The Dayton Dutch Lions FC announced that the club has come to terms with the Columbus Crew to form an affiliation. It is the sixth affiliation between USL PRO and Major League Soccer teams since a partnership between the leagues was announced prior to the 2013 season (Since the Dutch Lions and Crew announcement, it has been revealed that Sporting Kansas City will be affiliating with Oklahoma City Energy FC while maintaining an affiliation with Orlando City SC).
USL PRO/MLS Affiliations
|USL PRO Club||MLS Franchise||Affiliated Seasons|
|Orlando City SC||Sporting Kansas City||2013 - 2014|
|Rochester Rhinos*||New England Revolution||2013 - 2014|
|Richmond Kickers*||DC United||2013 - 2014|
|Harrisburg City Islanders*||Philadelphia Union||2013 - 2014|
|Pittsburgh Riverhounds||Houston Dynamo||2014|
|Dayton Dutch Lions FC||Columbus Crew||2014|
|Oklahoma City Energy FC||Sporting Kansas City||2014|
The impetus for the partnership between the leagues, if you believe the press releases, is player development. The idea is to get up-and-coming players match time in a highly competitive environment, something the MLS Reserve league was apparently unable to provide. With this in mind, MLS franchises were given the option of placing a reserve team in USL PRO or forming an affiliation with an existing USL PRO team.
The options are not solely Major League Soccer’s to exercise. The other perspective is that USL PRO clubs can decide whether or not to participate in an affiliation. Now that the Dayton Dutch Lions have made their bed, Reckless Challenge examines if it will result in sweet dreams or a Dutch oven.
Established Relationship Bodes Well
According to Mike Mossel, President and owner of the Dutch Lions, initial talks about an affiliation between Dayton and Columbus began about six months ago. The relationship between the two organizations, however, began a long time before there was any mention of a partnership between USL PRO and MLS.
“The relationship has always been good since day one,” said Mossel, who pointed out that there was regular communication with Brian Bliss. Bliss had been the technical manager for the Crew since the Dutch Lions came into existence, but following the 2013 season he accepted the same position with the Chicago Fire.
There is evidence that a healthy working relationship has existed between the two front offices. Among other things, Mossel points to the fact that the Dutch Lions were able to facilitate a visit to Columbus by staff members from FC Twente, the Dutch Eredivisie club with whom Dayton also has a partnership. A visit to FC Twente by a Crew delegation was also coordinated. Additionally, there has been the loan of two Crew players to the Dutch Lions over the past two seasons.
One of the biggest fears for USL PRO fans is that an affiliate partnership might be dominated by the interests of the MLS franchise. In such a scenario, the MLS team would dictate the manner in which their loaned players will be utilized and the extent to which those players will receive match time. In such an arrangement, the USL PRO team risks losing its independence, losing its identity, and losing a lot of matches.
The fact that Dayton and Columbus have an established relationship is a one reason to believe that an affiliation between the teams has the potential to be mutually beneficial. There is a greater likelihood that both sides will collaborate to determine which players will be sent on loan. There is also a better chance that Dayton’s coaching staff will have the ability to decide when and how to use those players. Mossel is confident that this is the case.
“We were always interested in an affiliation, but I wanted to make sure that it is a two-way street,” said Mossel, “All the meetings with the Crew have been very good from the beginning, and I am looking forward to the partnership.”
When Mossel was directly asked if the Dutch Lions would have autonomy regarding how the players would be used and how much playing time they received, the answer was a simple “Yes.”
There is one final point to consider on the topic of the relationship between the two organizations. Dayton supporters might be wondering how the dynamic might change with Bliss gone and the Crew under new ownership. A short statement from Mossel speaks volumes.
Mossel said, “I think the new ownership did a lot to speed things up [and get us] to where we are now.”
Budding Rivalry Unfortunately Comes to an End
Because they participate in separate leagues at different levels of American soccer, it appears unlikely that the only two professional soccer clubs in the state of Ohio would have been able to form a local rivalry. Thanks to the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup and the agreement between USL PRO and MLS, such a rivalry was beginning to be forged.
The Dutch Lions and the Crew have competed against one another in meaningful matches on four occasions. The first of which was two years ago in the Open Cup. Dayton surprised the home crowd at Crew Stadium by bouncing the Black and Gold from the third round of the tournament. The Crew got revenge in the third round of last year’s Open Cup, holding off a Dutch Lions squad that played a man down for the majority of the match.
Part of the implementation of the partnership between USL PRO and MLS in the first year involved each USL PRO team facing an MLS Reserve team in a home-and-home series. It made perfect sense to pit the Dutch Lions against the Crew. A late goal salvaged a 4-4 draw for the Dutch Lions at home, but Dayton was severely outmatched in the second trip to Columbus in 2013.
It is ironic that the agreement that helped to stoke the flames of a rivalry has also served to extinguish the fire before it ever had a real chance to burn. The affiliation between Dayton and Columbus effectively puts an end to any hopes of a good-spirited rivalry between the two teams separated by a few miles of pavement along I-70. The potential for match-ups in the Open Cup remains, but those games stand to feel like a match against an older brother in light of the affiliation.
Why is the loss of a potential rivalry against Columbus important to the Dutch Lions? Rivalries generate interest, even among more casual fans. Home dates against a local rival from Major League Soccer generates that much more interest. The home match against the Crew reserves last season drew a record crowd for the Dutch Lions.
It is important to point out that there was no guarantee that the Dutch Lions would have continued to compete against the Crew Reserves, even if this affiliation had not been realized. It appears that the MLS Reserve League is on its way to extinction. Todd Durbin, MLS Vice President of Player Relations and Competition, stated before the all-star game in KC that the league expects all of its teams either to form an affiliation with a USL PRO club or place a reserve team in USL PRO by 2015. The only way for the nascent rivalry between the Dutch Lions and Crew to continue would have been for Columbus to stand up its own USL PRO team.
Is it reasonable to assume that the Crew would have found another USL PRO team with which to affiliate if negotiations with Dayton had fallen apart? Could the Crew have found a way to finance a USL PRO club? (Reckless Challenge contacted the Crew to get the answers to those questions, but Crew Communications indicated that interview requests would have to wait until after front office staff returned from a holiday hiatus.)
Quality of Loaned Players Important
Early press releases regarding the affiliation indicated that the four players who will be loaned to Dayton by Columbus will be announced at a later time. This is not unexpected, since both teams have yet to complete the rosters for the 2014 season. Whoever the loaned players turn out to be, they must be skilled in order for this affiliation to have the desired impact for the Dutch Lions.
It is easy, but incorrect, to assume that any player under contract to Columbus would have the requisite skills to contribute for the Dutch Lions. Aaron Horton was sent on loan to Dayton from Columbus for a portion of the 2012 season. The Dutch Lions’ coaching staff was so unimpressed with Horton that the forward did not log a single second of match time. Horton was cut by the Crew following the 2013 season after spending a lot of time on the bench while on loan to the LA Blues.
Matt Wiet, though, is an example of what the affiliation could provide for the Dutch Lions. Wiet had a stint on loan to the Dutch Lions from the Crew last season. Before an injury cut his season short, Wiet provided a big lift to the Dayton back line. The Dutch Lions had been playing the first half of the season without a true center back. Wiet stepped in and did an admirable job, which also allowed other Dutch Lions defenders to assume more natural roles in the flanks.
The Dutch Lions need Columbus to send more Wiets and fewer Hortons. Players like Wiet will have an immediate impact on the field and potentially fill gaps in the starting XI. Moreover, players like Wiet have the potential to push the rest of the Dutch Lions to improve.
Joint Marketing Comes as a Bonus
There is no question that the Dutch Lions’ attendance figures have yet to consistently reach desired levels. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that Dayton has exclusively relied on various local high school football stadiums as a home venue. Undoubtedly, though, marketing has also been an issue. After four years of existence, there are still Dayton residents who are unaware that the city has a professional soccer club.
Reckless Challenge has spoken to a former general manager for a USL PRO team who defends clubs like the Dutch Lions, who simply do not have much of a budget for marketing. It is an understandable point of view. There are those, however, who would suggest that teams need to spend money to make money.
It would appear that the Dutch Lions have found a way to increase marketing efforts and offset some of the costs, and it comes through the affiliation with Columbus. Virtually every report about the affiliation mentions that the proximity of the two teams will provide for some type of joint marketing.
The details of the joint-marketing efforts have yet to be released, and Dayton’s front office is staying mum on the topic for the time being.
“We will be discussing that more in-depth in the coming month,” stated Mossel, “but we [Dayton and Columbus] have already discussed some exciting things.”
The association of the Dutch Lions’ brand with the Columbus Crew has already proven to be increase interest in the USL PRO team. Social media outlets were buzzing in the days after the announcement. That the Crew seems to be committed to actively marketing the affiliation in some manner is a huge bonus for Dayton.
Bottom Line: Crew Affiliation is Good for Dutch Lions
Some of you might be wondering why I would even bother to pen an article like this. To be honest, it is because I did not accept at face value that an affiliation was the right move for Dayton. In fact, I originally doubted whether or not the partnership with MLS would be good for the USL PRO and the Dutch Lions.
I feared the that the Dutch Lions might come to be perceived as a Crew farm team. Worse, I feared that Dayton would actually become a farm team, losing its independence and focus on winning games and growing its own fan base. Early indications are that those fears may be unwarranted. It seems the Dutch Lions’ front office shared some of those worries and would not have entered into this agreement had they not been appropriately addressed.
I was also holding on to hope that a rivalry between the Dutch Lions and the Crew could come to full fruition. How much fun would that have been for soccer fans in Ohio? The circumstances surrounding the future of the MLS Reserve League and the partnership between MLS and USL PRO have likely rendered that rivalry dead-on-arrival.
Even if Columbus had gone the route of standing up a reserve team in USL PRO, the Dutch Lions would have missing some of the other benefits of the affiliation with the Crew. First among those is the addition of at least four players whose salaries will be payed by Columbus. Second, and equally important, is the increase in visibility that the Dutch Lions will receive.
After much consideration, I am convinced that this affiliation was the right move for the Dutch Lions to make. The upside is tremendous. Should the partnership turn out to be a bust, which I think is unlikely, Dayton can decide not to renew the affiliation and will have lost nothing.
Chad Hollingsworth is an ardent supporter of the Dayton Dutch Lions and USL PRO. He makes every effort to provide objective coverage, but cannot claim his pieces are devoid of bias. You can find and follow him on Twitter at @ChadHoll.