Toronto FC announced Wednesday that it has signed a one-year partnership agreement with Wilmington Hammerheads FC.
Based in North Carolina, Wilmington competes in the USL Professional Division (commonly known as USL Pro), which is the third tier of the American soccer pyramid below Major League Soccer and the North American Soccer League.
As part of the deal, TFC will loan a minimum of four players from its first team to Wilmington during the course of the MLS season.
"We are very excited to partner with Wilmington Hammerheads FC and continue to enhance the development of professional footballers in North America," TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko said in a release.
Both Bezbatchenko and coach Ryan Nelsen said one of the club’s off-season objectives was to forge a working relationship with a lower-level club where they can send players who are struggling for playing time with the first team to gain valuable seasoning and experience.
At the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, TFC ended up selecting a pair of Canadians in midfielder Kyle Bekker and forward Emery Welshman. Neither player made much of an impact during the regular season—Welshman only played five minutes, and often didn’t even dress on game days.
Now TFC has the option to send players such as Welshman to Wilmington so he can stay sharp and continue his development. Aside from Welshman, other possible loan candidates include recent TFC youth academy grads Manuel Aparicio, Quillan Roberts, and Jordan Hamilton.
"On the first team it can be a challenge getting younger players sufficient match experience required for their development during the course of a season," Bezbatchenko admitted.
"This partnership with Wilmington will allow our players to earn those valuable match minutes and continue their growth during the season in a professional environment in USL Pro. Today we have filled a developmental gap within our club."
Toronto is not the first MLS club to form an affiliation with a USL Pro club, as they join Sporting Kansas City (Orlando City and OKC Energy FC), Houston Dynamo (Pittsburgh Riverhounds), Philadelphia Union (Harrisburg City Islanders), D.C. United (Richmond Kickers) and New England Revolution (Rochester Rhinos).
As a result of the partnership, TFC will opt out of the MLS Reserve League for the 2014 season.