Lost in the short, busy news week of roster cuts, signings, and schedule release, the Houston Dynamo announced a partnership with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds of the USL PRO. The league partnered with USL PRO in January and four MLS teams quickly built loan partnerships, Kansas City with Orlando, D.C. United with Richmond, New England with Rochester , and the Philadelphia and Harrisburg. Houston becomes the fifth MLS team to form a partnership. The Crew has held off so far and have been noncommittal on their plans.
Columbus will have to start making plans soon, MLS will be requiring teams to either partner with an existing USL PRO team or field their own by 2015 as the reserve league is phased out. The Crew have significant work to do to meet the deadline and their choice will provide insight the team's player development model.
The Crew could choose to partner with an existing USL PRO team. Kansas City and D.C. United used this to great effect. Dom Dwyer lit up the lower leagues with Orlando City, scoring 14 goals in 13 games. Michael Seaton got his first pro experience as a 16 year old with Richmond before making late season appearances for D.C. They were able to get real game experience that paid off immediately.
The opposite is also true. The Crew loaned out Aaron Horton over the summer to the L.A. Blues of the USL PRO, but he saw limited time before falling well out of favor. Horton was then cut by the Crew in late October. No change of scenery was able to revive his career in Columbus.
A partnership would be like any loan. The player would get sent out and integrate with his new team. The lower level of competition might allow a young player a greater chance to play, but there is no guarantee they would see any action. Development is placed in a partner's hands. The Crew would have to carefully consider who to work with. The Dayton Dutch Lions are an obvious choice due to their proximity, but a philosophical match may be more important. Much like Houston and Kansas City, the Crew could look farther afield to find a better match.
There is another option that the league has provided. Teams can form their own USL PRO team and enter it in competition. No team has chosen to start their own USL PRO team yet, but the L.A. Galaxy, F.C. Dallas, and Seattle Sounders are looking into the possibility with rumors that Dallas and L.A. may try this year.
The benefit for player development is obvious. The team would be in full control over development. Team coaches would run practice and monitor players directly. Lineups and game plans would be drawn up to maximize the develop the talent on the roster rather than winning. The end goal of the team is much like a Major League Baseball minor league team, to be a pipeline of talent to the parent club.
The drawbacks are twofold, it will take money to commit to building a team and entering it for league play and the personnel required for a USL PRO team would stretch MLS rosters. The money question will come down to ownership. Only Anthony Precourt can decide if he'll open the checkbook if Gregg Berhalter asks.
The other problem is a little more complex. Current MLS rosters are capped at 30 players. A coach likely will have a rotation of 15 to 18 players that he feels comfortable using. Injuries pile up over the season, further taxing the shortened rosters. To fill out a USL PRO squad, the Crew would have to use some players who might fill out the game dat roster.
The roster numbers crunch also serves as an opportunity. The Crew have a chance to use some of the Crew Soccer Academy players to further fill out the bench. This is an chance to give some of the Academy players a chance to truly test themselves.
The USL PRO partnership is a big new step in player development. It gives young players a chance to get playing time and improve their game. The league is mandating that MLS teams have until 2015 to decide how to approach this partnership. Whether the Crew send players on loan or build their own team, it's a decision that help shape the look of the team in the following years.