USL Pro began their 2014 season this weekend and this is the second year of a direct relationships between MLS clubs and USL Pro clubs in loaning out players as well as USL Pro clubs playing games against MLS reserve teams. The “Pro-Alliance” included four teams last season and as I wrote in my 2013 USL Pro review, it benefited both leagues. This was most significantly seen between Orlando City and Sporting KC’s relationship where the play of loaned out player Dom Dywer lead to both clubs winning their respective championships and arguably the fast tracking of Orlando as a future MLS club.
This season includes eleven clubs taking advantage of this alliance and LA Galaxy actually entering a direct reserve club, LA Galaxy II, into the league. I will be writing a complete preview for the league, as well as a preview for the 2014 NASL season, although in this article I will be previewing the relationship of the two Canadian MLS clubs and their respective relationship to their USL pro affiliate.
The Vancouver Whitecaps will have an alliance with the Charleston Battery, while Toronto FC will have a relationship with the Wilmington Hammerheads. Montreal Impact have chosen not to take part, so one might assume there could be a potential future relationship between them and new NASL side the Ottawa Fury.
Ever since the Vancouver Whitecaps joined MLS they have taken advantage of loaning players to both NASL and USL Pro clubs. Vancouver has had a relationship with FC Edmonton in the NASL through loaning out players including Carlyle Mitchell and Corey Hertzog in 2013. Vancouver also had a relationship with Charleston loaning three players to them last season (Bryce Alderson, Ben Fisk, and Emmanuel Adjetsey), so it wasn’t a surprise that they made this relationship official.
Due to a number of draft picks and a strong academy, the Whitecaps had a number of options on who they could loan out to the Battery and at the start of the season Vancouver is providing Charleston with eight players. Canadian national team youth defender Jackson Farmer is joined by other academy players such as Ghanaian midfielder Aminu Abdallah, Honduran midfielder Marlon Ramirez, and American forward Adam Mena. As well, there are three 2014 draft picks, including first round draft pick midfielder Andre Lewis, a player I regard highly in striker Mamadou Diouf, defensive midfielder Michael Kafari and finally former first pick overall Omar Salgado.
Historically, the Charleston Battery have been one of the stronger clubs in USL Pro, winning the league three times with A-league titles in 1996, 2003 and recently the USL Pro Championship in 2012 and have also made the quarters of the US Open Cup. Charleston also seems to be one of the best options for a partnership as they been in the league over 20 years, have consistency in management with coach Michael Anheauser being in charge since 2004 and have graduated a number of MLS players including Osvaldo Alonso and Lamar Neagle.
The Whitecaps players will have an impact, however, Charleston already had a strong side going into the season, including forward Dane Kelly who I had in my list of players overlooked this offseason by MLS, as well as veteran defenders Colin Falvey and John Wilson, and midfielders Jarad van Schaik and Amadou Sanyang.
I expect Andre Lewis to be in the starting eleven with either Mamadou Diouf or Omar Salgado joining Dane Kelly up front and if successful in USL Pro they can also be part of the Whitecaps first team as the 2014 season progresses. The other Whitecaps loanees will be playing for positions and providing depth, although since none of them have played a pro game the experience should give them lessons in terms of what is expected from them.
Meanwhile, Toronto FC has sent three players on loan so far to the Hammerheads: Canadian homegrown academy player Manuel Aparicio (midfielder) and keeper Qullian Roberts, as well as recent draftee American Daniel Lovitz.
Wilmington doesn’t have the same depth or expectations going into this season, as well as historically, as Charleston. The Hammerheads still have a long history as a professional soccer club going back to 1996 and winning USL Pro Select League in 2003, while English head coach David Irving has been in charge of the team since 1998, making him one of the most experienced coaches in American soccer.
Wilmington should be in the playoff hunt this upcoming USL Pro season led by veteran midfielder Paul Nicholson. All three Toronto FC loanees should get playing time, but none are a certain starter with Roberts going against incumbent keeper Phil Tuttle in net who played 14 games last season. Aparicio and Lovitz will be up against a number of midfielders who were with the Hammerheads last season for playing time.
Two interesting stories for me going into the 2014 season is Wilmington also signed Sunny Jane who was a regarded as a prospect this past college season as a winger with NCAA cup finalists University of Maryland, and was expected to be drafted ahead of Lovitz. The two play best in a similar position so it will be interesting how they will perform and who will get more minutes.
Another story is looking at the Hammerheads squad, their weakest position by far is their forward options with only former Vancouver Whitecaps player Cody Arnoux being a viable player, so it surprised me that Toronto FC waived Emery Welshman while still under contract. It seems to me the smarter option would have been to loan him to Wilmington and allow him to prove he is capable he can play at the pro level.
As a fan of soccer in North America and having a desire for it to succeed and develop I like this new partnership and as I wrote about prior, I eventually see USL Pro becoming a minor league system for the MLS similar to AHL in Hockey or the D-League in Basketball.
I think going into this season Vancouver is more prepared, however, past players they have sent to Charleston have gotten lost and it’s the players they have sent to Edmonton that have got future opportunities with the MLS club, so it will be interesting to see how this develops especially with some of their key prospects joining the Battery.
With Toronto I was expecting a stronger relationship and seeing them try to develop a player like Welshman instead of just cutting him, or allowing players such like Kyle Becker, Nick Hagglund, or when healthy Jordan Hamilton, to allow them serious playing time and to develop opposed to just sitting on the first team bench or press box.
I will say overall this relationship is a good sign that I will be watching closely that might even include a future road trip later on this summer.