MLS' newest talent pipeline: Five players to watch in USL Pro during 2013

Orlando City vs. Columbus Crew

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USL Pro is recognized as third division of professional soccer in the United States by the U.S.S.F. However, with expansion teams, strong connections to youth clubs and a recently inked partnership with Major League Soccer, USL Pro is on set to attract attention from far more than the local fan. The season opener between expansion side Phoenix FC and the LA Blues is this weekend.

These days, USL Pro's got a new look, one based in large part on filling the gaps when it comes to developing talent in North America.

The most notable part of USL Pro’s 2013 revamp is its partnership with Major League Soccer. The new deal, a multi-year inter-league loan agreement, has seen several MLS teams formalize partnerships with USL counterparts, which allows for a sharing of players between teams. In the future, MLS reserve sides could even play full USL Pro seasons.

READ: Dynamo midfielder Brian Ownby loaned to Richmond Kickers

That means USL Pro fans will have the chance to see future stars of MLS who are sent to develop by their parent clubs. The Richmond Kickers have partnered with D.C. United and will now reap the benefits as D.C. have sent Casey Townsend, Connor Shanosky, Taylor Kemp and Michael Seaton to gain match experience week in and week out with the Kickers. Similar deals have been struck between Orlando City and Sporting KC, Harrisburg and the Philadelphia Union, and the Rochester Rhinos and New England Revolution.

And although these MLS products will have an opportunity to take center stage, they'll be fighting for attention with USL Pro's cadre of experienced veterans.

With that in mind, here are five players to watch in USL Pro during the 2013 season.

Jamie Watson (Orlando City SC)

Signed by MLS in 2005 as a member of Generation adidas, Watson (right vs. Toronto FC) slogged through a difficult first season with Real Salt Lake. Finding himself on the chopping block in 2007, Watson plied his trade in the PDL (4th division) during 2008, and it was a year later when Watson’s play earned him a spot on the now-defunct Austin Aztex. With that return to form he became a star, moving — along with the Aztex — to Orlando, where he's now a veteran leader. His play even prompted Minnesota head coach Manny Lagos to take him on loan through the NASL playoffs in 2012.

Casey Townsend (Richmond Kickers on loan from D.C. United)

Townsend was a standout at the collegiate level while playing for the University of Maryland, but the 2012 first-round SuperDraft pick languished with Chivas USA during his first year in MLS. Still, the potential is there for all to see, and Ben Olsen picked up the young forward during Chivas USA’s mass exodus. Recognizing Townsend’s talent and a need for consistent minutes, Olsen sent the young striker to partner club Richmond. Expect Townsend to excel at the USL Pro level, while maturing along the way as he continues to adjust to professional life.

Jose Cuevas (Charleston Battery)

The midfielder (right) spent time with the Seattle Sounders during the preseason after a 2012 campaign that saw him named Rookie of the Year. Cuevas has vision and guile on the ball and will be hoping to build on his form of the past few seasons. Two years in a row of dominating play could be the ticket he needs to find himself in MLS.

Darren Mackie (Phoenix FC)

After nearly 300 games in the Scottish Premier League, the former Aberdeen striker traded cloudy skies for the Valley of the Sun as Phoenix FC get ready for their expansion season. His experience and veteran leadership are expected to translate both on and off the field — and they'll need to if the Wolves are to live up to some good preseason buzz. Mackie, 31, had 58 goals in all competitions in his Aberdeen career, which began in 1999.

Kristian Nicht (Rochester Rhinos)

The 2012 Goalkeeper of the Year turned heads when he recorded a league-leading 11 shutouts and 86 saves overall. Nicht’s career began in Germany, and he has experience in the 2.Budesliga, where he played for a number of teams including the likes of Stuttgart Kickers, Alemannia Aachen and Karlsruhrer. After arriving in Rochester in 2012, Nicht quickly became recognized as one of the best players in the league, and the rock upon whom the Rhinos — the most decorated team in the US lower tiers — are attempting to build their roster.