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A Look Down I-55: Year 2 of the CF97-STLFC Affiliation

While #CF97 take the weekend off, their USL affiliate is ready to kick off their own season.

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Obligatory #BestFansinSoccer
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

(This is part two of the Hot Times Old Town look at Saint Louis FC ahead of their season-opener today against Real Monarchs. This piece will take a look at the continued partnership between STLFC and the Chicago Fire. For an overall preview of the USL side, please see Matthew Bird’s piece here)

The best way to develop young talent has been a popular discussion for years among MLS faithfuls.

In recent years, fans and clubs alike have begun to develop their own clubs. While the names of sides like Toronto FC II and Seattle Sounders II are groan-worthy, they have been determined as the best way to provide young, promising talent a chance for regular starts under the watchful eye of the club’s higher ups.

The Chicago Fire have chosen the other route for talent development, as they will once again look down I-55 to find a partner in Saint Louis FC. Just a day before STLFC’s season opener, the Fire announced Friday they have loaned Patrick Doody and Drew Connor to the USL side.

The loans kick off the second year of the affiliation between the two sides, who announced a one-year partnership renewal in January.

The previous administration used the brand-new affiliation as one does when they receive something new but have not been given any instruction: as a curiosity they had fun using, albeit not to their full advantage.

Only three players were loaned to St. Louis last year for any significant amount of time. Of the three, Patrick Doody is the only one still with the Fire organization.

The 2015 development of Doody provides a blueprint on just how valuable a loanee system can be. The talented left back started 18 of his 21 appearances with the club and tied for the team lead with four assists, developing himself into fierce distributor who could lay a smooth pass by defenders and right to his teammates. His development was noticed by the higher-ups, as Doody started six matches later in the year for the Fire, and notching his first career assist.

Alec Kann also made an impressive showing in St. Louis, finishing third in the league in save percentage, but the Fire declined his option and he was drafted by Sporting Kansas City in the MLS re-entry draft.

If Doody was the best-case scenario, then Kingston Byrce and Colin Fernandez were the less feel-good stories for the loanee system. Bryce, the 28th overall pick in the 2015 SuperDraft, was loaned out to St. Louis early last year, but found himself only making 10 appearances, and eight starts the entire season. The 22-year-old winger scored two goals and had one assist, but generally got lost in the shuffle and was unceremoniously released by the Fire on March 2.

Fernandez never actually made an appearance for STLFC last season. Instead, the talented midfielder was loaned out to the OTHER USL club based in a city named after a French king, Louisville FC. Yallop said at the time that Fernandez would get more playing time at Louisville, which seems to negate the purpose of even having a developmental team.

And therein lies one potential issue, as STLFC head coach Dale Schilly has made clear the goal of the team is to win games, not to focus solely on developing Fire loanees. Not a terribly shocking admission, but it's one to keep an eye on for strictly Fire fans. It was never an issue last season, but what happens if a Fire loanee does not fit into the game plan, do they sit on the bench and not get valuable playing time?

That should not be an issue for Doody, who became a fan favorite for the club during last year’s tenure. The concern for him comes with a possible feeling of frustration or even resentment as he returns to a league he dominated for a time. With the younger Brandon Vincent seemingly the preferred left back for Veljko Paunovic’s, it’s unsure just what Doody’s future holds for the club.

As for Connor, it’s a good move for the homegrown midfielder to establish himself to the Fire’s front office, as the former Wisconsin Badger did not seem to have much of a role in Pauno’s current scheme.

With the Fire’s roster as thin as it is, we’re not totally sure just how many more players they will sending down to the Lou, but it would not be a shock to see Joey Calistri make the trip down in the coming weeks.

In three matches for the Fire, the 22-year-old attacker has been a late-minute substitution of little importance, having played only 16 minutes over that span. He showed some flashes in the preseason of the creative attacker that made him an All-Big Ten player during his time at Northwestern, but the speed of the game seemed to sometimes overwhelm him and he went through bouts of invisibility against MLS sides like Vancouver.

Say what you want about the previous regime (and this blog has said much) but both sides continuously praised the relationship between the two coaching staffs, as STLFC coaching staff reportedly spent significant time in Chicago with Yallop going over schemes, and vice versa. Nelson Rodriguez said when the affiliation renewal was made official that the relationship between the two sides should continue to be strong, and it would benefit both sides for Pauno to communicate with STLFC about his hopes and expectations for what to be done with loaned players.

It’s hard to tell how much longer the affiliation between the two sides will last, especially with MLS Commissioner salivating at the chance to add a club in St. Louis. For now though, it’s time to sit back and watch some talented young players get a chance to shine and excite Fire fans about the future.