By Scott French
Several North American Soccer League clubs are benefiting from the presence of Major League Soccer talent on their rosters as teams send young players to the likes of Minnesota United, FC Edmonton and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and everyone prospers from the relationships.
Corey Hertzog (pictured) has been a boon for Edmonton, as his Vancouver Whitecaps teammate Carlyle Mitchell was during the spring season. Minnesota likes what it's getting from Montreal's Callum Mallace. FC Dallas' Richard Sanchez has Fort Lauderdale's staff giddy, and the Carolina RailHawks are getting plenty from Real Salt Lake's Enzo Martinez and the Los Angeles Galaxy's Kenney Walker.
They're among a dozen players MLS clubs have loaned to teams this year; eight of them still toiling in the NASL, looking for meaningful game time, new perspectives and quickened progression in their development.
The benefits for NASL clubs are simple: They improve their roster at no cost and build relationships -- or further longstanding relationships -- with MLS clubs and coaches, who recognize that the high level of competition in the NASL can be a valuable aid in developing top talent.
“It's very similar to if you have a kid,” said Galaxy associate head coach Dave Sarachan. “When you send them off on their own, you want them to grow up, you want them to understand what it's like where things may not be perfect -- they're going from the L.A. Galaxy to a team that may not have the resources we have -- but at the end of the day, what you want are minutes. Minutes in games that matter: That's what's really important.”
Most NASL teams are happy to play their part in this, especially when a kid like Hertzog, a third-year forward who has seen limited time in MLS, can step in and make an impact.
Vancouver coach Martin Rennie has sent three players to Edmonton this season, with Mitchell featuring on the backline in seven spring games, Hertzog in seven games in the current fall campaign -- with a goal to beat San Antonio in his NASL debut and another to forge a 1-1 draw at Minnesota -- and Simon Thomas, lent to the Eddies when they needed cover in the nets.
Rennie, a former Carolina RailHawks coach, has a strong relationship with Edmonton coach Colin Miller, and keeping his players with a lower-level Canadian team enables him to send players back and forth as needed.
“If players are standing out and doing well [in the NASL], there's a chance they can play in our first team,” Rennie said. “If they're not standing out and doing well, then it suggests they're probably not ready for our first team.”
There is a difference between MLS and NASL, he says, in terms of depth of talent and, especially, the presence of genuine difference-makers -- the Robbie Keanes and Landon Donovans and Thierry Henrys. But “the games are very intense and you have to play well to play at [the NASL] level.”
Carolina coach Colin Clarke, a former head coach at FC Dallas, says developing these players is part of the deal. Playing time is never guaranteed -- players have to earn it, as they would anywhere else -- but the potential for regular playing time is generally a key factor in placing players.
“You want the player to feel they're coming into a situation and environment where they're going to develop,” Clarke said. “We produce that here in Carolina. It's nice to be part of their development long-term, but we're here to win games. We have a championship to win, and ultimately these players have to be good enough to play for us.”
Playing time isn't the only concern. Minnesota United coach Manny Lagos, who played 10 seasons in MLS, says sometimes a new environment can help a young player. It can be helpful to “get away from their current environment to see if they can get better and get a different perspective on the game.”
Determining which players are suitable for loan, and the best place to place them, is important. MLS coaches prefer to work with colleagues they trust -- Sarachan and Clarke have been friends for decades, Miller was an assistant coach at Vancouver when it made the jump to MLS, Lagos played alongside or against many of MLS's bosses.
NASL teams also shop around.
“We have a staff that keeps track of players that maybe aren't playing to much in MLS that we like,” Lagos said. “It also [depends on] what our needs are, whether it's [about adding] quality of we've been hit by the injury bug. There's a lot of different scenarios why we take a player from MLS.”
Minnesota United has two players from Montreal on their roster. Mallace is a Minnesota boy who played as a youth for United assistant coaches Carl Craig and Kevin Friedland, and he's started all eight fall games -- scoring the first goal in last weekend's victory at Edmonton. Sinisa Ubiparipovic's situation is different from the other loanees: He's a 30-year-old veteran, has been with Minnesota on loan before (six years ago), and Montreal wants to see how he fares to determine if there's a spot for him in their midfield next year.
The Impact thought Lagos' instruction would be helpful for Mallace and Ubiparipovic.
“In terms of Manny's experience as a player, the level he's played at, what he's done in Minnesota, what he's built there, his dedication to one club ... and he was a midfielder as well,” Montreal sporting director Nick De Santis said. “I was a midfielder. There's a respect factor, and we've sent two midfielders there, so we feel he's got a very good idea on how to play.”
Not every fit works. The Galaxy sent Walker, a midfielder, and defender Bryan Gaul to Fort Lauderdale at the start of the NASL's fall season, then pulled both and sent them to Carolina. Sarachan says it was determined that the Strikers weren't “the right fit after all ... for their needs, it may not have been the best place for them.” Both are doing well with the RailHawks -- Walker is a regular starter, Gaul has made a couple of starts -- and so is RSL's Enzo Martinez, who has made 10 appearances in the spring and fall campaigns, with two goals.
Günter Kronsteiner, the Austrian coach who took charge at Fort Lauderdale during the break, says Walker and Gaul weren't happy in South Florida, that “they thought it was a punishment that they had to come here.”
Players arriving on loan must fit into a team's chemistry, and their attitude toward the loan is important.
“They need to know why they're coming down,” Clarke said, “and that it's the right thing for them long-term in their professional career.”
The Strikers have been a perfect fit for two FC Dallas players. Fernando Clavijo, Dallas' technical director, thinks Sanchez has grown under the tutelage of Fort Lauderdale goalkeeper coach Ricardo Lopes. He's “playing the best soccer of his young life,” Clavijo said.
Kronsteiner agrees: “Richard is the best young keeper I ever saw playing at a very high level already. He has a great personality and has taken a role at becoming a leader on the team. He plays like a veteran at a young age.”
Dallas also has forward Bradlee Baladez with the Strikers -- he's scored once in six appearances -- and Clavijo wants him to “have the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them.”
Seattle had rookie forward Eriq Zavaleta with the San Antonio Scorpions for a spell in the spring -- he had a goal and assist in four starts, all victories -- and Houston winger Alex Dixon netted a goal in three appearances off the bench with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in April.
MLS clubs keep tabs on their players through constant conversations with the NASL staffs, by attending games when possible and otherwise watching video, readily available online. Edmonton's games are televised in Vancouver; Rennie catches all of them.
Ultimately, the goal is to create better soccer players and raise the level of play in American and Canadian soccer -- in MLS and the NASL.
“Players only improve if they play games that mean something, and when they walk off the field afterward, they hurt when they've dropped three points or dropped down the table,” Clarke said. “A lot has been said about the Reserve League in MLS is still having trouble making that meaningful, and how do you get development for some of these younger players.
“Coming to our league is very, very important. We're a very high standard, and I think it's really helpful to their development to play games that mean something. To learn from mistakes they make during games.”
It's a role the NASL is particularly suited to play, and the relationship works beautifully for both sides.
Scott French is Contributing Editor of http://www.lasoccernews.com
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