MLS has taken a bold step forward in improving its player development programs, and the New England Revolution figure to be on the cutting edge in that theater.
The league announced a groundbreaking partnership with the USL PRO on Wednesday that will see MLS Reserve League teams play home-and-home series with select USL PRO teams in the 2013 season. Furthermore, it allows specific team-to-team affiliations between willing MLS and USL organizations to occur, with certain guidelines.
The general overview of the agreement is as follows: USL teams will play a home-and-home series with one MLS Reserve League team. These games will count in the standings of both the USL PRO and the MLS Reserve League. However, MLS teams that form exclusive affiliations with USL sides will not field reserve teams, and will instead be required to send a minimum of four players on long-term loans to the affiliated USL side. Those players can be recalled, but there must be four players on loan at all times. Game-by-game loans and other considerations can be worked out by the clubs.
The Revolution are jumping on this new program and forging ahead with vigor. The team is reportedly in discussions with the Rochester Rhinos of the USL to form an exclusive affiliation, and they are hoping to make an official announcement soon.
This could work out pretty spectacularly for both sides in the deal. The Revs will be sending players who would be unlikely to even crack the bench to a situation where they stand a good chance of getting serious, competitive playing time. These aren't going to be hodge-podge and hackneyed reserve games, played at a rate of about one game per month. These matches are for real. The players will be suiting up for a club that's in the race for a league championship, and it is the prospect of earning real, meaningful minutes that makes this probably more ideal than fielding a reserve squad.
"For us, I think it's going to be the balance," Jay Heaps told Jeff Lemieux. "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."
On the Rochester side, the Rhinos are getting MLS-level players at no expense, allowing them to fill out their roster and also spend money elsewhere.
"[The affiliation] allows us to use some of our budget to go toward signing significant other players," Rochester Rhinos president Pat Ercoli told Jeff DiVeronica of the Democrat and Chronicle. "And maybe players we weren't in the fight for before (financially), now we can go after them."
The only real concern here is that reserve games offer more players the opportunity to play. Under these affiliations, only four players are required to be on loan at any given time. On a 28-man roster (the number the Revolution always shoot for, thanks to the extra allocation money awarded for leaving spots 29 and 30 open), loaning out four players still gives you a senior roster of 24 players. Only 18 can suit up for a game, and only 14 can actually see the field. The six that don't dress for games are probably the players that stand to lose the most from this deal.
That said, there doesn't appear to be anything stopping the Revs from loaning more than four players to Rochester. At that point, it's up to the two clubs to accommodate each other's needs. Also, Jeff DiVeronica uncovered another interesting little nugget in his conversation with USL President Tim Holt.
Holt said if an MLS team needed a player, it can call one up from its affiliate even if the player is owned by the affiliate. "We've given the affiliates a high degree of latitude this year to do what makes the most sense for both sides," he said.
If that's true, it's a game-changer in many ways. In a manner of speaking, it's a cap-buster, because it would allow the Revs to take players onto their roster on a part-time basis that don't count toward the cap at all, and ostensibly wouldn't force any other players under the cap who weren't already there. This is the first such an arrangement appears to have been mentioned, however, and the details are fuzzy. This may be a misunderstanding, as it's already easy to see conflicts arising in the Open Cup and other situations.
In any case, the commitment to each other only lasts a year. If it proves beneficial, it seems likely the two clubs would continue the partnership, and if not, they can always move in different directions. That said, the benefits on paper are undeniable. Would Alec Purdie have finished those wide-open chances he saw near the end of last season if he'd spent time honing his sharpness in competitive USL matches? Could players like Michael Roach or Bjorn Runstrom have panned out better if they'd gotten games elsewhere?
Perhaps this season we'll find out.