Player Development Is Top Priority In USL-Scottish Premiership Club Partnerships – Forbes

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Whenever Leland Archer arrives for training at the Hibernian Training Centre, he enters the facility with a smile on his face—even when it’s cloudy or raining, which can often be the case in Scotland.

Part of that is due to his personality, but another major reason for Archer to smile is his appreciation of the opportunity at hand. Originally from Trinidad & Tobago, Archer is one of the first players to benefit from a new partnership between the Charleston Battery of the USL Championship and Scottish Premiership side Hibernian FC.

“For me it’s obviously good to see where I’m at, especially since I’ve only played in the USL as a pro,” said Archer, a 24-year-old defender. “It’s good to get a gauge of where I’m at to the standards out here. Personally, it will definitely improve my game whether it works out or not because I’ll have this experience and know how much I’ll have to work to get towards where I want to get.”

Archer and Battery midfielder Robbie Crawford joined Hibs on trial in November following the conclusion of the 2020 USL Championship season. After a two-week quarantine period upon arriving in Edinburgh, the players were able to join their new teammates for training, quickly showcasing what the recently announced strategic partnership between the two clubs is all about.

“As you start to build a relationship, the first player that comes is going to set the tone going forward, and Leland’s been excellent in that sense,” Hibernian sporting director Graeme Mathie said. “When we’ve seen players coming from North America to here, they understand the game in Scotland is different. It’s a bit more intense, it’s certainly relentless; the game keeps going 100 miles per hour for 90 minutes. The ones who can adapt to changes and challenges are the ones who go further in their career.”

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Barely a month ago on November 10, the Battery and Hibernian announced a partnership built on collaboration between the two clubs focusing on player development, scouting, operational efficiency and community engagement.

While the partnership is quickly paying dividends, getting the two clubs together was years in the making. Battery COO Mike Kelleher was at a Soccerex event in Miami two years ago when United States-based businessman Ron Gordon reached out to him. Gordon was interested in getting involved with the USL, which included potentially buying the Battery, so the two got coffee and chatted. After the Peru-born Gordon, who also had ambitions abroad, became the majority shareholder of Hibernian in July 2019, and the Battery was sold to the Rob Salvatore-led HCFC LLC that October, Gordon and Kelleher remained in touch. Gordon’s son, Ian, who later relocated to Charleston, South Carolina, met Kelleher and the rest, as they say, is history.

“Part of my remit and role with the club pre-covid was to get across to Europe and open up some doors there,” said Kelleher, who previously worked in the English Premier League focusing on youth development. “… It was trying to find pathways for the players, under our control to a degree, to go. That was the thing we were looking for this year. 

“Five months ago Ron said his son was moving to Charleston and that I should meet him. We started talking and wanted to see what we could do together, what could work, and out of that came the partnership. It just sort of fell in our lap more than anything.”

Player pathway

Graeme Mathie is a realist, knowing where Hibernian FC fits into the global soccer ecosystem. The club, which was founded in 1875, won the Scottish Premiership four times between 1948-52 led by the Famous Five, its notable forward line, but Hibs fell on hard times during the late 1980s and was in financial ruin in 1990.

Hearts chairman Wallace Mercer proposed the two clubs merge, but fans believed it was more of a hostile takeover than a lifeline, so they banded together to keep Hibs alive. Like a knight in shining armor, Scottish entrepreneur Sir Tom Farmer came to the rescue, and the club enjoyed more ups than downs since, including winning the Scottish League Cup in 1991 and 2006, while adding its most recent trophy—the 2015 Scottish Cup—to its cabinet.

Heading into the busy holiday period, Hibs is currently fourth in Scotland’s top division, and await St. Johnstone in the Scottish League Cup semifinal in late January.

Because of this Mathie, who was appointed sporting director in October 2019, is looking for Hibs to have various partner clubs to work with for a number of reasons including furthering player pathways to commercial or marketing benefits; the partnership with Charleston is mainly focused on player development.

“We’re certainly not arrogant enough to think we’re a bigger club or play at a higher level than anybody,” Mathie said. “This is a mutually beneficial relationship where we both bring different things to the table.”

While Archer and Crawford are currently in Scotland, pandemic-permitting, Kelleher and Battery head coach Mike Anhaeuser will travel to Edinburgh in early 2021 to scout Hibs players to join the USL side for the upcoming season, while visiting club facilities and discussing commercial, marketing and digital initiatives.

Select Battery players will get the opportunity to train with Hibs in the hopes of transferring to the club as their next step in their career, while Hibs players can benefit from steady first-team soccer in a new country and league with Charleston to further their development.

Even though the Battery have been unable to send executives to Scotland, the partnership isn’t all Zoom calls and Whatsapp messages. Hibs technical scout Ian Gordon lives in Charleston, providing more face-to-face opportunities between the two clubs.

“I think it makes it kind of a unique relationship in a sense that we can have a long-distance relationship but have someone representing Hibs here locally to help nurture the relationship,” Gordon said. “We are constantly meeting every week and it’s a great way to keep up with the partnership.”

Transfer potential

In 2019, the value of international transfers was $7.35 billion, 5.8% more than the prior year, according to FIFA’s Global Transfer Market Report. UEFA was the most active confederation with 1,914 clubs from 53 different associations engaging in 12,290 (68.1%) of the 18,042 worldwide transfers. The value of those transfers involving UEFA was $5.6 billion, representing 76.2% of the total value of transfer fees worldwide.

That eye-popping number is a key to many European clubs’ success, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, which is stifling sponsorship and crippling ticket sales.

For example, Chelsea FC, which sold star Eden Hazard to Real Madrid in 2019 in a deal worth up to $165 million, including a $125 million transfer fee, has used that money to facilitate a spending spree ahead of this season that included Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner and Ben Chilwell.

The sale hasn’t just benefited Chelsea, but the Blues’ reported $102.9 million purchase of Havertz, the highest-ever fee for a German player, from Bayer Leverkusen has helped soften the impact of the pandemic for the German side, who are currently second in the Bundesliga.

Pandemic or not, the sale of players is vital to a club’s lifeblood for future success.

The USL is based on a franchise model, so each individual club receives 100% of the transfer fees for players sold. Major League Soccer (MLS), the top tier of soccer in the United States, is a single-entity league, meaning the league receives a portion of every club’s sale; that number used to be 25% but was lessened to 5% after the new CBA was approved in January 2020.

While MLS is altering its structure to encourage outgoing transfers, the USL is hoping its outgoing transfers will not only benefit its own clubs financially to reinvest, but also show up-and-coming players there is another path to European soccer outside of MLS.

The United States ranked eighth in the world with 78 clubs involved in transfers during 2019, but they were mostly buyers, bringing in 411 players, while selling 344.

“I believe we have as many talented players in the United States as everywhere else in the world,” said Oliver Wyss, Orange County SC president of soccer operations and general manager. “Everyone says will the next (Lionel) Messi be in the United States and we might have had the next Messi four or five times, we just haven’t realized or developed him and that’s ultimately fallen by the wayside.”

Fostering and facilitating that player development is key for Orange County SC, which announced their strategic partnership with Rangers FC in December 2019. Wyss, who joined the club six years ago, and owner & CEO James Keston are striving to build a successful and sustainable business model that isn’t solely based on sponsorships and ticket sales, but also player transfers.

The goal is to provide players at the youth level with a professional environment to train and learn. Many of these players will play in the USL Academy League (U-15 to U-19), which serves as a reserve team for USL Championship, League One and League Two senior sides. From there, they can be promoted to the first team or transferred (either permanent or loan) to another club. For Orange County and Charleston, the next step for their first-team players would be Rangers and Hibernian, respectively.

On the other side of the coin, the Scottish clubs see more benefit in sending their academy and fringe first teamers to play in the USL rather than loaning them out to a lower-league team in Scotland. These players will benefit from adapting to another league and style in a foreign country, with many playing abroad for the first time in their careers.

“I felt very strongly that for us to be successful we could not be the end piece,” Wyss said. “A USL club could not be the end piece of a player transfer model in that we needed a perfect European partner. … I think the reality of players in the USL going into the Scottish Premiership is a very valid pathway and I think it makes sense in every single aspect of development.”

Orange County SC found its perfect partner in Rangers, who are also interested in furthering a player development pathway. One of the 11 original members of the Scottish Premier League, Rangers remained in the top division until being struck by a financial crisis during the 2011-12 season which saw the club go into administration with the company liquidated and assets moved to a new company structure. As a result, Rangers were accepted as an associate member of the SPL and placed in the fourth tier of the Scottish football system, but earned three promotions over four years to return to the top flight.

The club, which has won 54 first-tier championships, are currently unbeaten with 50 points atop the Scottish Premiership, and have suffered just one loss in all competitions so far this season—a 3-2 defeat to St. Mirren in the Scottish League Cup on December 16.

“For us as a football club, we have some international ambitions,” said James Bisgrove, Rangers commercial and marketing director. “North America was a logical choice for us because it’s where our largest international fanbase live, and there’s been a share of American players (Claudio Reyna, DeMarcus Beasley, Maurice Edu) who left their mark on the club. Probably the most meaningful way to bring this to life was to form a strategic partnership with a club on the ground in the U.S.”

Like the Battery-Hibs partnership, Orange County SC and Rangers have already been benefiting from sharing resources, including players. Rangers academy players Cammy Palmer, Danny Finlayson and Matthew Shiels went on loan to Orange County this past season, while OCSC goalkeeper Aaron Cervantes, who represented the United States at the 2019 Under-17 World Cup, transferred to Rangers in October after impressing while on trial in Glasgow last year.

The recent success of American players abroad including Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Sergino Dest (Barcelona) and others means there’s more eyeballs on the United States. It’s why the number of European clubs partnering with American sides is increasing. Bayern Munich and FC Dallas announced their partnership in February 2018, while Aberdeen FC and Atlanta United FC announced a partnership in November 2019.

With these two more recent USL partnerships, European clubs aren’t just looking at the MLS and their academies, but are expanding their potential reach in the hopes of finding the next star for their club to develop and potentially sell to a larger fish in the global soccer pond.

“It’s a recognition that USL communities across the United States are flush with young, emerging talent,” said Ryan Madden, USL vice-president of communications. “Soccer is unique in that there truly is a worldwide marketplace for such talent, and in a lot of ways Rangers and Hibs are just ahead of the curve in turning that recognition into something that can positively impact their clubs.”

Finding that next superstar and developing him from a young age then preparing him for a variety of professional settings and challenges in the USL and Scottish Premiership before potentially selling him to a major European club is the ideal pathway being constructed through these partnerships.

To many, including Wyss, who played in his native Switzerland before being diagnosed with a rare blood disorder that prematurely ended his career, partnering with European clubs and creating this pathway for players will not only benefit the clubs involved, but U.S. soccer as a whole.

“Obviously in the USL and MLS there has been a tremendous increase in franchise values and people have looked at it from that perspective and from sponsorships and ticket sales, which is a very important piece, but specifically in the USL there’s a massive opportunity to get involved in that player transfer market,” Wyss said. “If it’s a $5 billion-a-year market, the U.S. with its talent should be a much, much bigger contributor to this. 

“We feel that this USL platform lets you build this. If you have the right partner who can help you develop this, and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, partner up with somebody and work with them together. At the end of the day if you align that pathway and you use the best of both worlds, you can really produce a pathway model that will produce world-class players who will go down the line and contribute heavily in Europe and hopefully to the U.S. national team.”

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