Into the valley: What's next for Harrisburg City?
The elephant under the tent for the Union’s launch of a Lehigh Valley USL side in 2016 was the Harrisburg City Islanders, the Union’s (soon-to-be former) developmental partner.
For about as long as the Philadelphia Union have played soccer, they’ve been affiliated with Harrisburg. That arrangement has offered countless Union player the chance for rehab or maintenance matches in USL through the years. Per Union CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz, the Union’s link to Harrisburg “was a lot of the impetus for the two leagues aligning,” prior to the 2013 season to allow greater player movement and enhance USL’s utility as a reserve league.
Whether or not the Union had any pull in the original connection between America’s first and third divisions, that paradigm is on the way out the door, chased by what began in 2014 with L.A. Galaxy starting the “Galaxy II” side as a reservoir for young talent, offering them regular games and providing relief from the senior roster as the minor-league side did the dirty work of blood-letting.
The Union are the ninth team – behind L.A., Portland, Seattle, Real Salt Lake, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and New York Red Bulls – to field its own USL squad. Per USL CEO and Managing Partner Alec Papadakis, the majority of MLS clubs could operate full affiliates by next year.
“We have at present eight MLS teams,” he said during the press conference. “Today will be nine. We expect two more to join us for the 2016 season.”
(Papadakis declined to clarify later whether the two new teams are MLS-affiliated or not. Orlando City has announced its intention to form a Central Florida team. Dallas had toyed with the notion of a “two” franchise. Houston’s unveiled Rio Grande Valley FC doesn’t count, more in line with the older, Harrisburg-Union paradigm.)
Back to Harrisburg: The surge in USL expansion indicates its viability as a league, which means that Harrisburg’s existence isn’t threatened by the cessation of the Union’s affiliation. Well over half of the USL teams – the Lehigh Valley squad is No. 27, with Papadakis aspiring for 29 by the start of 2016 – will be free-standing, including newly-minted FC Cincinnati.
Sakiewicz expressed his gratitude to Harrisburg owner Eric Pettis for his years of cooperation. To those ends, when it became evident that forming its own franchise would behoove the Union, their first inclination was to scheme with Harrisburg, seeking a solution for its dilapidated Skyline Sports Complex and incorporating Harrisburg closer into the fold. That was around the time that the Islanders, celebrating their 12th season, entertained interest from Nashville for relocation.
The Union’s attempts to entreat Harrisburg closer didn’t gain traction, but neither Sakiewicz nor Papadakis struck pessimistic chords about the Islanders.
“I think the future is very bright,” Papadakis said of Harrisburg. “They are restructuring their team as well. They’re going to be making some announcements as to their new venue. I’ll leave that up to them. … New ownership is going to be coming in as well. I think it’s a very historic club.”
Both Sakiewicz and Papadakis are operating under the assumption that Harrisburg will continue its operations unhampered. (Sakiewicz slipped the declaration that, “I think Harrisburg’s found a stadium solution there, I’m not sure,” into conversation). Both men touted the potential rivalry value of the Lehigh Valley club with Harrisburg as well as ties to a third Pennsylvania team, Pittsburgh Riverhounds.
In broad strokes, this would seem to be a burgeoning battleground for USL. As more MLS franchises transition from older arrangements with USL teams to operate their own sides, there is an inevitable ripple effect that tests how well established those markets after removing their MLS prop.
If the infrastructure in extant areas is sound, though, the assimilation of “MLS 2” squads could be an unqualified positive for all clubs.
“As I mentioned, they need to comply with all of our standards,” Papadakis said, referring to Harrisburg specifically and more broadly to other clubs. “It’s not really a challenge because they’re really good people to work with. And they’re very competitive, and that’s what we would like. They’re real team people. They work really well with our other teams; our other teams work very well with our MLS teams. This is why this is relationship is so special, because people really work well together.”