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MLS, USL put players' interests first
Gabe Latigue and Tyler Polak floated between the two locker rooms in the wake of New England's 5-1 victory at Rochester in the third round of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup on Tuesday night.
It neatly represented their situation on this rainy evening in central New York: they found themselves suspended between the two teams, caught in a set of circumstances no one in either locker room could have anticipated prior to the season.
The two developing players joined Rochester on loan from New England at the start of the USL Pro season. Polak featured for Rhinos as a substitute in a 0-0 league draw at Charleston on Saturday. New England recalled them to play against Rhinos in the Open Cup on Monday. They linked up with their Revolution teammates ahead of the Open Cup tie and played with their parent club – Latigue from the start, Polak off the bench – on Tuesday night. They then returned to the Rhinos once it concluded.
“It's definitely strange, practicing with the guys the day before, knowing all of the guys, and then knowing you have two games coming up at the weekend (with the Rhinos),” Polak said. “It was definitely strange, but we need to prove ourselves at the club we're at and with the New England Revolution. I think we did that tonight.”
The peculiar scenario cropped up due to the vagaries of the Open Cup draw and the recent arrangement struck between Major League Soccer and USL to provide younger players with an opportunity to obtain regular match practice. The two leagues announced a multi-year agreement in January to establish interleague play between MLS reserve teams versus USL Pro outfits and permit MLS teams to strike exclusive partnership agreements with USL Pro affiliates in lieu of fielding a team in the reserve league.
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Most of the teams decided to stick with the usual reserve setup, but four MLS clubs – DC United (Richmond), New England (Rochester), Philadelphia (Harrisburg) and Sporting Kansas City (Orlando City) – opted for the second route. They agreed to send a minimum of four players to their affiliates, though every team possesses the right to recall players at any time.
The decision represented a value judgment of sorts made by every MLS club: the choice between complete control over a wider swath of players (including Academy charges) for 14 reserve league matches and regular training sessions with the first team or a more concentrated and distant experience for fewer reserves.
“The reality of it is that it makes for a much more competitive environment within (our squad),” Revolution general manager Michael Burns said about his club's decision to select the latter option. “We have guys fighting for first-team minutes, being in the 18, being in the travel party, going on loan, fighting for spots in New England. We think it created a more competitive environment from player one to player 30.”
It certainly makes for a more competitive experience for the players shipped out on loan. Instead of languishing on the roster without regular match practice and waiting patiently to move into the first-team picture, these players fight and scrap against other professionals for playing time every weekend in a physically demanding league requiring focus and perseverance.
The situation, at least in some circumstances, can also pave the way back to the first team. A handful of players – including Revolution defender Bilal Duckett (a recent callup during a fullback shortage) and United forward Casey Townsend (summoned to bolster Ben Olsen's choice up front) – have returned to their parent clubs to contribute already. Others – like USL Pro leading scorer Dom Dwyer (Sporting Kansas City) – continue to press their claims for a recall with their performances.
“Right away, it works with Bilal,” Revolution coach Jay Heaps said. “It showed three weeks ago against Portland. That was an important opportunity that Bilal got. The only reason why he was able to play the way he did for 90 minutes was because he was getting games here. We're seeing our younger guys get minutes and important minutes. It's not easy right with where (Rochester is) in terms of the standings right now, but it's a learning process. I think the players are learning a lot right now.”
The true results of this experiment will come in the months and years ahead as clubs adjust to the structures and players grapple with the demands placed upon them. Oddities will crop up along the way as the parties work their way through the process, but the overall goal of the project – cultivating players capable of playing regularly in MLS – remains the same.
“Being young and being in (MLS), you may not necessarily see the field as much,” Latigue said. “To be here and be able to get playing time, it builds your confidence. I continue to improve every day. When you're called for games like this, you are prepared.”
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