The news that the Chicago Fire are getting a USL Pro affiliate is welcome, and expected - after all, the league has mandated that every team will have such an affiliation by 2015, so movement on this front is more relief than surprise. But when a source told me that the affiliate was to be in St. Louis ... that's a whole different kettle of fish, for the reasons I'm about to explore.
St. Louis considers itself a peer to Chicago, not a little brother
I understand that the folks in Arch-town are giddy about the return of professional football to the city, and it's a sentiment I can wholeheartedly get behind. And I'm sure that they'll be totally cool the first few times the MLS team comes down and smacks them around, then leaves its development projects behind. But how long will St. Louisans be content to develop players whom, once improved, get scooped up and spirited away to Chicago?
Maybe it's just the fact that I'm a lifelong Cubs fan, which means I've gotten to enjoy
30 50 70 years of near-constant domination from the Cardinals, but I don't see it. St. Louis sporting teams have yielded a tremendous amount of emotional return from the simple act of besting Chicago teams, thereby delighting the Missouri masses. Being our minor-league feeder, forever caught in the third division, forever passing your favorite players along to the more-famous city you not-so-secretly resent? Sounds like powderkeg that will remain unexploded, sure.
St. Louis is a traditional soccer hotbed on a similar scale to Chicago
It's not hard to find a St Louisan in MLS - and St. Louis Scott Gallagher Football Club has developed many of them. The club, which will run the St. Louis USL Pro team as its top division, was formed in 2007 by a merger of the three top youth teams in the talent-rich St. Louis market.
The names on an alumni slideshow give some indication the club will produce MLS-quality talent. Go ahead and check out the names: Taylor Twellman. Vedad Ibesevic. Tim Ream. Brad Davis. Chris Klein. Pat Noonan. Matt Pickens. Will Bruin. Steve Ralston. Jack Jewsbury. Even former CF97 stalwart Mike Banner is a product of this talent factory.
Now, granted, Chicago can put up a similar list of players from the area. Point is, St. Louis is likely to feel hard done by this arrangement sooner, rather than later.
Whose youngsters get preference?
The previous point informs this one - if St. Louis produces so much talent, how can the Fire be certain their loanees will get minutes? How will St. Louis USL Pro handle it when CF97 sends down a striker for seasoning, the way they did Guiseppe Gentile to Charlotte this year, and the next Taylor Twellman is a 17-year-old phenom coming up through SLSG? Who gets the playing time?
Or is this a massive increase in CF97 recruiting footprint?
Final thought: Is there any reciprocity here? If St. Louis is a huge talent pool - something that I'm sure we could debate, but a proposition for which there is at least decent evidence - then will the Fire get dibs on the players coming up through St. Louis, too? Certainly there's no agreement in place; MLS' player-acquisition rules wouldn't allow the Fire to cherry-pick players. But in working together for player development over the years, and building relationships across coaching staffs, could this be a stealth enlargement of the Fire's talent-search catch-basin?
So many questions, so few answers at this point. Stay tuned.