On Wednesday, January 23, 2013, MLS and USL PRO announced the formation of their nascent partnership, intended to spur on the development of both leagues and players on the fringes of the first team, as well as augment the faltering MLS reserve league, which has proved more cumbersome than useful.
A day short of a year later, Toronto FC entered into a one-year agreement with Wilmington Hammerheads FC that will see a minimum of four players on loan this season, as well as a few other perks – the Wilmington coaches will be attending TFC’s preseason camp in Florida and Toronto coaches will observe Hammerhead training and matches.
Toronto became the sixth club to utilize such an arrangement (Kansas City has two affiliates this year, Orlando and Oklahoma City) and since that announcement, two more clubs, Portland and San Jose, have entered into agreements - somewhat peculiarly both with the same team, Sacramento Republic FC (Preki’s new club) - while Los Angeles pushed out the boat a little more by announcing that LA Galaxy II will take part in the 2014 USL PRO season, as the first full-fledged lower division ‘farm’ team run by an MLS club – a trend that will most likely find more followers in short order.
With a year of this experiment already undergone, the one notable achievement was the progression of KC’s Dom Dwyer, who parlayed a strong stint in USL PRO with Orlando City into starting time with the big club towards the end of the season, playing a role in them reaching (and ultimately winning) the MLS Cup Final last season.
Dwyer was by far the most immediate success story, though hardly the only player to benefit from the arrangement. DC’s Casey Townsend too found some success during a short spell with the Richmond Kickers, that prompted Ben Olsen to bring him back post-haste to help with United’ scoring funk – a big ask given the prospects of their 2013, as too did Vancouver’s Corey Hertzog in Edmonton, though he could not parlay that into a new deal with the Whitecaps.
Kansas City and DC were the most involved in the affiliation system in 2013, with players such as Christian Duke, Kevin Ellis, and even an out-of-form CJ Sapong spending time away from the motherclub for the former, while young striker Michael Seaton, Conor Shanosky, and goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra benefitted from time in Richmond via the latter.
Whether formally or informally affiliated, many teams rolled the dice on the loan system, with Montreal (Calum Mallace), Vancouver (Bryce Alderson), Dallas (highly-touted keeper, Richard Sanchez), as well as a handful of players from New England, Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston, and Salt Lake seeking to benefit from the program.
Quite clearly, given the variety of arrangements clubs have sought out and the varying degrees of success, this is still a work in progress. That said, one of the hard and fast truths of professional sports is that players need games to develop – training will only get one so far.
In that spirit Toronto’s partnership with Wilmington has the potential of offering essential development time and precious minutes for a handful of TFC’s younger players.
But just who will go out on loan?
There are plenty of candidates, but also several unknowns, for simplicity’s sake consider two main groups of potential loanees, each with a sub-group that deserves special notation:
The Likely Lads
Kyle Bekker, Emery Welshman, Quillan Roberts, Manny Aparicio, Jordan Hamilton, and the Draft Picks – Nick Hagglund, Daniel Lovitz, and Kene Eze.
While this may seem pretty straight-forward – all these players will need minutes to continue their development, there is one kink to such thinking… Does Toronto want to let that development happen beyond their purview or would they rather keep them in house to keep a closer eye on progress?
Hamilton and Aparicio are teenagers, as too is Roberts, though he is perhaps most in need of immediate playing time.
In a pre-season interview, goalkeeping coach Stewart Kerr stated he expected Roberts to step up this season and Ryan Nelsen mentioned how Kerr always wanted to have three first-team keepers to work with – the signing of Julio Cesar may have made a loan all the more likely for the young Canadian keeper.
Bekker and Welshmen are desperately in need of minutes to continue to develop, but would it serve them better to learn under the talent that arrived in Toronto this summer – Bekker in particular would do well to soak up as much knowledge from Michael Bradley and Dwayne De Rosario as possible. To break out on one’s own or serve further apprenticeship under such talents? It is difficult to say.
Added to that dilemma is that all five of those mentioned are Canadians and will have varying experiences living abroad and away from their families in the case of the youngest players.
The draft picks, should they stick with the club, all being American, will face less difficulty, should they be sent on loan, and the risk-reward potential of seeing them take to the professional game away from the spotlight of MLS could prove fruitful.
This second group of players is comprised of those that are clearly no longer development projects, but would benefit from an extended run of matches that may help them find confidence and form: Reggie Lambe, Gale Agbossoumonde, Andrew Wiedeman, Mark Bloom, Ryan Richter, and Chris Konopka.
Lambe has by far seen the most minutes for TFC, but has never really flourished to reach his full potential; Agbossoumonde has yet to find a solid run of games as he bounced from club to club through his development. Bloom, Richter, and Konopka similarly would benefit from a consistent run out, while Wiedeman is perhaps the most interesting of the lot.
Unfairly tarred with the brush of careless words, the 24-year old will take part in his sixth MLS season in 2014. Yes, sixth; though he has only featured in under 40 matches in that time, a surefire way to stagnate as a player.
Wiedeman has quietly become one of the more interesting players to listen to and stands to perhaps benefit immensely from a proper run-out.
Confidence and belief can play a huge role in a player’s impact and a strong run could be exactly what these guys need.
A more controversial sub-grouping that could fall under this heading includes: Ashtone Morgan, Joe Bendik, Doneil Henry, and Jonathan Osorio.
What? One may decry. Surely as established members of the first team Nelsen & Co. will want to keep them around, but depending on how the minutes and schedules work out, perhaps some short-term spells will be a boon to even them.
Morgan and Bendik in particular, should they find minutes few and far between with the additions of Justin Morrow and Cesar, could indeed find themselves out on loan in search of precious minutes.
There are, of course, a lot of unknowns at the moment:
Will Toronto look for season-long loans, or will players be shuttled back and forth as required? KC’s Sapong was once loaned for a week to play two or three matches, which served as a wake-up call and earned him a valuable run of games.
On the other end, what do Wilmington want from the partnership and what positions are they most in need of assistance?
There is little point in sending out a player only for them to not see any playing time, though perhaps the general experience, a change of scenery, can be as good as anything for inspiration.
Wilmington’s current official roster only has five players listed, leaving a lot of gaps to be interpreted as the team builds towards their season opener on 5 April.
Regardless of who goes, when, and for how long, the partnership is clearly one to be carefully managed and thought-out in order to derive maximum profit from the potential for growth.
Toronto, aside from the notable academy successes, has been a wasteland for young players in their short history and this affiliation is a step in the right direction, one that perhaps will pave the way for further exploits in a lower division.