Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Two Sides of the USL

US soccer is a weird place. There's Major League Soccer (MLS), USL and its varying levels (USL Championship, USL League One, USL League Two, and the USL Academy), National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), National Premier Soccer League (NPSL)... In fact, go check out this 2018 article from the guys over at Soc Takes giving a very good breakdown of the leagues in the United States. That doesn't even get into the numerous amateur and semi-pro leagues and indoor leagues around the country. So there's a lot of soccer in this country.

Which isn't the weird part.

Monday, Jeff Rueter tweeted that Atlanta United "is working on a deal to send Andrew Carleton on loan to [Indy Eleven] of the USL Championship...[that] would run for the full 2020 season."

Which still isn't the weird part. Alex Crognale started the 2019 USL Championship season with Indy Eleven on loan from Columbus Crew before injuries forced the Crew to recall Crognale for the rest of the season after 8 games with Indy. USL Championship's current preseason "Transfer Tracker" is littered with guys moving from MLS teams to USL Championship teams (Alex Crognale now going to play for Birmingham Legion) and USL League One teams to USL Championship teams (Indy have signed Nick Moon from Lansing Ignite and Conner Antley from Tormenta FC and notably potential announcement of Brian Sylvestre from Forward Madison FC to Miami FC) and USL Championship teams down to USL League One teams (former Indy Eleven forward Wojciech Wojcik from Hartford Athletic to Forward Madison FC) and that's just the tip of the iceberg as examples that Indy fans know about.

Here's a weird part.

Andrew Carleton was signed to a Homegrown Contract by Atlanta United just a few days before he turned 16 years old. Atlanta United has a 2nd division team in the Atlanta United 2. The Atlanta United 2 play in the USL Championship as Eastern Conference opponents of the Indy Eleven. So Atlanta United (who has the contract with Carleton) is potentially loaning their first ever Homegrown Contract player to a direct opponent, and potential conference front-runner, in Indy Eleven.

While you think about that, here's the weirdest part for me.

The two proceeding days before the rumors started swirling around that Andrew Carleton may be playing in Indianapolis, the Indy Eleven held open tryouts. That's right, Indy rented a facility and had players of varying levels and experience pay $175 to demonstrate their abilities in front of the Indy Eleven coaching staff and Indy aren't the only USL team to go this route to locate players. Last December, Louisville City FC, the team that has been in the past 3 USL league championship games and won two of them, held their own open tryout.

The USL Championship teams are in an odd position where they have the ability to sign well-known players, competing on their nation's national teams, yet they also feel like they can (or have to) hold open tryouts to help turn over every rock for players. While Indy's open tryout last year produced a player in Alioune Diakhate and he managed to play significant early season minutes and even score a goal, his signing is an anomaly and not typical.

Yet despite the unlikely probability of finding a "diamond in the rough" through this process, Indy Eleven, Louisville City FC, and other teams like them in the country's second-tier level of the "pyramid" continue to utilize the open tryout format to try and fill out their roster with low cost players. That's part of why I usually see open tryouts as a money grab by the teams. A way to make $15 - $20,000 in registration fees (at least in Indy's case this year for that dollar amount).

This year's Indy Eleven open tryout, again held the two days proceeding the Andrew Carleton rumor release, had more than 100 players (update: per club sources, the official numbers were 136 players, up from 110 last year) looking to make an impression on not just the Indy Eleven staff, but also the staffs of Fort Wayne FC from NPSL, Detroit City FC from NISA, and South Bend Lions FC and Mississippi Brilla FC from USL League Two. Indy's open tryout gave players with far less known names than Andrew Carleton the opportunity to showcase their abilities to 5 different teams.
Update: Mr. Kremers indicated that "The average age of the tryout was around 22-24. A lot of these players have, at most, semi-professional experience in the way of NPSL/USL League Two/UPSL/Etc. The rest were from the collegiate playing ranks while a small few had foreign professional playing experience." They had players "coming in from both coasts, California, Florida, North Carolina.  Some did come from other countries, but not just for the tryout."

There may be a bit of a money grab by Indy Eleven, but this type of arrangement with regional teams (more on that in a minute) gave players multiple chances to impress a coaching staff and not just a single coaching staff. Where the Indy Eleven may be looking for very specific types of players to fill out their roster depth and may pass on a player as a result, there were four other teams who may have that exact type of player in mind. Indy Eleven's Director of Youth Development/Club Liaison, Josh Kremers, stated that "as far as I can tell, all of the players left satisfied that they were given their fair shake," with Senior Director of Communications & Marketing, John Koluder, adding "from all accounts it was a success from a numbers and quality standpoint."

At the time of this article, the team was hesitant to say whether any of the players would be joining the Indy Eleven staff either as full-time additions to the roster or as preseason trialists. However, Mr. Kremers stated that "I have already been notified that players have been offered positions on a couple of teams, as well as a great deal of interest in many other players." Mr. Koluder further stated that "there was no 'first dibs' arrangement regarding tryout participants. All were free to be approached by coaches as they saw fit." While there was no sharing of the registration fees between the five teams "as every aspect of the tryouts was prepared and performed by our [Indy Eleven] staff," players basically had an open tryout with five different teams, it just took place on two days in one location.

For fledgling clubs like Fort Wayne FC and South Bend Lions FC and a club like Detroit City FC who is moving from an amateur squad to a professional one, the ability to participate in an event organized by Indy Eleven is an invaluable opportunity to evaluate more players than may have attended their own open tryouts (DCFC have their own open tryout January 25th and Fort Wayne FC have one on March 2nd). You may have forgotten, or never knew, that Mississippi Brilla FC (Indy Eleven's U.S. Open Cup opponent in 2018) is coached by Luke Sanford, who is also the head coach for the Indiana Wesleyan University men's soccer team, where Josh Kremers has been an assistant for 4 years. Indy Eleven's tagline of "The World's Game, Indiana's Team" may have been reduced a bit with the addition of these other teams, but Indy is still showing a desire to help grow the game within the state with all of these regional connections (don't forget that DCFC is coached by former Indy Eleven assistant Trevor James).

So, yeah. U.S. soccer is weird.

Where else can you have a second-tier team organize an open tryout for players and invite four other teams that have regional or direct connections to the team, while also finding themselves in rumor discussions for a player that has been in the national team system and was signed by the first-tier affiliate of their second-tier conference opponent?

The two sides of being in the USL.