During the past year we have seen drastic changes to the MLS Reserve League in order to better develop the quality of the league and its players. Over the All-Star break in Kansas City, MLS executive Todd Durbin said, "Right now, the strategic path is to try and rotate away from our Reserve League, such that all of our teams are either participating in the USL-PRO through an affiliation or through a stand-alone team, hopefully by the end of 2015."
Some MLS teams have already affiliated themselves with USL PRO teams (Sporting Kansas City, DC United , New England, and Philadelphia), but most chose to continue fielding Reserve League teams. It's this latter route the Fire took, and it's a bit of a stopgap. Other clubs are already lining up affiliation for 2014 with a USL-PRO side, while others have announced they'll field their own USL-PRO team in 2014 and 2015.
With only 15 months between now and the 2015 season, the Fire front office have some serious decisions to make, and the clock is ticking. There are two options for the Fire; I'm going to discuss each of them and talk about some options within each. Hot Time would love to hear your ideas; no one can think of everything, and maybe you've a different option that might suit cf97 and their player development needs? We'll see you in the comments.
Option #1: Affiliation
The most likely of the two options is for cf97 to establish an affiliation with a USL PRO team. If the Fire follow this model, they will loan at least four players per season to a USL-PRO team. This past season, Kansas City, DC, New England and Philly parterned with Orlando City, Richmond, Rochester and Harrisburg City, respectively. Kansas City, in particular, benefitted from the loan program, as it allowed Dom Dwyer to sharpen his game enough to claim a starting spot. The also makes sense financially, as the Fire would not be responsible for running a standalone team in the USL-PRO division.
What USL-PRO team would make sense as a partner for the Fire? Since there are no current USL-PRO teams in close proximity to the Fire, I'd suggest the club try to partner themselves with a team that has been in place for some time, not a recent expansion team. Make sense? I'll be plainer: The Fire should partner themselves with a team that has shown it can survive financially. For instance, why partner with expansion side Oklahoma City - an unproven commodity - when you can partner with a club like the Charleston Battery, who has been in existence since 1993?
With that in mind. here are 4 teams I think fit for the Fire:
- Charleston Battery: Founded in 1993, the club has bounced around between divisions in the ever-changing USL leagues. They have a soccer specific stadium, which the Fire have experienced firsthand during the Carolina Challenge Cup the past 3 years. They have been known to produce some talent, like Osvaldo Alonzo, Lamar Neagle, and Bo Oshoniyi (yeah, remember him?). Charleston is one of those teams I do expect to be partnered with an MLS team, if not in 2014 then before the 2015 season even starts. They also have a dedicated owner in Tony Bakker who built Blackbauld Stadium in 1999, becoming the 1st privately-funded soccer specific stadium to be built in the United States.
- Charlotte Eagles: Found in 1991 as an amateur team, they became a professional team in 1993. Like Charleston, they also bounced around in the changing USL leagues but have been in the third division since 2004. Not as many notable former players as Charleston, but they look to have financial stability, which is what is needed to survive in the lower leagues. They do not have their own stadium as they currently play at Dickson Field at the Queens University of Charlotte.
- Pittsburgh Riverhounds: Founded in 1999, the team features a lesser-known former Fire player as head coach in Justin Evans. This team does have higher ambitions than the two previous teams listed, as they have said after moving into their permanent home, Highmark Stadium, that they want MLS in Pittsburgh. This would be an excellent option as the team has an owner willing to invest in the future of the franchise. Since MLS teams in the northeast have partnerships already, the Riverhounds may be open to a team from the midwest to partner with.
- Dayton Dutch Lions: Founded in 2009, to me Dayton is a long shot for a partnership with cf97 - their close proximity to the Columbus Crew might make them a more logical choice for Dayton. Dayton is an interesting team because it is supported by FC Twente of the Dutch Eredivisie. They have a partnership with Twente to help each other develop players and academy teams, as well as possibly transfer players between the two teams. What better way to develop reserve players than sending them to a club that is dedicated to development and already has a professional side supporting them?
- An Expansion Team: I know, I know, I said I wanted stable sides, but everything changes. With the USL-PRO adding two more teams in 2014 and losing Orlando City in 2015, I'm pretty sure we haven't seen the end to expansion in the lower leagues. There is a chance that an expansion team may come before the 2015 season that would be a perfect fit for the Chicago Fire.
Option #2: The German Model
The second option is certainly more expensive than the first: The Fire could found their own USL-PRO team, and have their reserves play in USL-PRO. This is the rough outlines of the German model, where top-division clubs field reserves teams in the regionalliga. A Fire USL-PRO squad would play its home games at the practice field at Toyota Park on non-game days.
The player development advantages of this are hard to overstate. All of the reserve players and even possibly some academy players would have a chance to play significant, meaningful minutes in a league that actually means something. I say this because, no matter what changes the MLS has made to its reserve league, the majority of the teams in the league simply have not taken the reserve league seriously over the years. Like I said, the only problem is financially making the commitment to playing a standalone team.
There are a couple of possibilities for a standalone Fire USL-PRO team. With either option, the Fire will have to pay for travel of the team, as well as absorbing a larger payroll, as there would be a few players that are only dedicated to the USL-PRO roster. So there will be higher costs associated with this approach, but the reward could be greater.
- Have the team be based out of Toyota Park like the reserve team already is. This makes some sense, in that cf97 don't have to pay for facilities because they already own them; if they are not looking at making any money through ticket sales, than it would be perfect. Once in while they could feature a double header in the stadium before or after a first-team game. This way the entire team can be based out of the same place and actually train together so the coaching staff gets to look at the entire cf97 roster.
- The team could also feature a standalone team in a different city. Why do I say this? Well, what better way to spread the brand of the Chicago Fire than in another market where there is no other team? I'll give you one city in particular: Milwaukee. Here is a city that has not seen a professional outdoor soccer team since the Milwaukee Wave United played in the old A-League in 2004; before that, the Milwaukee Rampage played in the A-League from 1993 to 2002. The Milwaukee Wave, an indoor team, has a pretty good following, still averaging 5000 people at home games according to Wikipedia. To me this is a market that the Fire can tap into, especially considering the TV deal with Time Warner Cable Sports in Wisconsin. This would take some financial commitment to accomplish but it could be both beneficial to the players and owner. Where would they play? How about former home of the Milwaukee Rampage and Wave United, Uihlein Soccer Park. The stadium has a capacity of 7000 and was specifically built for soccer. Since the last professional team played there in 2004 Uihlein Soccer Park is now owned by the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee Kickers, who are a soccer organization that runs leagues for both kids and adults. The Milwaukee Kickers also boast over 8000 members and over 650 teams. Could this be a very strong market to spread the brand of the Fire? All signs I'm seeing point to YES, but it is up to the powers that be to make that decision.
Before you know it, 2015 will be here and the Fire will have to decide on what to do with their reserve team. Whatever they decide to do, it will help the fringe players who desperately need valuable competitive minutes. Personally, I hope they go the Milwaukee route; what do you think?