutch talent eventually from Twente and other Dutch teams to come over then there may be enough to spread to Columbus and DDL based on their talent level.

Columbus could get a few Dutch players that can play at a higher MLS level, DDL F.C. gets those that can compete at a USL Pro level, and both send them back to Twente eventually or sign them if there not good enough for the Dutch top flight.

Everyone could possibly get a little out of it and be happy with that deal.

The owners are ambitious, and are focusing on youth academy set up. Plus, there only 45 minutes from Columbus, which makes it pretty easy to keep tabs on your reserve players which is also a plus. Also, Aaron Horton was already there, so maybe that was a good precursor of how other loans would go between the clubs (if it went well).

Further, they now have been around for four seasons which shows the club isn't a flash in the pan.

Downside The Dutch Lions ownership is ambitious, and there's only 45 minutes between the clubs; it may be awkward that the two are affiliates when they eventually could be battling over the same kids for their youth programs. The two clubs may eventually get in the way of each other.

Also, with ambition I don't know if the Dutch Lions want to be a junior partner of anyone. On the other hand, it could be helpful in improving the Dutch Lions USL Pro team, by adding four loan players; since their USL Pro team has been near the bottom of the table the last two seasons.

Further, attendance has declined in 2011 and 2012 compared to 2010 when DDL F.C. were in a lower division (PDL). And, further, there the only one out of the four teams not to have their own soccer specific stadium.

Also, when I was there in 2010 there wasn't much of an exchange between DDL and Columbus, but there could be more communication now.

Pittsburgh Riverhounds- Upside I think the Riverhounds and Columbus Crew have a lot in common, both are going for the blue collar type look (neither has been seen as the trendy or super club in their respective leagues). Further, some things are lost in translation with the Dutch, compared to another American owned team, and the Dutch are always looking to make big (sometimes perhaps unrealistic) statements.

Further, the Riverhounds have a big season upcoming. In 2013, they open their Highmark Stadium in the trendy North Shore area in Pittsburgh located right downtown. A lot of Crew fans contend that the club would be more of a contender if they were able to build a stadium downtown, and the Riverhounds have already done that. 

If 2013 goes well, in their 3,500 seat stadium downtown, perhaps the Riverhounds would make sense. The Crew Reserve players would perhaps rather live in Pittsburgh and be playing here, than living in Dayton playing on a high school football field.

But, eventually the Dutch Lions could try to change that and build their own stadium.

Downside An up and down history, could use a big boost with this new location. The team took a year off in 2007 and has moved locations often since it's inception in 1999. Lately, they average about 1,000 but that could get a boost in the new location.

Overall, I think it's a very light partnership (at least in the beginning), this USL-MLS club thing. I mean the Dutch Lions have ambitious owners and so does Orlando, I don't see the Dutch Lions ownership or Orlando City ownership wanting to be a junior partner of anyone. So, I'm interested in exactly what kind of partnership this is between USL and MLS clubs? 

Also, what does this mean for NASL? Does that mean eventually they drop below USL Pro in the soccer pyramid?

Further, sometimes this seems like two clubs being forced to affiliate when sometimes neither has much in common or can't get too much out of it. 

It's confusing currently how it will all work out. Therefore, it's best for Columbus to take a look at their options and make a decision next year.

Columbus has one of the best MLS Reserve sides the last few years, and that's been working for them with the development of Josh Williams and Eric Gehrig, among others.

The Crew should want there reserves in proper hands, and that comes down to if Bliss, Warzycha, McCullers, etc. think that one of these clubs can do just as good of a job training the Crew's up and coming players.

What USL Pro side do you think could do a good job with Crew players?

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