The MLS Reserve League is getting a new look, combining with the third division USL Pro in a move that could be one of the key developments in not only the 2013 season, but in American soccer's recent history.
Though there were plenty of success stories among players graduated from the Reserve League after its 2005 foundation (a pair of which are recorded below), logistical concerns led to the league being disbanded in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, returning with a more regionalized format in 2011.
Thanks to the merger with USL Pro, the reserve league looks here to stay, and should only serve to help young players trying to prove their work and make it at the next level. Here are three players they can find some inspiration from.
MLS' most feared goalscorer seems to have burst onto the scene from nowhere during the 2010 season, but anyone who saw him in Reserve League play had already seen snippets of what was to come.
He led the San Jose Earthquakes reserve team with eight goals in 12 appearances in his rookie season, the team's last before the team's move to Houston. And he didn't let up with the Dynamo, leading the reserve team in scoring with 26 goals in 36 games between 2006 and 2008 while slowly but surely working his way into the first team setup.
In what now looks like one of the best all-time steals in MLS, Wondolowski returned to San Jose in exchange for Cam Weaver midway through 2009, ending the season with five senior goals in the first year of the reserve league's absence.
Would the Bay Area native continue his impressive development after that? His 61 goals MLS in the next three years signal a resounding yes.
They may play different positions, but the similarities between Larentowicz and Wondolowski here are eery. Both were drafted in the fourth round of the 2005 MLS Supplemental Draft (Wondolowski went four picks higher), both saw single-digit MLS minutes that year (Wondolowski had 5, Larentowicz just 1), and both made sure they weren't going anywhere by putting together stellar reserve league campaigns.
As a rookie, Larentowicz captained the New England Revolution reserves, playing 11 of 12 games and leading the team to a three-way tie for second place in the division.
The year of Reserve League success was all the combative midfielder needed to prove himself to the New England coaching staff, as he racked up just shy of 5,000 minutes (including playoffs) in the 2006 and 2007 seasons as part of a team that made two trips to MLS Cup. Traded to Colorado in the 2010 season, Larentowicz continued to perform at a high level, and was a lynchpin on the team that triumphed in MLS Cup 2010.
While Wondolowski and Larentowicz found success in the first iteration of the Reserve League between 2005-08, Dike is the poster boy for take two, while his time with the Portland Timbers' second division side in 2010 and the LA Blues in 2012 throws in an added wrinkle considering the MLSRL-USL Pro merger.
Dike was cut by the Columbus Crew after the 2010 preseason despite being drafted No. 12 overall in that year's SuperDraft. Instead of finding another MLS team, he signed with the then-USSF Division 2 Pro League Portland Timbers.
He impressed enough in the second division – 10 goals in 23 appearances – to earn a contract with the MLS version of the Timbers in their expansion 2011 season, but still wasn't ready for regular MLS time, seeing just 164 minutes on the field in 2011 while netting one goal. However, his four reserve league tallies indicated progress, and he went to spend the start of 2012 on loan with the Blues, where he continued to show well, scoring six goals in 10 showings.
Upon his return to Portland, Dike started nine of the 12 MLS games he featured in during the second half of 2012, scoring five goals and showing his much-improved ability as a target forward.
Dike's exploits earned him his first-ever cap for the Nigeria national team, and he now looks to be an important piece of Caleb Porter's squad going into the 2013 season. At 25, his story is far from written, but it's got a darn good opening chapter.
Honorable Mentions (by no means a complete list): Omar Cummings, Nick LaBrocca, Stephen Keel, Kosuke Kimura, Andy Gruenebaum, Diego Fagundez