If we had a nickel for every time someone here at The Bent Musket or in either fanbase asked, “What is the New England Revolution doing with its affiliate relationship with the Rochester Rhinos?” we might very well have enough money to build a soccer-specific stadium.
In most cases, especially during the past two seasons, the answer has been: “Nothing.”
I had a wide-ranging discussion with Rochester Rhinos head coach and USL Hall of Fame inductee Bob Lilley before the USL season started about the process of finalizing the team’s roster. Lilley laid things out fairly bluntly to set the tone for the talk.
“There's no affiliation with New England this year. There’s none.”
How We Got Here
The Revolution were one of the original four MLS teams to embark in the ground-breaking affiliation deal between that league and then-third division USL. A couple of the deals made sense geographically and due to existing relationships; Philadelphia Union with Harrisburg City Islanders and D.C. United with the Richmond Kickers. The final partnership saw Sporting Kansas City team up with the ambitious Orlando City SC, which quickly set the bar for the cross-league affiliation.
Since 2013, Dom Dwyer has been the yardstick against which the American soccer punditry have judged all subsequent MLS-to-USL loans. The English forward was a high pick in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft (16th overall) but only made two league appearances for a total of 14 minutes during his rookie year. With all parties realizing that Dwyer would need significant playing time, and with the player attempting to secure a loan abroad, SKC’s partnership with Orlando was a godsend.
Dwyer scored 15 goals in 13 regular season matches for Orlando City, setting a record, before popping up for the playoff final and netting a ridiculous four times in his team’s 7-4 victory. In between those stints in Orlando, Dwyer scored his first goal in MLS against the Red Bulls in August. Dwyer now has 54 MLS goals.
Meanwhile, all of the players New England has sent to Rochester have a combined 0 goals in MLS, either before or after their loans ended.
In fact, the Revolution do not have a single success story from its affiliation partnership with the Rochester Rhinos, let alone anyone who can compare to Dwyer.
Only two players have ever featured in MLS for the Revolution during or after a loan spell to Rochester: Donnie Smith and Bilal Duckett. Duckett was recalled from his 2013 Rhinos loan to start a road match in Portland before heading straight back to Rochester. Smith joined the Revs in 2013 but amazingly still has more minutes in USL than in MLS.
Smith played seven matches for the Rhinos in 2014 and started one road game for Rochester last season for a total of 462 minutes. The left winger/fullback has only played 312 minutes in MLS for the Revolution. Despite not yet matching his minutes total in USL, Smith is the only player the Revolution has ever retained after a loan spell in Rochester.
All of the other 11 players who played for Rochester on loan from New England were cut either during the season or after that MLS season ended. 12 of 14 players sent on loan to any USL team in recent years have been released at the end of that campaign.
While the strategic value of the Revolution treating loans as extended auditions can be debated, the benefit of the relationship to the Rhinos has clearly declined.
In 2013 the four loaned players (Matt Horth, Duckett, Tyler Polak, and Gabe Latigue) combined for 4,279 league minutes for the Rhinos. The 2014 contingent (Jossimar Sanchez, Alec Sundly, Luis Soffner, and Smith) combined for 3,330 minutes. 2015’s loanees (Tyler Rudy and Timi Mulgrew) played 1,065 minutes while last season’s group (Michael Gamble, Jordan McCrary, and Smith) totaled just 185 minutes for Rochester.
With the pace at which play in USL has improved over the past 4 seasons, these diminishing returns represent a disconnect. Are players on the tail-end of MLS rosters by-and-large not good enough to start in USL or are the Revolution just particularly inept at identifying and developing talent?
Where Things Stand Today
In our conversation in March, Bob Lilley was not fuming or even noticeably frustrated but rather seemed to have accepted the unfortunate dissolution of a once-promising partnership.
“I think it's a distance thing for them. Obviously it was nice to have that affiliation but I gotta worry as a coach about putting something together. Obviously to have New England as an affiliate would be a positive thing but ultimately New England's gotta figure out the best recipe for them to have success. And we have to be able to carry our own weight, too. I think intentions were good throughout from both sides. I'm not sure it was ever maximized.”
“But certainly, this year there is, I will say on the record, there is not an affiliation. So I'm not anticipating anything to change at this point. So our roster will be all players under contract with us.”
This is all relevant in light of Wednesday’s news that Homegrown midfielder Zachary Herivaux will be joining former Revolution defender Stephen McCarthy at USL side San Antonio FC. Lilley has long spoken positively of the young Herivaux, believing that time in Rochester could have helped with his development.
In the summer of 2015, while discussing local product Nikkye de Point training with the team, Lilley told me he would love to have Herivaux in town if only for training sessions even if the youngster did not play. In March, Lilley told me that during the 2016 campaign, “[Herivaux] would have helped us, we would have found time.”
Later on Lilley brought up the Revolution Homegrown again. “We have a commitment to our fans and media to put out a good product, as well. If you're into development, you give me a guy to work with that has potential – and Herivaux is a very good example. I love his athleticism and his range; he's not too different than what I saw in Ryan James in that regard.”
“I'll find a way to get good production and quality out of him. He may not have been better than sitting down [Gershon] Koffie or [Scott] Caldwell or [Diego] Fagundez or any of those other guys. But here he'd get regular minutes and he would maybe be further along this year in preseason because he got a string of games.”
Lilley detailed that he offered his outstanding performers to the Revolution during the 2015 season and during the offseasons. The veteran USL coach told me that the partnership had the chance to increase Rochester’s recruitment efforts by providing an inside-track to MLS coaches and scouts.
“When Tony Walls and Onua Obasi had a good season; I said, Bring them in and if you don't think they can make your squad for the next year, if they're not better than what you have, then at least our guys are seeing that and paying attention. Seeing Walls and Obasi get a chance, our guys see that and use it as fuel. Like, if I try hard here maybe I can catch the eye of New England, but when you don't ever bring a guy up or ever even try to – not even, we talked about what’s wrong with inviting a couple of guys in for preseason. Won't cost you a lot of money, it helps the partnership and they'll be fitter when we get here and you can get a free peek.”
After helping Rochester lift the 2015 USL Cup, club captain Tony Walls spent preseason with Minnesota United FC of the NASL and Onua Obasi was on trial with the Philadelphia Union ahead of the 2016 season.
“We told them Philly's interested [in John McCarthy] and we knew they were looking at potential goalkeepers the one year... and Philly bought him out of his contract with us. If New England had wanted him we may have let him out for half the price or just let them have him for the good of the relationship because it would have shown that a guy did well and now he's with New England. That’s incentive for every other player that comes in here.”
Lilley highlighted players who improved over their tenure in Rochester and have since earned more lucrative contracts. “I know we want to develop players here and players are getting better and any time a player leaves here, they get other opportunities for more money.” Lilley pointed to the dramatic improvements he’s seen in players from year 1 to year 2 in preseason.
Beyond McCarthy moving to the Union, Pat McMahon has gone to FC Cincinnati, Obasi and dos Santos went to Ottawa Fury SC, and Christian Volesky has already been named USL Player of the Week for Saint Louis FC; all have earned higher contracts after improving their game under the tutelage of Rochester’s coaching staff.
On the other hand, New England has cut 11 of 12 players sent on loan to their USL affiliate since 2013 (and 12 of 14 players sent on loan to any USL teams). None of those 11 players have seen the field in MLS since leaving Foxborough. Goalkeepers Trevor Spangenberg and Matt Turner have both been loaned to Richmond in recent seasons. Spangenberg played 2 USL matches in 2015 before getting cut by the Revolution while Turner played 7 matches last year and was retained by the club. Turner is in his second season with New England and is currently on loan to the Kickers again in 2017.
If Rochester was willing to ensure playing time, why did New England give up on using loans to its USL affiliate?
Distance is always a talking point but Vancouver Whitecaps FC successfully partnered Charleston Battery and more recently Colorado Rapids have developed players through its partnership with Charlotte Independence. With more than double the flight time that potential Revolution loanees would face, John Berner (36) and Caleb Calvert (41) have played a significant number of games while starters Dominique Badji and Marlon Hairston also saw minutes in Charlotte.
Since the cross-league affiliations began in 2013 and MLS reserves sides joined USL in 2014, several MLS clubs have invested in bringing academy products up to speed and providing playing time to young professionals. Many clubs have followed LA Galaxy’s lead and are providing vertical integration of teams from youth to senior ranks like Toronto FC (and TFC II and TFC III), but several are still using a mix of long-term and short-term loans as tools for player growth.
The Revolution have taken a new approach this year, opting to have multiple USL affiliates.
“When it comes to loan possibilities for first team players, we look for opportunities that will give our players significant playing time in competitive matches. We will continue to try and provide our players options that benefit the player and give the club an opportunity to improve our first team,” said New Revolution general manager, Michael Burns. “In previous years we had one partner for loan opportunities, but it was sometimes difficult for us and the partner to find situations that were beneficial to both parties. This season we are opting for a strategy where we maintain relationships with a number of different clubs to ensure each of our players gets the right opportunity.”
While 2017 may well bring successful loan spells for Matt Turner at Richmond Kickers, Brian Wright at Tulsa Roughnecks, and Herivaux at San Antonio, questions still remain. Why were these players and others not provided the opportunity with the Revolution’s USL affiliate, Rochester Rhinos? Will these players remain on the books in New England after the 2017 season?
What will life look like for both the Rhinos and the Revolution now that the partnership has collapsed?