When Bethlehem Steel FC kicks off their inaugural season this spring, they will be the third lower division sports team in the Lehigh Valley with ties to a major league club, joining the AHL Lehigh Valley Phantoms in hockey and the Lehigh Valley IronPigs of minor league baseball's International League.
But the traditional system American sports fans are familiar with of players being sent down to the minors and others being promoted to the big club isn't quite how things will work at Steel FC.
Unlike the NHL or MLB, Major League Soccer's single-entity ownership structure means only players under contract with the league can play in an official match or friendly for an MLS team (preseason excluded).
Officially, at least.
That means, the Steel FC players who have been training and playing with the Philadelphia Union can only play in USL (sadly, the Open Cup is out). Same goes for the Union Academy players, up to five of whom will have a chance to play for the USL club while maintaining their college eligibility if Union coaches choose to take advantage of the amateur roster slots.
Derrick Jones Amaniampong, Steel FC's first signing out of the Union Academy, would have to be signed to a Homegrown contract by the first team to suit up for the blue and gold. The same goes for any of the other players currently on USL contracts.
This is markedly different than in minor league baseball or hockey where all of the players are already essentially signed to first team contracts and can be recalled to the big club at any time (lots of other complex contractual mechanisms do exist though in terms of the number of times players can be moved back and forth).
Where it is similar is that a first team player can be loaned down to Bethlehem Steel FC to play on a short-term injury or fitness recovery basis, or a longer loan like the one Richie Marquez had to great success at former Union USL affiliate Harrisburg City Islanders his rookie year.
USL-to-MLS loans have occurred on an emergency basis as Will Parchman points out in a recent blog post on TopDrawerSoccer titled "How MLS is scrambling to close loopholes as they arise." The first to occur happened last year when Dave Romney and Ariel Lassiter were loaned from LA Galaxy II to LA Galaxy.
The loophole this seemingly creates is one I've wondered about since Bethlehem Steel FC was first announced.
If a player can be loaned from USL-to-MLS, it opens up a wide range of possibilities to work around MLS rules, from bypassing allocation and working around the salary cap to making the MLS SuperDraft even less necessary than it already is (In a round about way, this was kind of how the Union ended up with Sheanon Williams, who signed with Harrisburg after one year at North Carolina and then signed a year later with the Union).
Parchman was able to get an MLS spokesperson to say that the league allows "short term agreements in cases of extreme hardship" so this would suggest, for example, that a Steel FC goalkeeper would be able to be included in the game day 18 for the Union if say Andre Blake is away on international duty and the second or third string keeper is injured. Other USL-to-MLS loan schemes, if not officially written into the 2016 roster rules when they are finalized by the league, will probably not stand.
At least not for the Union.