As Major League Soccer adjusts its development strategy to take advantage of its nascent partnership with USL PRO, the Houston Dynamo are working to identify how they will approach developing their talent in the future.
According to club president Chris Canetti, the final decision and announcement will come in the offseason, but the club is working toward striking an affiliate agreement with a current USL PRO club to provide minutes and game time for players that are not getting it in Houston.
“At this point, we’re ultimately leaning in the direction of going with an affiliate,” Canetti said. “We believe at this point that's the most effective and efficient way of going about it rather than having our own USL PRO franchise at this point.”
Houston will follow in the footsteps of the four clubs -- D.C. United, Sporting Kansas City, the New England Revolution and the Philadelphia Union -- who used the system this year with varying degrees of success. Under the agreement, clubs must loan at least four players to their affiliate club, although they do retain the ability to recall the players at any time.
Fielding a USL PRO affiliate replaces an MLS club's reserve team. The decision to strike an affiliate agreement meets one of the options that MLS laid out to clubs as part of the partnership: striking an affiliate agreement or creating a USL PRO side that would compete full-time in the third division.
After considering both options, Canetti said the feasibility of operating another club is too much for the Dynamo to take on now, but it is not out of the question beyond 2014.
“Quite frankly, it’s economics," Canetti said. "When you have your own team, you’re wholly responsible for the franchise. I’m not sure, with the stage we’re at as a club, that’s a burden we need to take on. Down the road, having our own USL PRO franchise continues to be an option. In the short-term, 2014, an affiliate is the way we’re leaning. Continuing to determine whether starting our own franchise is viable will continue to take place.”
One of the details still to be hammered out is with which club the Dynamo will affiliate. Canetti declined to comment on specific clubs were under consideration.
Three of the other four partnerships have had close geographical ties, with the Kansas City-Orlando City agreement the lone exception. There are no USL PRO teams currently in Texas, but an Oklahoma City club is set to enter the league in 2014. The Premier Development League's Austin Aztex, coached by former Houston forward Paul Dalglish, do anticipate returning to the professional ranks, according to multiple media interviews with owner David Markley this season, but no timetable for a move has been publicized. When the Aztex were a professional team in the USL from 2009-10, the Dynamo loaned several players there, though rarely on a season-long basis.
Houston has also loaned players to the San Antonio Scorpions and Tampa Bay Rowdies in the North American Soccer League, but its most notable success story came this year in midfielder Brian Ownby's loan to the Richmond Kickers, despite the club's affiliation with D.C. United. Ownby (pictured above) produced seven goals and six assists in helping the Kickers to the regular-season USL PRO title, and he added three goals in seven Reserve League games for the Dynamo, gaining necessary experience in a season that has seen him limited to just three MLS appearances.
What the Dynamo will look for in a USL PRO affiliate, Canetti said, is a partner club that shares a similar philosophy and can get the Dynamo's young players what they need most: time on the pitch.
“You prefer to do what Kansas City did and send all your players to one place, where there’s one philosophical approach and they share ideals,” Canetti said. “That’s the perfect world in the affiliated model, and that’s something we’ll go out and try and find.”
Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com.