Thanks to MLS’s new partnership with the third-tier division, several USL clubs will inherit at least four players for full-time assignment and receive others for periodic duty during the year. United and the Kickers are exclusive partners.
So in addition to conducting tryouts and scouting for talent, Cowlishaw has joined United’s technical staff in Orlando to get a better feel for the club’s roster plans and learn more about his possible pupils. An official decision about assignments is still a few weeks away.
Top candidates would seem to include midfielder Lance Rozeboom, who missed his rookie season with a knee injury; goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra, third on the depth chart; Indonesian midfielder Syamsir Alam, who is just 20; and perhaps a trialist who earns a contract this month.
The purpose of the alignment is to provide competitive matches weekly for players who otherwise wouldn’t crack the MLS game-day roster often.
It is a significant upgrade from the MLS reserve league, which has been plagued by scheduling issues and too few games. United had just nine last year. By contrast, the Kickers will play 26 league matches this season, plus at least four preseason friendlies and enter the U.S. Open Cup. (In a scheduling quirk, the Kickers will play 11 of their first 12 league games at home, then have eight in a row away.)
The MLS reserve league still exists, but several sides will opt for a USL partnership. Players on assignment in USL remain eligible for in-season recalls. And MLS teams may send players on temporary gigs in USL.
Last year United had homegrown midfielder-defender Conor Shanosky on a full-season assignment to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the second-tier NASL. Dykstra made several stints at USL Charleston and others played a few times for Richmond.
“We’ve had good communication with [United GM] Dave Kasper and the coaches through the years,” Cowlishaw, a member of the Kickers family since 1993, said during a recent interview at the club’s Richmond offices.
“It’s a fantastic way to combine resources. We do it right here. We have the experience to run that level of soccer below MLS and it’s a fantastic foundation to come in here and play meaningful games. It will be even better when you are here full-time and you become part of the team and you are competing.”
The proximity between Washington and Richmond — a two-hour drive, on a good traffic day — will allow United coaches to monitor players.
The United guests will remain on D.C.’s books and train full-time with the Kickers, whose training grounds at Ukrop Park include grass and turf fields, plus lights. Richmond plays home matches at City Stadium, an old facility on the west side of town.
Roster-building is a balancing act for Cowlishaw, who has a core group under contract — primarily defenders — and is consulting with United officials about the long-term additions.
“It’s really tricky to go out and aggressively sign players until we identify the positions we will be given by United,” he said. “It’s a moderate budget [in USL] and the last thing we want to do is duplicate positions. It’s going to have its advantages; it’s an exciting piece to the puzzle. It just changes the way we recruit and sign players.”
The D.C.-Richmond deal is for just one year, but if all goes well, an extension would make sense.
Said Cowlishaw: “It will be interesting to see their vision for the future of this, but Richmond can be a beneficial organization, possibly an extension, of their whole player development philosophy.”