The USL Premier Development League has existed since 1995 as the highest amateur soccer level in the United States. The name was changed and tweaked early on but by the time the Chicago Fire entered a team into the league in 2001, it was referred to as what it is referred to today: PDL. Chicago became the first Major League Soccer team to have a PDL team thanks to support from former Fire President & General Manager Peter Wilt and the direction of current Fire Player Development Director & Consultant John Dorn.
Chicago Fire PDL gave a chance for local amateurs to play in a structured league. It also provided college kids a team to play for over the summer while maintaining their NCAA eligibility. NCAA rules forbid their players from playing alongside paid professionals. That means teams like the Richmond Kickers and the Rochester Rhinos are off-limits but PDL teams are a sweet spot of good competition and the ability to continue college play. Midwest based college players have flocked to Chicago in the last decade thanks to this setup. Having alumni like Jay DeMerit, Ricardo Clark, Brad Guzan, Teal Bunbury, Drew Moor, Dasan Robinson, Matt Pickens, Brad Ring, Chris Rolfe, Jonathan Spector, Michael Stephens, and Tim Ream would make any organization feel proud and that's not even close to a full list of professionals that have played for the Chicago Fire PDL team at one time.
Critics of the Fire PDL team are quick to point out that for the team's success it hasn't done the Fire MLS team any good. Chicago is ironically one of the few teams in MLS without a former Chicago Fire PDL player on their roster. The team doesn't operate like a Major League Baseball Triple-A team where you can call up the talent to the big league team. Some say it's foolish for the Fire to spend money, time, and other resources on this side project. Even when MLS introduced the Home Grown Player rule in 2006 encouraging teams to sign locally based top prospects, players who only had PDL ties to a club where excluded from being signed under the new rule. With this deep history and one big caveat associated with the Fire PDL team firmly in place, you can imagine the level of my intrigue when I saw a report that the Portland Timbers will sign PDL player Brent Richards as a Home Grown Player this week. More on this after the break.
The report comes from Goal WA.net, a website that reports on soccer across all levels in the state of Washington. Content editor David Falk was doing a season round-up with University of Washington men's soccer head coach Jamie Clark when Clark gave updates on the professional prospects for his seniors. On the face of it, Richards shouldn't qualify as a Home Grown Player at all. MLS Rules state:
All players must reside in a team's "Home Territory" for at least one year prior to being added to the team's Home Grown Player List. Players must be added to an MLS team's Home Grown Player List prior to entering a four-year college, but can maintain their Home Grown Player status during college if registered before entering that institution. Members of the U17, U20, and U23 U.S. National Teams cannot be added to an MLS team's Home Grown Player List, but a player already on a Home Grown Player List can maintain that status if selected for a U.S. National team at a later date. A player has trained for at least one year in the club's youth development program and has met League critea
Richards seemingly is in violation of Rules 1 and 2 here. For the past four years, Richards has been attending school at the University of Washington. He may go back to Camas, WA (15 miles as a bird flies from Portland, OR) for breaks but for most of the year he has been living outside Portland's 'Home Territory'. The University of Washington is located in Seattle, about 180 miles away. There's also another MLS team that can claim Seattle as 'Home Territory' before Portland last time I checked. As for Rule 2, Richards entered the University of Washington in 2008. The Timbers were not even announced as a MLS team until March of 2009 let alone when the team officially started operations as a MLS club. So what's going on here?
The first possibility is Jamie Clark doesn't know he is talking about or David Falk got his facts wrong. That would make a great deal of sense. This after all a report that the Timbers are trying to sign him, not an actual announcement. However, Richards is not on a list of 52 players invited to participate in the upcoming MLS Combine despite the fact that most people think he will go somewhere between No. 20 and No. 30 in the draft. Timbers Owner and President Merritt Paulson declined to substantiate anything but did say that Richards has connections beyond PDL and 'fully qualifies'.
If Paulson confirms Richards fully qualifies as a Home Grown Player, at this point it's irrelevant if Portland wants to sign him. The fact he is even eligible is issue enough. There have other questionable Home Grown signings just this year. Jose Villarreal signed with the LA Galaxy two weeks ago despite not having been with the Galaxy's academy for a full year. The Chicago Fire had to delay the official signing of Home Grown Player Kellen Gulley to accommodate the rule that a player must reside in a team's home territory for a year before signing. In those cases the blankets might have been stretched to cover the rules but there's no fabric to even work with in Richards' case. Are the rules about to change then?
In a December 3rd article, Soccer by Ives threw out a paragraph that didn't seem like a big deal at the time.
A quick about Homegrown Player tags. Major League Soccer rejected several Homegrown Player claims and is preparing to reveal revamped rules and regulations on the process to label Homegrown Players. Basically, you had several teams throwing up very questionable claims on college players who had some loose affiliations with their academy/PDL programs. Some claims were stronger than others, but ultimately there were a handful of claims rejected on some of the top players in this draft class.
It appeared as if progress was going to be made. Some of the claims on players are a bit absurd (the Fire aren't innocent here). It would be a positive change if the murky world of Home Grown signings was finally going to be sorted out. Home Grown Player and other Roster Rule changes for the 2011 season were announced on January 28 of last year. It wouldn't be surprising if MLS announced yet another round of changes in late January 2012. Perhaps the signing of Richards will even coincide with the release of the new rules.
There's also the chance that Paulson is misinformed. There's a chance that the rest of the owners don't care if the Timbers want to sign someone who is projected to go in the second round of the draft. A player like Richards might not get offered a contract by other MLS teams.
As far as I'm concerned though, the Timbers can have Richards based only on a PDL claim. Nothing would be better for the fans in Chicago Fire Country. Chicago can go in and sign projected first round picks like Tyler Polak, Calum Mallace, Chris Estridge, Austin Berry, and Kirk Urso, Next year the players could be even better. There's no PDL organization as strong as the Fire's. I can't imagine the rest of the league is okay with PDL experience counting in Home Grown Player claims for the very advantage it would give Chicago.
1/4 of the players that were invited to the MLS Draft Combine have played for the Fire's PDL team. Over 75 Fire PDL players have been taken in the MLS SuperDraft or MLS Supplemental Draft in the last 10 years (the next top PDL team has half that number). The Fire could make their Home Grown Player signings and then trade all their draft picks because there wouldn't be any more room on the roster for any other players and they would have signed someone projected to go at all of their various picks anyway. Home Grown Players don't count against the salary cap so the benefits would extend to international signings as well. I can't imagine MLS Home Grown Player rules are headed in the PDL direction but if they are, the pressure will be on the Chicago Fire's front office to start locking up the talent the kind of talent they have been developing for over a decade. Sign Brent Richards sign.