Shortly after Major League Soccer revealed an innovative plan to integrate its moribund reserve league with the third-tier USL Pro division, Sporting Kansas City became the first team to find an affiliate: Orlando City SC.
The Kansas City Star
You should be slightly familiar with Orlando, as they came to Sporting Park last year for in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup last year. It was a very tight game, with KC squeaking out a 3-2 win. Also, Lawrence Olum used to play there. Also, KC will be participating for the second year in a row in the Disney Pro Soccer Classic -- hosted by Orlando City -- in February. Also: Success!
The partnership will start this year. It will feature KC players going on loan to Orlando. It will also feature coaching sessions, scouting programs and off-the-field partnerships that I imagine will involve Sporting Innovations. You can read all of the details of the KC-Orlando situation here. But the two biggest bullet points to take away from this:
• Kansas City wasted no time grabbing an affiliation with the best team in USL Pro;
• The partnership is a win-win situation -- for both teams.
This strikes me as a very ideal match for both squads -- on the field and off. As my fellow podcast host for Kick The Ball (shameless plug, listen to it here) Zachary Cobb alluded to Orlando crawling all over KC to share some of Sporting's "secret sauce"* as they plot a move to join MLS eventually. (Read more here and here.)
*Also, if Zach or Sporting Innovations don't start using "Sporting's secret sauce," I will. Fair warning.
The way that the MLS reserve league was structured wasn't a long-term solution to player development. Playing only 10 games -- often against guest trialists and academy players -- isn't going to turn a youngster (like, say, Kevin Ellis) into an MLS-ready player. Playing competitive games against similar (and similarly invested) teams is the way to go.
For Sporting Kansas City, this deal means more meaningful playing time for its youngsters and the players on the bottom of its roster. The agreement requires KC to send a minimum of four players to Orlando "for development throughout the USL Pro regular season."
The benefit for Orlando City is that they get to add a minimum of four players -- that they might not have to pay for -- to their already pretty decent roster. Orlando City was kinda good last year, winning the Commissioner's Cup (best regular season record) but falling short in the playoffs (sound familiar?). They won the Commissioner's Cup and the USL Pro Championship in 2011.
Kansas City haven't revealed the players headed to Orlando City yet -- that's expected to come in February. But there are plenty of candidates on KC's roster who could add to Orlando's USL campaign.
According to Vermes: "We'll probably give them a pool of players. From that group, they might keep four or five guys, depending on what their needs are. I don't want to make it a one-way partnership here. It's not a dictatorship. There's a lot of things that will go into those decisions, though, and hopefully it will based on the best interests of both teams."
Who could be in that pool of players? Well, I'd be shocked if either Soony Saad or Dom Dwyer (I don't think it will be both, Orlando have some good forwards already) aren't one of the four selected. With Claudio Bieler, C.J. Sapong and Teal Bunbury fighting for minutes, one of them will get squeezed out. Both still need time to find the speed of the game and the requirements of the position.
Also in the mix: First-round draft pick Mikey Lopez, and defenders Kyle Miller and Kevin Ellis. It could also be a place to stash Supplemental draft pick Christian Duke, provided he signs a contract with KC.
I won't pretend to know everything there is to know about Orlando City's roster*, but goalkeeper doesn't seem to be a big need for Orlando. The current No. 1 is team captain Miguel Gallardo. So, I wouldn't think Jon Kempin would get a lot of starts if he should end up in that pool.
*Among the other notable Orlando City players: Anthony Pulis (son of Stoke City coach Tony), Kevin Molino (who scored against KC in the Open Cup) and USL Pro leading scorer Dennis Chin (he had 11).
I have questions, of course. One has been answered already: Kansas City can recall players from the loan and Vermes has promised to replace the recalled player.
Others: Will the players sent to Orlando count against the salary cap for Kansas City? What is the long-term plan for MLS? Does the league want each team to establish a "farm" system in the USL Pro? Is it better for a handful of players to get more competitive experience or for a whole group to play together under the guidance of the coaching staff? Will SKC Academy players still get a chance to face professional competition like a hand full have the last two years? Will Kansas City be able to utilize Orlando as a way of rehabbing injured or out-of-form players? What happens if Orlando City becomes an MLS team sooner rather than later?
But those can all be answered in good time. For now, Kansas City and Orlando are tied together for two years. And this move fits in with Kansas City's strong off-season.
New kit sponsor? Check. MLS All-Star Game? Check. Bevy of new attacking players to, hopefully, take the team over the top? Check. Scrubbing the Livestrong stink off the team/stadium? Well, it's complicated, but sure, check.
Now, affiliation with one of the smartest and most successful teams in the lower tiers of American soccer? Check.