One recent noticeable trend in domestic professional soccer is the number of MLS teams who now operate high-level amateur Premier Development League (PDL) teams as extensions of their Development Academy or United Soccer League (USL) strategies. One-half (10) of the U.S. based MLS teams will have PDL teams in place for the 2018 season.
The PDL, part of the United Soccer League (USL), is one of a handful of leagues that comprise the unofficial fourth-tier of the US Soccer League system. Featuring mostly college and other youth players, who are able to retain their amateur status, the PDL season runs from May to August. There are 6 Texas teams in the PDL Mid South Division, four in south Texas and two in the north. OKC Energy U23 fills out the Division, which is part of the PDL Southern Conference.
There are two general approaches MLS organizations take to set up PDL clubs:
- Direct ownership of a PDL/U23 club that plays close to or in the city of the MLS team. These teams are usually associated with MLS franchises having similar directly owned USL teams. New York Red Bulls and Portland Timbers are examples of this type of model, each with USL and U23 PDL teams using the MLS brand.
- Partnering with business owners in cities in the same state to form PDL clubs. The MLS team provides technical oversight and players for clubs, who have separate identities based around the city or region that hosts the PDL team. These PDL teams can be aligned with USL teams also affiliated with the MLS parent. This strategy has been popular recently, as evidenced by the partnership between expansion side Los Angeles FC, Orange County SC and OCSC U23.
The two Texas MLS teams, Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas, have so far adopted very different approaches to both their USL and PDL operations. FC Dallas, though they have stated that the club will eventually field a USL team, have so far chosen to send selected young players to USL partners. Their Academy alumni players who attend college also play at PDL teams, either with their USL affiliate OKC Energy’s U23 team, or other clubs not affiliated with FC Dallas.
The Houston Dynamo, on the other hand, have aggressively filled out their development pipeline by partnering with local business owners in South Texas communities to establish both USL and PDL teams. This process began in 2016 when Rio Grande Valley FC (RGV FC) began USL play in Edinburg and continued in 2017 when Brazos Valley Cavalry F.C. started PDL operations in the College Station/Bryan area.
Brazos Valley Cavalry F.C. 2017 Team Huddle
Brazos Valley Cavalry F.C.-A New Soccer Beachhead in a Rapidly Growing Texas Metro Area
The Cavalry were established by local Brazos Valley businessman and Managing Partner Uri Geva, who is also involved in the Brazos Valley Bombers baseball team in Bryan. Geva, who has worked closely with the Bryan city government to revitalize and operate Nutrabolt Stadium-the home of both teams-established a partnership with the Houston Dynamo to run soccer operations for the Cavalry. Despite the connection to the existing baseball team, Geva is clear that the Cavalry were created for purely soccer reasons.
“We felt that adding a PDL soccer team to the Brazos Valley was very important in developing the game here. In the Brazos Valley, we have a great deal of talent in the area and to have the opportunity to showcase that talent locally was a no-brainer. Having the facility that could easily be converted from a baseball field to a soccer pitch just made the process smoother and allowed for us to start play in the PDL sooner.”
Geva also saw the partnership with the Dynamo as a faster path to fielding a competitive team for Brazos Valley fans to enjoy.
“Being able to have the relationship with the Houston Dynamo is a great partnership for both parties. The Dynamo have long been thought of as one of the best teams to develop local talent in the state of Texas. To be able to have the talent that we are able to add from our relationship with the Dynamo, both including players and technical staff, have gone a long way in getting this team to be competitive right away.”
James Clarkson-Cavalry’s Inaugural Head Coach Returns for Year Two
The Dynamo felt strongly enough about the future of the partnership in the Brazos Valley that they appointed their Development Academy (DA) Director, James Clarkson, to serve as Head Coach for the Cavalry in their inaugural season.
Clarkson, who was raised in England and had a playing career that took him to Australia and New Zealand, arrived in Texas in 1997. He was initially involved with a Houston youth soccer club and moved to the state organization, South Texas Youth Soccer Association (STYSA) in 2002. He served as Director of Coaching at STYSA until 2006, when he made the move to the Dynamo to form one of the early MLS Development Academy (DA) programs (now part of the US Soccer Development Academy system) that began play in 2007. Clarkson also holds a prestigious Elite Formation Coaching License, a result of his graduation from a joint program between French Football Federation and MLS to provide Academy coaches with world class training through a 16-month development course.
Clarkson will continue to coach Brazos Valley F.C. again in 2018 and he generously spent time speaking with Texas Soccer Journal last week about plans for the club this year.
The Cavalry-A Key Part of an Integrated Player Pathway for Houston Dynamo
This PDL partnership isn’t the first time that the Dynamo have been involved in summer activity with their Academy graduates. The club previously fielded an Under-23 team at the Houston Sports Park, prior to establishment of the Cavalry and entry to the PDL. These U-23 teams, consisting of former and current DA players and trialists, played a limited schedule of games each summer. Clarkson sees the Cavalry as an evolution of these prior summer programs.
“[Now that the Dynamo are in the PDL] we work on the same process. We want the players on our homegrown protected list to come back so we can keep tabs on them, we can retain their hours and hopefully they progress to a stage where we can start to recommend them for the USL or the first team.” Clarkson continued, “The majority of players will be former and current academy players, so what we want to try and do with the PDL is accelerate some of the younger players development.”
Clarkson pointed to 16-year old Marcelo Palomino, who has risen within the Dynamo DA and recently played on United States Youth National teams, as an example of the type of player that fits the development process he described. Palomino was one of a handful of Academy youth who played for the Cavalry last season and could see additional minutes this year after his academic year and DA season ends. Clarkson stated that this influx of Houston Dynamo DA players is also helpful in managing the PDL roster, because many college players begin returning to their schools around July 4th each year.
Marcelo Palomino in action for Brazos Valley
Clarkson also discussed the technical style of the Cavalry and how it fits into the top-to-bottom approach of play within the Dynamo system.
“We are all trying to work together the same way. We have clear principles that we want to try to instill in the players that goes through all of the age groups and levels. I think it’s important, not necessarily having to play exactly the same way because the players are different, that we set up with some base formations and then have tactical principles that we want to implement and teach that are the same as what the first team are using.”
Season Two-On-Field Lessons Learned and Growth Plans for 2018
When queried about lessons learned from the first season, Clarkson pointed to roster management as a key area of focus. He remarked that everybody returning from college wants to play all the time but said the team will take a more strategic approach to spreading out the minutes among the players and, as a result, is building a deeper roster for the 2018 season. He also plans to focus more on preparation during the short preseason, which hopefully will lead to a faster start. Clarkson specifically pointed to the two opening weekend losses last year as “putting us in a hole straight away and [the early losses] made the season quite difficult.”
Matt Dorsey, Elo Ozumba and Christian Molina celebrate a 2017 PDL regular season goal
Despite the opening weekend losses, the Cavalry recovered to finish in third place (6-7-1-19 points) in the 2017 Mid South Division standings. The Cavalry finished outside of the playoffs but won unofficial statewide bragging rights by finishing higher in the table than their Texas PDL cohorts, who also entered the league in 2017. The positive first season has created substantial interest from other college players around the country and Clarkson believes the eight players who are coming from outside the traditional Dynamo program will strengthen the squad for the upcoming season. Two of these players, forward Brandon Guhl and defender Jon-Talen Maples, were identified by Top Drawer Soccer as two of the top ten Division I college players in the Southern Conference to watch this year.
Three of last year’s Cavalry players have moved on to professional careers. Defenders Zach Jackson and Jay Tambe signed USL contracts with RGV FC and Colorado Switchbacks respectively and forward Rimario Gordon moved abroad to play in Vietnam’s first division.
The core of the 2018 Cavalry roster is currently in place, but the team will be holding tryouts in Houston on May 12th and 13th. Clarkson states that these auditions traditionally have produced enough talent to fill out the remainder of the roster. Training for the team began on May 7th. During the season the Cavalry will train at the Houston Sports Park, typically in the mornings to avoid Houston summer heat, and travel to Bryan on game days.
Daniel Roberts will serve as the Cavalry’s head Assistant Coach again this season. Roberts is also part of the Dynamo Academy staff, where he serves as Head of Player Recruitment & Analysis and coaches the U-10 Academy team. Clarkson characterizes the support network for the Cavalry from the Academy staff as “a real team effort”, mentioning Jason Grubb who will coach the Cavalry goalkeepers. He also pointed out that the PDL is an excellent training ground for other Academy coaches to help grow in their professional careers.
Brazos Valley’s PDL schedule is already compressed-14 regular season games played between the third week of May and early July. The Cavalry have added four friendly matches immediately before and during the season against NPSL and UPSL teams to this already crowded schedule, raising the question of how big a roster is needed for all this activity. Clarkson views these friendly matches as a perfect opportunity for the U17 and U19 Dynamo Academy players to get additional experience, but the focus on playing time for DA players isn’t just these friendlies. He commented about how the atmosphere at the PDL games, especially from the vocal home fans at Nutrabolt Stadium, adds to the pre-professional development of young players.
All of these playing opportunities lead to one clear objective for Clarkson and the club. “It is important that we give these kids an opportunity, because we would be hypocrites if we were playing 23 and 24-year olds in every single game when we are trying to push our youth through to the USL and first team.”
Clarkson sees 2018 as one more step in the primary objective of the Dynamo youth system-to provide more players for RGV FC and, over time, the first team.
“We feel with the PDL and the level of competition that it exposes the players to another level. It is vitally important in our overall development process and hopefully through the PDL and these experiences we can get [the players] down to RGV. There were three or four [Cavalry players from] last year who went down to RGV for preseason this year.”
Growth Plans Also on the Business Side of the Cavalry’s Operations
Cavalry’s Managing Partner Uri Geva also has ambitious goals of his own on the business side for the 2018 season.
“Heading into this season we have definitely saw that we needed to make some changes to take the next step. This season we will have new locker rooms so the players will have a place to rest during halftime and reaffirms our strong facilities. We are also committed to having a strong digital presence, having hired a new team member who will help us be the top presence digitally in the PDL. This season, we will also have a jersey sponsor, College Station Ford, which will let us have more of a presence within the community. Finally, we will be able to refine our game-day presentation to improve the experience for our fans.”
Stuart Close, Dominick Faletto and Captain Josue Palomino in 2017 PDL action
Both the Cavalry and Dynamo are focused right now on 2018, but it is not out of the realm of possibility that Brazos Valley could host a professional soccer team someday. The USL is currently establishing a Division III league in U.S. Soccer Pyramid (now called USL D3) with a focus on cities with populations of 150,000 or more, a figure that the Brazos Valley already easily eclipses. Geva states that he is currently focused on growing the Cavalry but believes that if the right opportunity arises and the resources are there, that the next level could be a possibility at some point in the future.
The first season didn’t result in a Southern Conference playoff appearance for Brazos Valley, but the Cavalry and the Houston Dynamo are clearly taking steps to achieve this milestone in 2018. The journey begins on May 22 when Brazos Valley F.C. hosts Houston FC at Nutrabolt Stadium.
IMAGE AND LOGO CREDIT: BRAZOS VALLEY CAVALRY F.C.