As soccer grows in this country and teenagers in large numbers continue to play the game, Major League Soccer teams are increasingly looking for a way to discover and develop that talent. The answer has, in many cases, meant looking to the USL.
The Philadelphia Union have taken a page out of Major League Baseball’s player-development system by recently naming two local USL affiliates. It's the equivalent of farm teams who play in the United Soccer Leagues, and it's a way to ensure that a steady stream of talent is available to them over the course of a season.
Before the start of the current MLS season, the Union formalized deals with the Harrisburg City Islanders and Reading United. The project’s aim is primarily setup to benefit the Union. For the two USL teams, the alliance allows them exposure to the Union’s training and coaching methods. Even the Union’s fan club, “Sons of Ben,” opened a Reading chapter in an effort to broaden its fan base across Pennsylvania.
“Player development is a key component to building the quality club and organization we will be,” Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz said when the deal with the City Islanders was announced in March.
The Union may not be headed to the playoffs this fall, but team officials hope these ties will help in the long run. In fact, the expansion club has even taken the extra step of developing tomorrow’s players by creating an academy system, called the Union Juniors, consisting of boys and girls ages 8 to 12, which are provided free clinics and fitness education. The program gives the Union the chance to nurture talent at a very young age, much like European and South American clubs have done for decades.
The City Islanders, who have been in operation since 2003, currently play in the USL-2, while Reading United, founded in 1996, play in the USL-PDL. Reading, after announcing its deal with the Union in December 2009, changed its name from the Rage to United and took on the Union’s colors of blue and gold.
The Union, who has struggled in the standings, even used the League’s two-week World Cup break to play an exhibition against United. The Union won 2-0 at Reading on June 23, the first time an MLS team had ever played in that city, before a crowd of 1,300 at the 3k-capacity Don Thomas Stadium.
“We’re extremely proud of our relationship with the Philadelphia Union,” said Reading United President Art Auchenbach. He added that United has been “able to bring in some of the top collegiate talent to Reading this summer because they want to have their talent seen by the premier player development organization in the Philadelphia Union.”
The Unions’ deal with the City Islanders, meanwhile, has also benefited the USL club. City Islanders coach Bill Becher said his team has worked with MLS clubs in the past, but that formalizing a bond will go a long way in helping boost talent in the region.
“We are excited to be working with the Union,” he said. “We have had the opportunity to use a few of their players for our league games this year.” Becher said he hopes the relationship results in several players on his team getting “the opportunity to at least train with (the Union).”
Indeed, four Union players - midfielder Nick Zimmerman, striker Jack McInerney, midfielder Toni Stahl and striker Shea Salinas - have played with both the Union and City Islanders this season.
The City Islanders have already seen results from its ties with the Union. The team knocked out the New York Red Bulls from the third round of the Lamar Hunt Open Cup on June 29 - a 1-0 overtime win at the Skyline Sports Complex before 1,800 fans.
Harrisburg also hosted the Union on July 27 in a friendly, which ended in a 1-1 draw before nearly 2,000 fans. J.T. Noone, 22, a forward, played for both teams during the Union’s game against Harrisburg. He appeared in the opening 30 minutes for the City Islanders and played final 29 for the Union. The Union signed Noone to a contract this past Friday.
Noone, a former All-American at Temple University who grew up in Harrisburg, has seen his work rate and skills improve over the past few months. Although he originally had a contract with the City Islanders, Noone worked as a Union trialist and had even played a half in Philadelphia’s recent 1-0 win over Scottish club Celtic.
For Noone, playing for two teams in one game was a unique experience. So was the opportunities Philadelphia has created this season by linking so closely with their lower division affiliates.
Clemente Lisi is the author of “A History of the World Cup: 1930-2006.” His new book "The US Women's Soccer Team: An American Success Story" will be available in June. Contact him at: CAL4477@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/ClementeLisi