As everyone knows by now, D.C. United and the Richmond Kickers announced that they will be entering into an affiliate agreement for the 2013 USL Pro season, which means that at least four D.C. United players will be with the Kickers at any given time. Because of that announcement, your Richmond based correspondent (and Richmond Kickers fan) decided to head over to the Kickers' offices and speak with Head Coach and Director of Soccer Leigh Cowlishaw.
The first question was how this system is better than the current Reserve League that is run by MLS. Cowlishaw's response was that the advantage that this arrangement has is that the players will be playing in "meaningful games, competitive games on a team that is trying to win week in and week out." There is a goal for which these players are striving, which is the USL Pro Playoffs and the USL Pro Championship, rather than the easily rescheduled and cancelled Reserve League games.
Obviously, the development of the players loaned is a very large part of the agreement. D.C. United will have members of their technical staff attend games and training sessions throughout the season so that they can monitor the progress and development of their players. In addition, Cowlishaw said that he is very familiar with D.C. United's style of play, having coached a number of D.C. United loanees over the past 12 years, and that he tries to have his teams play a similar possession based, attacking style of soccer.
D.C. United is required to have four players one long term loan to the Richmond Kickers at any one time, but Cowlishaw said that he would "assume that there would be opportunities for additional players to get games," in the same way that Ethan White and Long Tan were on a number of one-game loans to the Kickers this past season. For example, Taylor Kemp could be loaned down to the Kickers and get some experience while still easily able to appear for United the next week.
While the Richmond Kickers will have discussions positionally about the four required players that will be loaned to them, the final decision rests "100 percent" with D.C. United. Cowlishaw said that the Kickers currently have about half of a team under contract, and will probably end up signing a few more players outside of the arrangement with D.C. United. However, they will also balance that with fitting in the players that D.C. United will loan to them.
One rumored aspect that Cowlishaw does not believe will happen is the ability of D.C. United to call up players under contract with the Richmond Kickers midseason, like an MLB team would be able to do from its minor league teams. The Richmond Kickers players will obviously be observed far more closely by the D.C. United technical staff, giving them the opportunity to sign players from the Kickers and then continue to develop them; players like Dwayne De Rosario and Osvaldo Alonso, who began their careers in USL, would be snatched up much more quickly by D.C. United (or other affiliated teams). However, direct callups seem unlikely at this point.
Another thing that should ease the fears of United fans is that Cowlishaw, as Director of Soccer, oversees the Richmond Kickers Academy, one of the 80 academies in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy system. The only other USL Pro team to have its own academy is Orlando City SC. Starting with this season, the Richmond Kickers Academy will be free of cost to all male participants, something that D.C. United has not done yet. They also hope to make their girls academy free of cost soon as well. (If you missed it, now might be a good time to review my article about the development academy system in general and the Richmond Kickers academy specifically.) Cowlishaw said that he has had a number of his academy players train with the professional team and that he hopes to soon sign a player to the first team directly from the academy. Even without the help of the D.C. United technical staff, which he will have, Cowlishaw knows how to develop players.
Speaking of academy players, Cowlishaw also said that he expects that players from both the D.C. United Academy and the Richmond Kickers Academy will be able to train with and perhaps play in games for the Richmond Kickers this season, even if they are not yet signed to a professional contract. This is something that is currently allowed by the MLS Reserve League and has allowed us to see such players and Cristian Najar, Denis Najar, Collin Martin, and Paddy Foss. For those of you who are impressed by badges, the Richmond Kickers' technical director, assistant coach, and academy coach Ihor Dotsenko has his USSF A License, his USSF Youth License, and his UEFA A License.
One item that has not been a large part of the discussions between MLS and USL Pro so far is the marketing and promotion aspect of it. When I asked Cowlishaw about whether D.C. United would help to promote the Kickers regionally, he said that the discussions so far have focused on the player development and the reserve league aspects.
Finally, as Adam alluded, most of the USL Pro games are streamed online at no cost through uslnation.com. This includes not only USL Pro, but the Major Indoor Soccer League and the W-League as well. Unfortunately, the Richmond Kickers were one of three times last year who did not have the capability to stream games from their home stadiums. The Kickers currently play at City Stadium, which is located on a triangle of land between I-195 and the Powhite Parkway and which currently does not have any wired connections that would allow video streaming; the failure of the internet that they do have led to the infamous Legend of Bodkin last season. However, Kickers General Manager Shelley Sowers told me that they are actively working to try and get video streaming for home matches for the 2013 season. Regardless, you will at least be able to watch most of the Kickers away games free of charge through USL Live.