Toronto FC have made their partnership with the Wilmington Hammerheads official. The clubs have agreed a one year deal that will allow the MLS side to send a minimum of four MLS contracted players on loan to the USL Pro side during the season.
The partnership will allow for the likes of recent academy grads Manuel Aparicio, Quillan Roberts, and Jordan Hamilton as well as recent draft picks like Emery Welshman or Dan Lovitz to find playing time that they were unlikely to get with Toronto FC this season.
The fact that the partnership is only for a single year is due to Toronto FC's attempts to get their own affiliate off the ground. They tried to accomplish this with the proposed move of the Toronto Lynx to Hamilton but when that move was blocked by the City of Hamilton they had to look elsewhere for a short-term solution. With a number of USL Pro clubs already having affiliates lined up for the 2014 season and beyond the Hammerheads represented one of the best remaining options.
Wilmington are coming off a 2013 season where they did not have a partner in MLS but still managed to finish just outside of the playoff picture. They are also not far removed from being a team that made it all the way to the USL Pro Championship game as they were defeated by the Charleston Battery by a 1-0 score in the 2012 Championship game.
By forming a partnership with a USL Pro side Toronto FC will no longer take part in the MLS reserve league. With the league already shrinking with a number of other teams opting out it was set to hit new levels of uselessness in 2014 so opting out seems to be the right move for clubs that are serious about developing their young talent.
For TFC the deal is about filling that gap in their development model which was noted by Tim Bezbatchenko in the official release:
"We are very excited to partner with Wilmington Hammerheads FC and continue to enhance the development of professional footballers in North America," said Toronto General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko. "The deal represents the first time our club has established a full development trajectory for our Academy players from the U12 level up through the first team. On the first team it can be a challenge getting younger players sufficient match experience required for their development during the course of a season. This partnership with Wilmington will allow our players to earn those valuable match minutes and continue their growth during the season in a professional environment in USL Pro. Today we have filled a developmental gap within our club."
The deal includes some other elements besides the ability to loan players. There will also be a sharing of coaching resources as Toronto FC's coaching staff will be able to observe training sessions and matches at Wilmington while the Hammerheads staff have been invited to attend TFC's training camp in Florida.
There are certainly some advantages to this deal for Wilmington as were noted in their official release:
"The affiliation announcement with Toronto FC is a monumental day for Wilmington Hammerheads FC and the city of Wilmington," said Jason Arnold, Wilmington Hammerheads FC General Manager. "Having an exclusive affiliation with a Major League Soccer club will impact our club in such a positive way and bring new opportunities to us both on and off the field. Toronto FC is forging ahead with ground breaking signings and business affiliations and we are proud to be a partner of theirs at this exciting time."
In the sort-term, this is a deal that should work well for both clubs. It will be interesting to see how things work out moving forward but at least TFC have not missed out on another year of playing time for their reserves while trying to work out that long-term solution.
For those interested in watching games it was recently announced that all USL Pro matches will be live streamed via YouTube this season making them readily available to fans in Toronto both live and in archived versions after the event. The big question will be what sort of broadcast quality clubs will have but at least the games will be available in some format.