During last month's MLS Super Draft, there were a few new folks sitting with New York City sporting director Claudio Reyna and head coach Jason Kreis. As it turned out, it was Wilmington Hammerheads head coach Carson Porter and his staff; the day after the draft, New York City announced that Wilmington would be their USL Pro affiliate in this upcoming season.
Most people consider the partnership between MLS and USL Pro to be beneficial for both leagues. For MLS, younger, less experienced players get precious playing time; USL Pro teams get the benefit of having those players while their salaries are paid by MLS.
For Wilmington, the relationship is already paying off. 26-year-old midfielder Corben Bone participated in preseason training with New York City while they trained last week in Jacksonville, Fla. Bone, who played briefly with the Hammerheads last year, signed with Wilmington last month; Porter hinted that Bone's presence in New York City's training camp might be a trial of sorts.
"Corben is a guy that Jason Kreis has liked for some time," said Porter. "It was a chance for them to get a look at him, as well as a chance for Corben to sharpen his game before he joins us in March."The Chicago Fire picked Bone with the 13th overall pick in the 2010 Super Draft. In four seasons with the Fire, Bone made only 18 appearances; the team declined to pick up his option. Philadephia took a chance on him, but things went from bad to worse: he only played twice last year. In his second game, Bone received a straight red for a bad tackle a minute after entering the game.
Enter Wilmington. The Union sent him there on loan last August, and Bone blossomed there, scoring two goals in nine appearances, and generally impressing the team with his play. In a short interview with game footage from August, Bone emphasized his creative linking midfield play and what he sees as his role in the team:
The Hammerheads' roster is full of stories like Bone's. 31-year-old midfielder Justin Moose spent 2006 with DC United as a first-round draftee. From there, Moose literally traveled around the world. He spent a couple of seasons with the USL version of the Vancouver Whitecaps. Then Moore crossed the Pacific, and played with Thailand's Sriracha FC in 2011. Moose then decided to trade spice for snow, moving to Finland, leading Seinäjoen Jalkapallokerho - better known as SJK, OK? - from the second division to the first. Having done that, he's returned to the States in considerably more time than 80 days.
Then there's striker Tsotleho "Sunny" Jane. Jane, who hails from the African kingdom of Lesotho, moved to the U.S. at 13 to pursue a professional soccer career. He played soccer at Maryland for four years. His play for the Terrapins - including appearances in every match during the 2012 and 2013 seasons, and eight goals and 19 assists in four seasons - led to Jane being considered the No. 10-rated recruit in the nation. He was one of only two Basotho players in the entire country.
Despite his high rating by MLS watchers, Jane went undrafted in last year's draft. That didn't deter him; far from it. Jane decided to sign with Wilmington. He missed the first two games of the season, thanks to lengthy issues with his international transfer certificate; but not the third, against the Charlotte Eagles. Jane entered the match in the 60th-minute with Wilmington trailing 2-0. Although he didn't score, Sunny Jane demonstrated his creativity by setting up several chances and narrowly missed one of his own.
Things only got better from there. In May, Jane scored a hat trick against the U.S. U-20 national team when they played the Hammerheads, while training for U-20 World Cup qualification. In August, he scored his first goal as a pro in what ended up being a 2-1 victory over the Orange County Blues. Only one day after scoring his first professional goal, Jane scored two more for his first brace in a 3-3 draw with LA Galaxy II. You could say it's been a dream come true for him.
Is Wilmington a good team, though? And what else can you tell me about USL Pro?
Last season, Wilmington finished in seventh place, out of 14 teams in the league. They made the playoffs, but lost in the USL Pro quarterfinals to the eventual champions, Sacramento Republic FC. This season, the Hammerheads are looking to build on that success, and go even further. They're definitely a playoff-caliber team, and Carson Porter, their coach, has quietly crafted a solid reputation in American coaching circles. People familiar with USL Pro consider them a bit of a model small-town team, the kind that can help USL Pro make even bigger strides as a league.
Speaking of those strides: the league's added 10 new teams this season in a massive round of expansion, bringing the total number of teams to 24. That means that USL Pro will be playing in two conferences, instead of a single table format, for the first time. That change helps teams cut down in travel costs, and that hopefully means that teams invest those savings into other things to help them improve, like their roster.
As a member of the 12-team Eastern Conference, Wilmington plays 28 regular season matches, facing each team home and away once, with six additional games determined by region. The top six teams in each conference qualify for the single-elimination playoffs; the two conference championship winners then play to determine the USL Pro champion. That means that the only time an Eastern team faces a Western team during the season (not including the US Open Cup) is in the league's title game.
USL Pro released their complete regular season schedule earlier this week; you can find all the game dates for Wilmington at the bottom of this page. The Hammerheads open the season at home on March 28, against the Richmond Kickers, another long-time USL team. If you're interested in checking out the New York City loanees, you've got two chances to do that; even better, you get to root against the Baby Red Bulls:
- At Red Bull Arena on Sunday, April 12, at 4:00 pm ET.
- Saturday, August 29, at 7:00 pm ET, at a location to be determined, but in the New York area, when the Red Bulls' USL Pro team change venues halfway through the season.
I want to watch Hammerhead games. Can I watch them on TV?
Not...so much. While individual teams might have local TV deals, USL Pro doesn't have a national TV deal. That's OK, though.
This season, all USL Pro games will once again be live streamed, through the hosting team’s official YouTube channel. If you can’t watch live, the games do remain available to view at a later time. That’s why you want to bookmark the Wilmington Hammerheads' official channel -- located here -- if you want to follow them and New York City's loaned players.
You mentioned the partnership earlier. What's that all about?
Right. So, a few years ago, MLS teams used to have reserve squads. Those B-teams were where MLS teams had players that they wanted to hang on to, but couldn't play in the starting eleven. Lots of teams have them across the world. The MLS reserve teams used to play in a league, of sorts, but games were unevenly scheduled. More than that, though: not every MLS team had a reserve squad. MLS eventually decided to do away with them altogether, before bringing them back briefly.
Meanwhile, USL Pro was going through a bit of a rough patch. Some of the bigger teams, like Vancouver, Montreal, Seattle, and so forth, wanted to play in MLS; they eventually made it happen, starting with Seattle in 2009. Some other teams - like Richmond, Wilmington, and the Rochester Rhinos - were perfectly happy to stay in USL, because they simply didn't have the money to make that jump. Still others wanted to play in a bigger league than USL, but not necessarily in MLS. That resulted in a split in USL. Long story short, you now have USL in the third division and the NASL in the second division.
Still with me? Great!
USL saw developing players as one of its primary missions. That dovetailed nicely with MLS' need for reserve teams, and for a place for those teams to get badly-needed competition, beyond occasional scrimmages. So starting a couple of years ago, MLS began requiring its teams to either set up a USL Pro reserve team, or to affiliate with an existing USL Pro team. The biggest success from this partnership is probably Orlando City - several players, most notably Dom Dwyer, got started with Orlando before distinguishing themselves in MLS, and it probably played a large role in Orlando City's "promotion" to MLS as a team.
New York City decided to affiliate with Wilmington. That relationship goes beyond players, though. It includes ties between the teams off the field, including the front office and coaching staff. That's why Carson Porter, and members of the Hammerheads' front office, were with Claudio Reyna and Jason Kreis during the Super Draft last month.
Why Wilmington, though? The Hammerheads have been around since 1996; that's forever in American lower-division soccer, and it means the team is very stable. Remember when I mentioned that Porter was well-regarded? It's because he's experienced for a young coach; he's coached NCAA soccer, and was an assistant coach with the USMNT U-18 team last year. Another thing stands out : Wilmington has successfully used MLS loanees from Toronto (with whom they were affiliated last season), Columbus, and Philadelphia.
One of the most important things to know about this partnership is that it requires at least four players from New York City be loaned to Wilmington for the season. It should not be seen as a step down for these players, but rather a way for them to develop and gain experience so that they will be better prepared to contribute to New York City in the future.
We don't know whom will be loaned to Wilmington, but based on the current roster, who would be good candidates for New York City to send on loan?
Connor Brandt and Khiry Shelton are two pickups from January's SuperDraft that could benefit from getting their first professional playing experience in USL Pro. There's enough depth in their respective positions -- midfield and forward -- that a loan to Wilmington might be the only way to ensure that they get competitive minutes.
Matt Dunn spent last year, his first in MLS, withand only logged 407 minutes in the entire season. With a large number of older and more experienced midfielders likely to be preferred over Dunn, going to Wilmington should give him much more opportunities to log valuable playing time.
Thomas McNamara is another midfielder who, like Dunn, was at Chivas USA for his first season in MLS last year. McNamara logged 467 minutes, and with a situation very similar to that of Dunn, he would also be able to benefit from an opportunity to play rather than potentially waste away the season on the bench in New York.
I'll be following Wilmington throughout the season; seeing how future New York City players develop is going to be highly intriguing.
Wilmington Hammerheads FC 2015 Regular Season Schedule
|Sat||Mar 28||7:00 PM ET||Richmond||at||Wilmington||Legion Stadium|
|Fri||Apr 3||7:00 PM ET||Charlotte||at||Wilmington||Legion Stadium|
|Fri||Apr 10||7:00 PM ET||Wilmington||at||Richmond||City Stadium|
|Sun||Apr 12||4:00 PM ET||Wilmington||at||New York||Red Bull Arena|
|Sun||Apr 26||3:00 PM ET||Charleston||at||Wilmington||Legion Stadium|
|Sat||May 2||7:00 PM ET||Harrisburg||at||Wilmington||Legion Stadium|
|Sat||May 9||8:30 PM ET||Wilmington||at||Saint Louis||St. Louis Soccer Park|
|Tue||May 12||7:30 PM ET||Wilmington||at||Louisville||Louisville Slugger Field|
|Sat||May 16||7:00 PM ET||Rochester||at||Wilmington||Legion Stadium|
|Sat||May 30||7:30 PM ET||Wilmington||at||Charleston||Blackbaud Stadium|
|Sat||Jun 6||7:00 PM ET||Charleston||at||Wilmington||Legion Stadium|
|Sat||Jun 13||7:00 PM ET||New York||at||Wilmington||Legion Stadium|
|Sat||Jun 20||7:00 PM ET||Wilmington||at||Richmond||City Stadium|
|Wed||Jun 24||2:30 PM ET||Wilmington||at||Montreal||Stade Saputo|
|Sat||Jun 27||TBD||Wilmington||at||Toronto||BMO Field|
|Wed||Jul 1||7:00 PM ET||Saint Louis||at||Wilmington||Legion Stadium|
|Sat||Jul 4||7:00 PM ET||Wilmington||at||Harrisburg||Skyline Sports Complex|
|Sat||Jul 18||7:30 PM ET||Wilmington||at||Charleston||Blackbaud Stadium|
|Sat||Jul 25||7:00 PM ET||Louisville||at||Wilmington||Legion Stadium|
|Sat||Aug 1||7:00 PM ET||Wilmington||at||Pittsburgh||Highmark Stadium|
|Sat||Aug 8||7:00 PM ET||New York||at||Wilmington||Legion Stadium|
|Sat||Aug 15||7:05 PM ET||Wilmington||at||Rochester||Sahlen's Stadium|
|Sat||Aug 22||7:00 PM ET||Montreal||at||Wilmington||Legion Stadium|
|Sat||Aug 29||7:00 PM ET||Wilmington||at||New York||TBA|
|Thu||Sep 3||7:00 PM ET||Charlotte||at||Wilmington||Legion Stadium|
|Sat||Sep 5||7:00 PM ET||Wilmington||at||Charlotte||TBA|
|Sat||Sep 12||7:00 PM ET||Pittsburgh||at||Wilmington||Legion Stadium|
|Sat||Sep 19||7:00 PM ET||Toronto||at||Wilmington||Legion Stadium|