Union expand on partnership with Harrisburg City Islanders in MLS-USL Pro merger

Harrisburg partnership expands with MLS-USL Pro merger

Harrisburg Friendly Okugo

Photo Credit: 
Carmo Photography

Another step in improving soccer development in the United States was announced today as MLS announced a massive merger with the United Soccer Leagues’ Professional Division. The deal will see many MLS clubs field its reserves within USL Pro, giving those players more opportunities to get in real game scenarios.

With MLS ‘ old structure reserve players only saw 10 matches a year spaced out over a nine-month stretch. With this format, teams are housed within the USL Pro schedule providing the opportunity for more than double the matches in a competitive league that many MLS teams, like the Union use as a feeder system to the big show.

Since nearly its inception, the Union has started the ground work on this very notion, partnering with regional USL Pro side the Harrisburg City  Islanders and PDL club Reading United and using both clubs similar to a minor league structure in terms of development on both sides. Union defender Sheanon Williams is a shining example, when he joined the Union in August 2010 from Harrisburg City.

Read: Backstory behind MLS-USL Pro merger

In the case of the Union, the reserve league format announced by MLS Wednesday is not the exact structure Philadelphia will utilize. Instead, CEO and managing partner Nick Sakiewicz and team manager John Hackworth decided to expand on the club's partnership with Harrisburg to infuse reserve league players onto the roster of the City Islanders. Those players would still be on the Union roster and the club would still hold all rights, and responsibility of player salaries. In the past where Union players were loaned for a game or two to a developmental affiliate, this new structure allows players to stay, practice and play vital games along their USL counterparts for an extended time – possibly even the entire length of a USL campaign. It's a system adopted by Sporting Kansas City who announced a few hours after the merger that it would partner with USL Pro's Orlando City.

"Having robust and meaningful competitions at levels below MLS is absolutely critical to the development of aspiring players in North America," said Sakiewicz. "This partnership of the two leagues sets the stage toward building robust and successful levels below MLS to not only develop players but also, referees and soccer executives". 

For months, rumors swirled at the possibility of such a merger becoming a reality. MLS commissioner Don Garber responded to those rumors during last Thursday’s MLS SuperDraft in Indianapolis.

“Our league is very supportive of building a soccer pyramid and having a closer relationship with the lower divisions,” Garber said. “We continue to invest in our reserve teams and in our academy programs. We have a dozen players that signed as homegrown players that didn’t come through the [MLS SuperDraft] that actually signed through academies, so you are going to see more and more investment and commitment to building the pyramid.”

One coach keen on the idea of “building the pyramid” is Union assistant coach Brendan Burke who doubles as head coach of the Union’s PDL affiliate, Reading United. Burke has seen many of his former players at Reading have strong careers in Major League Soccer and feels this system is another major and positive step at continued development.

“Players would be able to get games, meaningful games in a competitive environment within the structure of USL,” Burke said, “One it gives these guys something to play for, not discrediting that they are all trying to get themselves onto the first team, but now they are competing in a league structure to win a title, there is no replacement for that in terms of the intensity of getting in matches.”

Could you expect a snowball effect to happen as MLS looks to continue to build the pyramid? It’s possible as the PDL and NASL are both leagues that could benefit from such a format, says Burke.

“For the PDL it’s a good thing it’s just a stronger connection to the MLS and obviously our club is really at the forefront of all that with the Harrisburg and Reading structure,” Burke said. “I know from Reading’s standpoint they’d be ecstatic, it just strengthens the whole development process. From an NASL standpoint, which is a good league and has good players and has kind of been that second tier between MLS and USL Pro, I think it drastically closes that gap if not put the USL now on a level footing in terms of sustainability.”

Contact Union writer Kerith Gabriel at kgabriel@philadelphiaunion.com