Down The Southern Road
Once the trophies have been lifted in emphatic triumph then dropped by players unaccustomed to using their hands, the victors’ confetti is swept aside along with the memories of the previous season to open an extended summer of whispers. While the Home Nations do have the odd European qualifier or international friendly over the summer and clubs partake in pre-season matches after the players enjoy a few weeks on holiday, most of this summer’s action will be taking place out of the public eye as club managers haggle with player agents over transfer fees, battle creditors for unpaid services from last year, and contradict the media which are rumouring on what they are doing in the absence of actual football. We return again to a mid-summer trough, where other than the Women’s World Cup in Germany, there is little to distract us from the gossip of player movements, the dissection of managerial appointments, and wild prognostications as to who our favored clubs will field next campaign.
If only there was an enforceable superinjunction on transfer gossip.
Across the pond, though, football is in full flow from the top division of Major League Soccer down to the US Adult Soccer Association and US Club Soccer, both of which occupy the lowest tier on the American football pyramid. Just above these associations is the fourth tier where the Premier Development League resides. The PDL is a league of 64 clubs organized divisionally into nine regions and comprises a smorgasboard of local and foreign talent. From local school lads competing with the chance of being recognized by a professional club to former Everton and Pompey academy players plying their trades in the New World, the PDL sits squarely in the fork of the road splitting the amateur and professional ranks in the United States, and this is where my local club currently play.
The Baton Rouge Capitals recently embarked on their fourth league campaign since the club’s founding in 2007. While the opening two away matches this weekend were disappointing losses where tempers flared and resolution wilted in the heat of Texas summer nights, the Red and Black return home prepared to improve upon their semi-final appearance in last season’s PDL Championship. With forward Ben Callon up top, Justin Jose Portillo on one of the wings, and defender Stuart Hayers in the back, the capital club returns a number of players who contributed a great deal to last year’s successful campaign. One of the greatest challenges for the Caps this season will be replacing 2010 PDL Defender of the Year Joe Tait, who moved up to the professional ranks and now plays in the third tier with the Dayton Dutch Lions.
Granted, mentioning the exploits of this club and this league might be as far off the beaten path as tracking the happenings of the Vanuatu national team to most readers here, but there are some mentions and affiliations that could merit some attention from the British crowd. Initially, the club had a South American flavor as its early Brazilian coaches filled their rosters using their personal connections to attract players to a brand new side in the swamps of the American South. Last season, however, the club underwent a change in ownership along with a change in its recruitment from looking primarily at South American talent to leaning heavily on English talent. Callon–who also serves as the club’s general manager–is a Lancashire lad who spent time in the Burnley FC youth sides and the club’s player/coach Hayers represented Great Britain at the 2009 World University Games in Belgrade. Last season Hayers brought along his World Games teammates Scott McCubbin and Tom Settle, from Nottingham and Portsmouth respectively.
While the Bishop Auckland native McCubbin didn’t return for this season, former Pompey youth player Settle has come back to the States to lend his talent on set pieces and provide Callon with the timely assist as he cuts in from the right wing. London-born Luke Sheekey also returned to the side as player/assistant coach, and his name might be familiar to supporters of either Hendon FC or those who followed the reserve sides of Queens Park Rangers a few years back. Perhaps the most notable new face to the side–and likely the replacement for Tait–is defender Mark Ross. Ross is returned to the US in hopes of securing a professional contract after having helped Chorley FC this season to promotion from the Northern Premier League’s Division One North.
Now, while the Premier Development League officially claims to be the top amateur division in the United States, there has recently come to pass a designation which allows clubs to pay some of its squad wages while retaining its league status. Under the PDL-Pro program, certain clubs have indeed opted to offer pay to attract talent to their sides as long as those players qualify under the league’s multiple age-eligibility rules (simply put, clubs can’t field too many older players). The drawback to this, however, is those clubs choosing the PDL-Pro designation forfeit the opportunity to fill out their rosters with university players home for the summer, as current amateur rules for them suggest they are allowed to play against professionals on an opposing team but not with them on the same team. In this context, then, is why the Premier Development League is the fork in the road between the amateur and professional ranks in the United States.
Thus far, Baton Rouge has not sought PDL-Pro status and chose to fill out its remaining roster spots this off-season with a few local school talents. As some of the more prominent players also serve the club in some management or administrative capacity, however, this likely allows them to earn some living by working for the club without violating their amateur status simply if they were only squad players. If last season’s performance was any indication, though, this work-around succeeds, as the Red and Black played some enjoyable football that produced watchable results on the pitch. The next step to success would be to energize an average home crowd of nearly 600 who far too often sit on their hands at Olympia Stadium, seemingly stunned into silence as the odd chant echoes off the bland, gray concrete edifice that has been the Caps’ home ground the past few seasons.
So, when you need a break from the ongoing shenanigans at Wrexham FC or tire quickly about hearing how many millions of pounds Chelsea will shell out to deliver Roman Abramovich a Champions League trophy, cast an eye west and you will find quality lower league football still being played. While Tom Settle’s free kicks might not look as beautiful as David Beckham’s, they can often be just as effective. There is no promotion or relegation battle between the 3rd and 4th divisions in the United States, but there is still a trophy up for grabs with lads leaving it all out on the pitches this summer for the chance to touch that cup.
Here’s betting none of them would be careless enough to drop it when they do.
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