Why Jonathan Dean could represent a new path for the Fire

The USL Championship, where Dean spent the last three seasons, is the second tier of American soccer but hasn’t yet become a pipeline of talent for MLS.

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Jonathan Dean is competing for a starting role with the Fire.

Jonathan Dean is competing for a starting role with the Fire.

Courtesy of the Fire

The USL Championship, the second tier of American soccer, has teams in several major markets, including Detroit, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis and Las Vegas. The level of play seems to be improving every season, which Sacramento Republic FC showed by beating three MLS teams on its way to last year’s U.S. Open Cup final.

But even with its place in the soccer pyramid, the league hasn’t become a pipeline of MLS talent. That’s why the Fire signing right back Jonathan Dean was noteworthy.

Dean, 25, spent three seasons with Birmingham Legion and last year was named to the USL Championship’s all-league second team. By acquiring Dean, perhaps sporting director Georg Heitz, technical director Sebastian Pelzer and the Fire took advantage of an underused source of players.

“We want to comb every aspect, throughout the world, throughout the lower leagues in this country to find the best fit for this organization and for this club and for this team,” coach Ezra Hendrickson said. “That’s what we are trying to do.”

To become a starter, Dean will have to further acclimate himself with the higher level of play in MLS and beat out Arnaud Souquet, who was signed from Montpellier HSC in France’s top division. Even if he can’t supplant Souquet, the Fire are getting a somewhat-known commodity and dependable depth in Dean, someone who’s familiar with American soccer and playing against mid-career professionals.

“You’re playing with guys that are 27, 28 years old that have families,” Dean said of the USL Championship. “It is a professional environment that you step into. Over the years, it’s grown a lot, exponentially. They’re investing more into clubs, which ultimately leads to investing in players.”

Instead of looking to a lower domestic league, many MLS teams have preferred to scour the globe for talent to fill their rosters in hopes of finding a winning lottery ticket. Maybe those players have a higher ceiling, but as the Fire saw with former backup right back Jhon Espinoza who never became a reliable piece, a lower floor, too. 

MLS clubs, while trying to keep up in an improving league, also have their own developmental sides and like to promote players from those groups to the first team. And since the USL Championship has veteran players established in their clubs and homes, it’s possible some don’t want to uproot their lives for an off chance to be an MLS contributor.

Hendrickson, however, expects the USL Championship to produce more players as it experiences its own improvement.

“If it’s not tapped in right now, I don’t think that will go on for too much longer,” Hendrickson said. “I think teams are going to start looking into that league for players.”

Dean said he doesn’t feel pressure to represent the USL Championship in MLS. His goal is to show he can compete at a high level in the United States’ top league.

Making the USL Championship look good would be a nice bonus.

“If that’s an opportunity for other [MLS] teams to be able to go and look in the second division, the USL Championship, and say, ‘Hey, these guys can play,’ then that’s awesome,” Dean said. “Ultimately, it’s being able to do my job and do it to the best of my ability. If that leads to [MLS teams] starting to scout the USL then that’s great for the league.’’ 

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