Back in February, before John McCarthy finalized his deal with the Philadelphia Union, Pat Ercoli was beaming with pride that McCarthy would be moving on from the Rhinos to MLS.
The former Rhinos head coach broached the topic by discussing the off-season goalkeeping situation going into the 2014 season. Last winter, the Rhinos briefly signed Alex Horwath before selling him to Ljungskile SK in Sweden's second division.
"We had a contract in place with him that allowed him a buy-out. We knew that possibly he could leave even before we had a chance to bring him in to camp. And that [buy-out] came to fruition. He had a European passport so that made it fairly easy for him to go overseas."
"There's a similar situation this year with McCarthy. I foresee that happening quickly and that's great. This is why we're doing this," Ercoli explained. "Whether it's our youth program or whether it's our professional team, we're striving to improve the development of players."
The team president underlined the importance of player development. "We have the philosophy that we want to develop these players. When they have an opportunity to go to a higher level, we don't want to discourage that. We want to encourage that."
Because Rochester exercised its option on McCarthy's contract in December, the Union had to negotiate with the team for his services. "There'll be some compensation," Ercoli stressed regarding McCarthy's transfer.
"He's got an opportunity to go to the MLS and be on a bigger stage, we certainly want to encourage that. We're not going to stand in his way but I'm sure we'll easily come to some sort of arrangement with Philadelphia to make this happen."
Ercoli, who has been involved with the Rhinos directly for 14 of the last 19 years heading into the team's 20th season, has seen the landscape of American soccer shift dramatically in that time. Playing LA Galaxy II twice last year, once in the regular season and once in the playoffs, Rochester's president had a great view of the MLS-USL reserve experiment in 2014. Ercoli used that perspective to discuss competitive integrity in USL PRO given the evolution of the relationship between those two leagues.
"Watching the playoff game, I'd say we certainly could have won that game. So I wouldn't sit here and say it's unfair for them to be able to drop senior team guys down," Ercoli said. "That's part of why we have this affiliation and this relationship with MLS. And we see it as a benefit to the overall product in the end, both in our league and in MLS."
These games had a considerably different feel from the intra-league matches of recent times, when MLS allowed its clubs to play its Reserve League squads in USL play. Ercoli agreed that those games lacked a competitive edge, especially the games in 2014 when Chicago Fire elected to play down a man for 25 minutes and FC Dallas brought just three teenage academy players for its substitutes.
"I would say that those particular games were different. Those were teams that essentially weren't invested in the league like LA was; they were just trying to fill their roster for those games."
"Part of the trouble of having their own reserve league team was always trying to fill in the squad with either academy players or guys in and around their first team. They took some risks competitively in some of those situations where they didn't have enough players on the bench," Ercoli explained before quickly adding, "I think that this year - I know that this year is going to be quite different."
Ercoli elaborated on the influx of MLS reserve sides in USL for the 2015 season.
"I'm sure every team is going to be a little bit different in their approach and how they do this. New York, Toronto, and Montreal may all have different approaches. LA liked to integrate some of their first team players in but it all depends on who they have on their roster to be able to do that."
"I also think it's going to come down to the CBA and how many players they are restricted to. That'll definitely play a part in it and then teams will make a decision."
Ercoli assured the Bent Musket that the increase in reserve sides or continued use of loan players won't spoil the nature of USL. "Again, no matter who it is, the players they bring in have to be invested in what we're trying to accomplish in this league. I think it's the same thing for New England's players being committed to our goal which is to improve players and still be competitive."
Heading into the season, USL announced a rule change which increased rosters to include 30 senior spots. In addition to those 30 places, the 2013 rule that allowed for 5 academy slots is still in effect.
"We increased our rosters to 30 players and in addition you can carry 5 academy players, so essentially you could have 35 players on your roster." But Ercoli said that rule change won't affect Rochester much. "For some of us it's not going to matter; we've been accustomed to having 24-26 players each year."
Ercoli didn't rule out following the lead of Richmond and Charleston in signing academy-age players to the Rhinos. "The issue is always if the kids are at the level to able to have an impact." He mentioned Real Salt Lake homegrown player and Rochester native Jordan Allen as a player who would definitely be targeted if he was coming up through the local ranks now.
An interesting aspect that the affiliation and academy roster spots for Revs' fans is that Rochester could sign and play current Revolution academy players to NCAA-compliant contracts. "Certainly if there's a player who has the ability, we'll look into it. We even talked about looking at the [Revolution youth] roster to see what players could essentially make an impact even in the training sessions for us, which would in turn help them develop."
Ercoli isn't interested in using Rochester-area players as window-dressing. The team president wants to make sure any player signed is able to contribute so that, "When we say we're adding a local player, they're already legitimate players despite being younger."
Referencing players like Junior Flores or Christian Pulisic, both of whom excelled recently for youth national teams, Ercoli stressed the Rhinos' place in the sometime messy American soccer picture. "We just saw a bunch of talented kids move to Europe at 16, 17, or even younger. Those players are getting that opportunity to go and be competitive at a different level; certainly we want to participate in that if we can."