One of the trendy topics in Major League Soccer is the evolution of the United Soccer League as a development league.
MLS teams are creating their own USL clubs to provide another link in the development chain from the academy to MLS. Currently, 12 MLS teams run a USL club. It allows younger pro players to get more playing time than they would sitting on the bench of an MLS team and academy players to gain some pro experience.
The Fire are currently affiliated with Saint Louis FC in the USL. The affiliation means the Fire can send players to the USL team to get playing time and experience, but there is a limit on how many and the Fire have no control over how the players are used.
Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez is not convinced that owning a USL team as opposed to affiliating with one, like the Fire have done with Saint Louis FC, is the way to go.
“I’m still not on board,” Rodriguez said to reporters at Toyota Park on Thursday as part of an hour-long Q&A session. “The USL is a good environment. I still don’t believe it’s a better environment than our first team. Games and minutes do matter, especially for our first team players.”
This season rookies Drew Conner and Alex Morrell and second-year pros Patrick Doody and Collin Fernandez have gone on loan to St. Louis. Eric Gehrig also went there on his way back from injury like a Major League Baseball team would send a recovering player on a rehab stint to a minor league club.
Rodriguez said the relationship with St. Louis has been good, although he did admit that the Fire were surprised when Fernandez did not play for St. Louis on Aug. 27.
“Drew Conner got really good minutes and important minutes and forced us to bring him back,” Rodriguez said. “With Alex and Patrick Doody, it’s been injuries.”
As Rodriguez conceded when he bemoaned that Fernandez didn’t appear in that one match, St. Louis isn’t directly obligated to play the Fire’s players and the Fire have no control over tactical styles or how their are used. Owning their own USL team would correct that and most of MLS has gone this way.
“I don’t know if having our own USL team would have changed the trajectory of any of those guys,” Rodriguez said. “I think that one moment of disagreement that we have with St. Louis doesn’t discount all of the good work that St. Louis has done for us and with us. I’m still not convinced that there’s enough guys to merit having our own USL team.”
Rodriguez described some of the Fire’s young players that have seen regular MLS minutes, like Jonathan Campbell and Rodrigo Ramos, as tired from playing their first long professional seasons. That’s part of the reason why Ramos hasn’t played in the past four MLS matches.
Even though the Fire are on the outside looking in for a playoff spot and only nine matches remain, don’t expect young players to be given minutes just for the sake of it in the near future.
“We don’t play guys because they’re young,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t play guys because they have an option. We play guys that we think give us the best chance to win. This is not kiddie soccer. We get fired if we don’t get results. It’s that simple. We will play the guys that we think will help us win games and should it come to a point where we’re mathematically eliminated we still have an obligation and an integrity of the game to put forth what we think gives us the best chance to win.
“If those young guys are expecting a gift of playing time, they’re mistaken. They have to earn it in training.”