As the only independent side competing in MLS NEXT Pro, Rochester New York FC have had to strategize from the ground up. A famed franchise from their days as the Rochester Rhinos who competed in United Soccer League, the Rhinos folded in 2017 as an organization. In 2021, plans were announced to bring soccer back to upstate New York in the form of RNY FC and MLS NEXT Pro.
However, immense challenges remained. Of the 21 teams that were set to compete in the league, only RNY FC lacked MLS affiliation, which required them to not only think outside the box but outside the market. England National team and current Leicester City forward Jamie Vardy was announced as a co-owner of the club, and immediately, eyes and heads alike were turned. Vardy and the minds behind the franchise re-launch were instantly put to work, drafting the direction that the club would take.
It began with the introduction of Vardy and was followed by both player and staff acquisitions, highlighted by manager Bruno Baltazar. The 45-year-old joined the coaching ranks at RNY FC following stints in the Philippines, Portugal, Cyprus, England and Qatar.
With a name like Vardy at the helm and a manager as experienced as Baltazar steering the ship, RNY FC set sail on its inaugural voyage competing as a reinvented club in MLS NEXT Pro. However, long before the hiring of Baltazar, the club was planning for the future.
The key was understanding the advantages and disadvantages that Rochester would have due to its independence from MLS affiliation. They knew that they would have to take unorthodox routes while respecting the footballing heritage of Rochester. That respect turned to be mutual, when local youth soccer academy “Empire” reached out enquiring about a partnership in 2021. Fast forward to 2022 and that mutual partnership is flourishing as RNY FC has now signed their first-ever academy product in 16-year-old defensive midfielder Brennan McDermott.
RNY FC Sporting Director Dr. Lee Tucker spoke with MLSNEXTPro.com about the mutual partnership, the positives and negatives of lacking MLS affiliation and how Rochester has established a new, unique, identity amid their first year as a rebranded organization.
Prior to the onboarding of Vardy as the eye-catching name around the club, Empire had shown interest in establishing a partnership. However, at the time, ownership had told Empire to wait a few months due to an incoming announcement, which ended up being about Vardy taking a stake in the club. Following his arrival, talks began and a partnership followed.
“It actually came about from Empire themselves… and this was pre-Jamie Vardy. I think that before Empire knew anything about Jamie being involved with the club, they had made an approach to the ownership about potentially having some affiliation and having a pathway for the youth to Pro. So all the credit goes to them in terms of having that foresight to see what that could be potentially,” Tucker said.
The introduction of Vardy to the franchise “wowed” Empire, according to Tucker and really helped the partnership pick up steam. The interest on Rochester’s side came about due to Empire’s success and continual growth at the MLS NEXT level. Starting in their 2022/23 season, Empire will be rebranded as “RNYFC Youth.”
“So for us, it was certainly good news that we saw that there was this academy that was competing at the highest level of youth soccer in terms of MLS NEXT, so that was really important for us,” Tucker said. “It just looked a good fit for us in terms of what we were wanting to do in terms of bringing players through well, having players playing at the highest level possible. And so the relationship was created and formed and we're building it as we go on.”
For young, aspiring players, a name like Vardy not only draws attention but brings hope. The dreams of the young men playing in the Empire academy are one of the main reasons that the partnership is setting sail towards success. The goal for RNY FC is to see those dreams come true and sign those players to contracts so they can create their own path and achieve those dreams, similar to that of a young Vardy, whose story is as unorthodox as they come.
“I think the initial interest that it creates and generates for us as a club is magnificent. Knowing that some players - young players - will look up to certain stars… but Jamie is certainly one of those and I think the added bonus that we have with Jamie is because of his story. He's not just the regular run of the mill, been at a club since he was eight-year-old and then pro contracts and that seamless progression,” Tucker said. “It was a very different story.”
Vardy was released from the Sheffield United academy at age 16 and didn’t return to top-flight football for 10 years. He opted to play non-league from 2007-2010 as a teen before moving into the lower divisions of England, where his goal-scoring prowess saw him continually move up the system. It wasn’t until the 2014/15 English Premier League campaign when Vardy would make his top-flight debut with Leicester City. The rest is now history.
“I think there's a certain romanticism about Jamie's story that appeals to people and I think that's why he's such a figure of interest for people around the world - because this story is quite unique,” Tucker said. “There's a lot there that I think that attracts people initially, but that's not enough. The initial interest that can generate is not enough because Jamie's not here, so they're not meeting and interacting with Jamie every day. So there's got to be some substance behind that.”
That substance came in the form of introducing a head coach with loads of experience, including coaching in the UEFA Champions League as well as top flights from all around the world. Baltazar is someone who Tucker suggests is a coach who will ultimately fight for the introduction of youth into the team on top of being a “selling piece” in sharing what the club has to offer young players. It’s all part of a long-term solution they have to attract youth talent, despite the lack of MLS affiliation.
Tucker says “it might all look rosy from the outside,” but wants to ensure that it’s understood that they’re not the first-team academy. Dubbed a “strategic alliance,” the two organizations still run as separate entities despite now sharing a common name.
“There's a lot of work to do for us to get on the same page and make sure that our influence as the first-team is felt at that Academy level and for those Academy coaches to feel like they're getting something back from the first team,” Tucker said. “So there's a critical relationship that again needs time to be built and I think we've made some good early steps in the right direction of creating that relationship.”
With their first academy signing under their belt, Tucker feels that the partnership is already seeing growth and that having someone like McDermott join the first team is the perfect example of why the partnership will be so crucial to their success moving forward. Rochester scouted McDermott for nearly a year's time and presented a list of “four or five” players from the Empire system to Baltazar upon his arrival to the club, and he immediately stood out.
“Having such a good early success story like Brennan is important for both of us. For us to show trust in the academy system in terms of bringing someone like Brennan through but also for the Academy to see that players will get a chance in the first team if they're good enough,” Tucker said.
Over time, Tucker hopes to see more “interdependency” between the two organizations, as he deems it important to succeed in their long-term goals. Those long-term goals include bringing more players into the first team, but also establishing RNYFC Youth as an organization that can draw talent in from all over the world. As they move forward with the partnership, Tucker hopes that as more signings come into the first team, more success also comes RNYFC youth’s way.
Despite the challenges that Rochester has presented along the way, they have navigated their own path and have established their own, unique identity. Moving forward, they are ready to embrace any challenges that may come their way. One thing is for sure, though, and it’s that the city of Rochester is thrilled to have professional soccer back.