From 2005-2008, Major League Soccer fielded a 12-game Reserve Division schedule.
In that time, Chris Wondolowski was twice the Reserve League’s top scorer and was on the Houston Dynamo team that won the Reserve title in 2008. Now, he is coming off of a Golden Boot winning season for the San Jose Earthquakes and is primed to help San Jose return to the playoffs after reaching the Eastern Conference final last season.
It’s hard to say how much success he would be having now if not for the experience he gained in the Reserve Division with one of the top teams in the league.
He’s not the only player to come from that Houston team though. Stuart Holden, Geoff Cameron and Patrick Ianni also saw time with that team while learning behind the experienced veterans with the Dynamo that also won the MLS Cup in 2006 and 2007.
“All of the young guys who were at Houston benefitted from playing with the older guys and now you see a lot of those guys having success,” Ianni said. “It’s something I was grateful to be a part of.”
This Sunday, the Sounders will kick off their first official MLS Reserve Division match against the San Jose Earthquakes reserves after the first teams go at it on Saturday night. It marks the return of the reserve league in MLS after a two-year hiatus and the Sounders hope to use it in several ways to their benefit.
In addition to harvesting young talent on the roster, they also plan to work in some of the Academy players along the way, as well as working players back into fitness after injuries.
“It’s great for us because Academy guys will have an opportunity to play. I looked at our Reserve team the other day and thought it would be a good team for the weekend for our MLS games,” Sounders FC technical director Chris Henderson said. “I think our Reserve team is very strong and it’s a great opportunity for those guys to get minutes and stay fit and push for starting spots. We’re going to take it very seriously.”
In its previous incarnation, some teams took the Reserve Division very seriously and benefitted from the success and growth of those players that were nurtured along the way. Others saw it as an unnecessary burden and used staff and front office personnel into the match to fill out lineups.
This time around, teams are expected to use it in a much more appropriate fashion. With expanded rosters, the Academy system and the opportunity to use trialists, each match now has much more significance and interest.
The Sounders FC will also benefit in the short term, as they will now have avenues to get players into competitions throughout the year to keep players sharp for the US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League play later in the summer.
“It gets games and that’s what you need at this level. We have a very deep team here and there are guys that need minutes,” said Nate Jaqua, who scored five goals in the Open Cup last year. “When the Open Cup comes around and the Champions League comes around we’re going to need a deep team of guys that are game-fit and ready to play.”
Along with getting players more games, the team will also use the matches to get Ezra Hendrickson more coaching experience. The third-year assistant coach will head up the Reserve squad and relishes the challenge.
“It’s just an opportunity for me to coach and make some in-game decisions. At the end of the day, my job is to get these guys ready and keep them ready so when their number gets called for the first team they are ready,” he said. “It’s very important to keep the guys who aren’t playing on Saturday sharp. It’s a very important part of what we do here. The more guys we can get ready and able to challenge for a starting 11 spot, the better the team becomes.”
On Sunday, players who don’t play significant minutes in Saturday’s match with the Earthquakes will suit up against San Jose’s reserves.