CASA GRANDE, Ariz. – Developing young talent is often perceived as the key to long-term growth in professional soccer, and if that’s the case, the future looks bright for the American game following the announcement of a groundbreaking new partnership between MLS and USL PRO.
This season, MLS Reserve teams and USL PRO teams will begin interleague play – in most cases matching up for a home-and-home series – while some MLS clubs will instead establish exclusive USL PRO team affiliations in place of fielding a reserve squad. The Revolution is currently in discussions to form an affiliation with the Rochester Rhinos, based in Rochester, N.Y., and hopes to have an official announcement with more details in the near future.
In such a setup, the Revs would not participate in the 2013 MLS Reserve League, but would instead be required to send a minimum of four players on long-term loan to the Rhinos. New England would have the ability to recall any players on long-term loan, but in such cases would then need to loan additional players so at least four Revolution players were with Rochester at all times. Under mutual agreement, the Revs would also be permitted to send players to the Rhinos on a game-by-game basis.
At the heart of the decision to pursue an affiliation – rather than participate in the Reserve League – is the Revolution’s desire for young players to participate in more games. Last year’s Reserve League consisted of 10 matches spread out throughout the course of a 34-game regular season schedule, meaning months often passed between games. Concerns also linger about the ability to consistently field a full competitive reserve squad, even with the ability to include up to five Academy players on a game day roster.
“I think [an affiliation] gives us the ability to get our guys more games throughout the calendar year, more competitive games on a regular basis as opposed to maybe one or two games a month,” said General Manager Michael Burns. “It’s difficult at times if you have a Saturday night first-team game and then you have a Sunday morning reserve game, with the current roster sizes it’s sometimes difficult to field a team, so you’re constantly looking for call-up players.”
An affiliation would alleviate some of those concerns and provide a platform for young players to not only play more games, but play more meaningful games.
“For us, I think it’s going to be the balance,” said head coach Jay Heaps. “Younger players, they’re working into the system, they’re developing, but sometimes there just aren’t enough games the way it’s been. This partnership allows them to get not only quantity in games, but it’s the quality of games. They’re going to be high-pressure games; they’re going to be real. It’s going to be in the mix of a real USL season which is important, because any time a game has real value, players start to develop and become better players.”
Forming the right partnership is critical, especially because the USL PRO coaches will be the ones monitoring and coaching on-loan Revolution players on a regular basis. In the case an affiliation is formed, Heaps noted that New England’s coaching staff would work with Rochester’s staff to implement key areas of development, while Burns emphasized that the Revolution’s technical staff would be monitoring on-loan players whenever possible.
“There will certainly be times throughout the course of the year – say when we have a bye weekend or another kind of lull in the game schedule – when we would send one of our coaches to watch the USL games, to watch our players,” said Burns. “It definitely is our intent to have a coach or two watching these games whenever we can.”
Wednesday’s announcement has created a definite buzz in MLS circles, with many hoping this league-wide partnership is a major step in the development of young talent in the U.S. But realistically the true benefits for the players, leagues and clubs can only be determined with time.
“If [the affiliation] comes to fruition, it’ll be the first year, so I’m sure there will be things everyone looks at throughout the course of the season at the MLS level, at the USL level and at the team level,” said Burns. “We’ll see how the first year goes, so to speak, and revisit at the end of the year to see what worked well and what maybe we need to tweak a little bit.”