Rochester Native Jordan Allen Signs Homegrown Contract with Real Salt Lake

It’s finally time to be excited, Rochester.

After an accolade-laden freshman season at the University of Virginia, Rochester native Jordan Allen has signed a Homegrown contract with Real Salt Lake of MLS.

Allen is eligible for this signing mechanism, which allows him to join RSL without going through the MLS draft, after spending a couple seasons with the club’s residency academy in Casa Grande, Arizona. In addition to an All-ACC Freshman Team, a second-team NSCAA All-South Atlantic Region Team, and a third-team All-ACC selection for his freshman season with Virginia, the versatile 18 year old racked up numerous personal awards for his club play with RSL.

Allen was named the u-16 Western Conference Player of the Year for the USSF Development Academy for his outstanding play in 2012. Top Drawer Soccer placed Jordan behind only professionals Diego Fagundez, Zach Pfeffer, and Jack McBean in a list of the best talent nationally for his high school graduation year.

Before moving out west to join RSL’s academy, Allen was a standout for local academy club Empire United (now Empire Revolution) and his high school, the Aquinas Institute. Son of former Rochester Rhino Howard Allen, Jordan has a killer mix of athleticism and the critical ability to read the game. Youth national team coach Javier Perez tapped into this skill to groom Jordan as an attacking fullback, while he is also naturally able to play as a forward, a winger, or a traditional wide midfielder.

Real Salt Lake’s coaches have seen a lot of Jordan in academy games at both the u-16 and u-18 level, the MLS Reserve League, youth national team appearances, and the NCAA season that just ended. Apparently the coaching staff likes what they have seen and couldn’t wait until 2014 to sign the talented wide player.

RSL announced they had signed Allen to a Homegrown contract around 5:30 EST/3:30 MST on December 31.

Youth Player Development in Lower Division Clubs

In an earlier post I highlighted the introduction of an academy roster program for USL-Pro clubs as a major step in USL’s player development model. The academy roster rule was introduced in February and designed to promote opportunities for young players from associated or regional academies to train and play with the senior team.

Despite seemingly different public positions on the importance of “development,” both professional leagues under MLS have begun signing local teenagers.

North American Soccer League Commissioner Bill Peterson has said, “We have no desire to be anyone’s minor league. We definitely have no interest in developing players for other leagues.” This could mean that NASL executives want players to stay the course in their league, but that seems highly unlikely in a world with NCAA and MLS drafts.

The United Soccer Leagues, on the other hand, regularly flaunts its developmental credentials. Every January after the MLS SuperDraft and during MLS pre-season, USL issues press releases refering to draft picks and recently signed MLS rookies as “former [insert PDL team] player.”

I find it interesting that regardless of the media directives passed down from respective league offices, teams from both leagues have set about to promote players from youth squads to train and play with the professional senior team.

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Richmond Kickers and Pittsburgh Riverhounds both took advantage of the academy roster designation by signing local talent to special contracts. The two USL-Pro clubs used an academy contract to each bring a player into selection for the senior team and a different training-only deal for other promising players. These young local players were Evan Fowler, Vaughn Fowler, and Christian Alcorn (Richmond), and Steven Munn and Tyler McCarthy (Pittsburgh).

NASL club Carolina RailHawks seems to be developing a similar path for players independent of a league directive. On October 31, the RailHawks announced that they had signed U-17/18 national team player Conor Donovan. The press release said that the team added the 17 year old defender to the team’s roster for the regular season finale. Continue reading

Grading My 2013 Wishlist for Lower Division American Soccer

In the first few days of January of this year, I posted a 3-piece Wishlist for lower division soccer. Now that 2013 has drawn to a close, I thought it would be a good time to dig up those 3 points and judge how well they were fulfilled during the year that was.

1) Strong showings off the field from the USL expansion teams
More important than grinding out tough away results in my opinion, is the ability of the two USL-Pro expansion cities to establish themselves at home.  This isn’t just getting wins against weaker teams, but doing the marketing and community work to draw in big crowds.

Both of these teams need to perform well off the field to show the viability of the USL-Pro business model.  If these teams bounce games around venues like LA Blues, Dayton Dutch Lions, and Charlotte Eagles did in 2012 or if they replicate those teams’ attendance numbers (well under 1000 each) professional soccer in Phoenix or east Tampa might be fleeting.

USL-Pro expansion didn’t go exactly according to plan in 2013. VSI Tampa Bay FC Flames, in addition to an awful name, only managed to draw an average of around 380; the lowest for any professional soccer team in the country. It surprised few that VSI has pulled the plug on its USL-Pro franchise after its first campaign.

Phoenix FC started its debut season well, but front office scuffles resulted in the team switching venues from Arizona State University to a local public park. It remains to be seen whether the slightly different ownership group can bring stability (let alone success) to the Phoenix club going into 2014.

2) New York Cosmos and Puerto Rico Islanders skip spring season to join NASL for its first fall season

When NASL released the announcement in early September that the 2013 season would be split into two short tournaments, similar to much of Latin America, there was one question resounding from lower division soccer fans around the country: why?
Perhaps this announcement was also made with the knowledge (or hunch) that the Cosmos would not be ready for the spring kick-off. Brian Quarstad of IMSoccer reported December 2 that the Cosmos will skip the spring tournament as well as the U.S. Open Cup.

Due to potential changes in Puerto Rico’s government policy, funding of the Islanders is uncertain for 2013 and onward. Neil Morris of IndyWeek reported December 21 that the Islanders will miss the spring tournament but that the league expects the team to participate in the fall tournament in 2013. This leaves only 7 teams in the spring and either 8 or 9 teams in the fall.

Though in different realms, both of these franchises have a rich soccer history. With the NASL trying to establish a legitimacy above USL, two teams stuttering off the field (one before they had even started) could challenge the league’s hopes. On the other hand, taking a half-season off could provide the stability necessary for long-term success for both the individual teams and the league as a whole.

Fans and internet pundits alike had a mixed reception to NASL’s first season using a split format in 2013, with much of the resistance due to the New York Cosmos lifting the championship trophy despite only playing one of the two half-season tournaments.

That season format is only set to get more controversial for 2014, as NASL will split the season unevenly to accommodate a lengthy break during the World Cup. What would have been an even 10 game spring season, with Virginia Cavalry FC postponing its debut until 2015, the right to host the championship game will now be decided by a 9 game season.

Puerto Rico Islanders have all but folded and Commissioner Bill Peterson told the press that the club would have to apply as an expansion team to gain readmission into the league. On the other hand, taking off the 2013 spring season gave the Cosmos enough time to properly organize a championship winning team.

3. Continued positive performances in the U.S. Open Cup
The 2012 edition of the Cup saw three USL-Pro clubs reach the quarterfinals. Lower division teams beat MLS clubs in 9 matches, 4 teams from USL-Pro teams and 3 from NASL. While the format for this year’s tournament is not yet set in stone, it should be similar to last year’s with all the professional teams in the county participating. However, there are two more domestic based USL-Pro clubs to incorporate into the cup this year so things could be a little different.

Even without sending 3 teams into the quarterfinals as it had the previous year, USL-Pro still produced a solid showing in cup this past year, along with the NASL. In the 2013 U.S. Open Cup, Orlando City defeated Colorado Rapids and Sporting Kansas City, Charleston Battery defeated San Jose Earthquakes, Carolina RailHawks defeated Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA, and Tampa Bay Rowdies defeated Seattle Sounders. 6 victories for NASL and USL-Pro teams in an atmosphere where MLS clubs take the cup competition more seriously is still an impressive figure.

The U.S. Open Cup adapted to league expansion in 2013 by entering several USL-Pro clubs into the competition in the First Round along with the amateur teams. A similar re-ordering is likely to occur as USL-Pro adds Sacramento Republic FC and Oklahoma City Energy FC to replace VSI Tampa Bay and NASL clubs New York Cosmos and Indy Eleven will also compete in the cup in 2014.

Judging the results:
On the first point, 2013 largely failed. One of USL-Pro’s expansion teams from this past year has folded (in addition to the ambitious project from Antigua and Barbuda), while the other was put on life support. 2014 can be a huge improvement over 2013 for USL as long as the league stops losing teams.

The second point is somewhat split. New York Cosmos stormed back to life in 2013 and, despite the controversy of only playing half a season, won the NASL Championship. On the opposite side of fortune, the Puerto Rico Islanders are more likely to pop up in a retro merchandise shop than a competitive league fixture.

The third point has to be adjudged a success. USL-Pro may not have repeated all of its achievements from 2012, but a couple of NASL teams picked up the slack.

With weaker clubs like VSI discarded, a Darwinian survival of the fittest philosophy may suggest a more vibrant dynamic in lower division soccer for the upcoming year with robust organizations like Indy Eleven and Sacramento Republic FC taking the place of poorly operated teams.

How would you judge the fortunes of the two lower division professional leagues in 2013? What are the most important changes necessary for 2014?

Tottenham Hotspur and US U17 Team Highlight 2013 IMG Invitational Tournament

I try to keep abreast of important international club tournament and this week a somewhat minor competition caught my eye.

I was alerted to the IMG Invitational Tournament by a press release from Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, which was a welcome distraction from the 5-0 drubbing at home from Liverpool. One point in particular stuck out to me; the Tottenham Hotspur academy team will face off against the U.S. U17 National Team!

The 2013 IMG Invitational Tournament features handfuls of teams (mostly from the U.S. but two from the Bahamas, one from Puerto Rico, one from Canada, one from Bermuda, and one from Russia) playing in the U14, U15, U16, U17, and U19 age levels, but the event’s Super Group is what I really care about.

The Super Group has 8 teams competing against each other with a few piquing my interest. Hosting the tournament is the IMG Academy U18, joined by American clubs Baltimore Celtic (Maryland) and Alliance Academy (Michigan). Fresh from impressive wins in the Nike International Friendlies tournament last week, the U.S. U17 National Team will also compete as well as four international club teams. Brazil’s Cruzeiro and Mexico’s Querétaro sent their U18 squads, as did lower division English club Stevenage FC and my beloved Tottenham Hotspur FC.

The competition kicks off tomorrow morning and carries on through Sunday. Continue reading

Leones Negros is the Liga Ascenso MX Apertura 2013 Champion!

Club Universidad de Guadalajara, known affectionately as Leones Negros [the Black Lions for those truly Spanish-impaired readers], won the fall season of Mexico’s second division. In addition to some nice silverware, the victory in Liga Ascenso MX’s Apertura 2013 earns U de G a place in the promotion playoff against the winner of the Clausura 2014.

Leones Negros were the fifth placed team in the regular season of the Apertura 2013 and thoroughly defeated fourth placed Merida FC in the quarterfinals. U de G whitewashed Merida in the quarterfinals by posting a massive 5-0 scoreline in the first leg at home. Despite being outplayed during the return match, Leones Negros advanced 5-2 on aggregate.

As the lowest seeded team remaining in the Liguilla, U de G had the task of taking on first placed Oaxaca in the semifinals. Leones Negros took a first half lead at home hosting the regular season winner Oaxaca and held on for the 1-0 win. U de G then kept Alebrijes to a 2-2 draw in Oaxaca to earn a place in the finals.

After beating the best team from the regular season, Leones Negros faced Necaxa in the two-legged final series. Necaxa mostly coasted through the playoffs, taking a two goal lead in the away fixture before capping the quarterfinals with another two goal victory at home. In the semifinals Necaxa stormed out to a big lead against Delfines in Campeche, ultimately flying to a 7-0 aggregate win.

Leones Negros completed the Cinderella its run by beating Necaxa 2-1 on aggregate. U de G took a 1-0 lead from the first leg at home (el partido de ida) in Guadalajara courtesy of veteran second division forward José Cruz Gutiérrez.

Neither team made a breakthrough in the first half of the second leg but the game in Aguascaliente opened up after halftime. A red card to Necaxa’s Gómez gave the impetus to U de G to finish off the tie and Gutiérrez capitalized on a header to beat goalkeeper Edmundo Iván Vázquez in the 56th minute for his second goal of the tie. A late goal from Brazilian Jonatas Goncalves was little more than consolation for Necaxa before the final whistle.

Thanks to the two goals from Gutiérrez and solid play from the whole team throughout the Liguilla, Leones Negros lifted its second ever league title and its first in the Liga de Ascenso. Now U de G must be licking its chops at the prospect of being one two-legged series away from a return to the top-flight Liga MX.