The Charleston Battery of USL PRO will affiliate with the Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer in a one-year deal for the 2015 season, the clubs announced Monday.
The arrangement is unique in that both clubs were affiliated with other teams in 2014, and Houston is pursuing plans to launch its own USL PRO club before the 2016 season.
Affiliation deals commit MLS clubs to loan at least four players from their first-team roster to their USL PRO partner.
Top-league participation in USL PRO -- either via affiliation or by an MLS team creating its own USL PRO club -- becomes mandatory with the start of the 2015 season and the demise of the old MLS Reserve League. But not all USL PRO teams will have an MLS affiliate.
Battery President Andrew Bell said Battery officials spoke to several MLS clubs and weighed not seeking an affiliate. His discussions with Houston ultimately convinced him both clubs would benefit from a one-year deal. The Dynamo, who return to Charleston in February for a third consecutive and sixth all-time appearance in the Carolina Challenge Cup, have been one of the league's most successful clubs.
“We've had a great relationship with the Dynamo since their inception and have played them multiple times in preseason and in the US Open Cup,” Bell said. “They do things the right way and have got a great management structure in place.”
Houston won two MLS Cup championships and four conference championships in its first nine seasons of play and has qualified to represent the United States in international competition six times. The team began play in 2006 when the staff and roster of the original San Jose Earthquakes -- including former head coach Dom Kinnear -- relocated to Houston.
Kinnear resigned from the Dynamo in October to return to the Earthquakes, making way for the club to hire former English Premier League manager Owen Coyle as his replacement. Coyle brought then-EPL side Bolton Wanderers to Charleston's Blackbuad Stadium in July 2010 for a friendly against the Battery.
Matt Jordan, Houston's vice president and general manager, said his club was pleased with the outcome. "(Charleston Battery) are one of the most respected clubs in USL with a proven track record of success and professionalism. We feel this affiliation will provide our players the opportunity to grow in a quality environment, with a staff that is very dedicated.”
The MLS mandate is driving an unprecedented off-season expansion in USL PRO, which has grown from 14 teams in 2014 to more than 20 in 2015. Seven of the league's clubs are now owned by MLS franchises, up from one club in 2014. An eighth club, MLS expansion side and former USL PRO team Orlando City S.C., sold its USL PRO rights to a new ownership group in Louisville, Ky.
The offseason shuffle leaves eight USL PRO clubs (Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Wilmington Hammerheads, Arizona United, Orange County Blues and expansion franchises St. Louis F.C., Austin Aztecs, Colorado Springs Switchbacks and Tulsa Roughnecks) at least momentarily without MLS affiliates, while five MLS teams have yet to announce their plans.
Bell signed the Battery's first affiliation deal in December 2013, linking the club to the Vancouver Whitecaps. Both clubs initially viewed the one-year deal as the beginning of a long-term relationship. But the Whitecaps began investigating the option of starting their own USL PRO team in Canada before the season ended and elected to go that route in September.
“The partnership with Vancouver was great, but I think we were probably both a bit naive about how much impact the distance and the international transfer restrictions would have on the success of the affiliation,” Bell said. “Its a shame, really, because from the ownership down we have great respect and friendship with the club.”
Houston's first affiliation lacked the complexities of an international border, but suffered from the same issues of distance. The Dynamo sent five players to Pittsburgh in 2014, but signaled this fall that the team was interested in creating its own lower-division team. The club is investigating a deal that would place its USL PRO team in McAllen, Texas -- a border town 350 miles south of Houston.