United will loan Kickers four players this season

D.C. United has strengthened its connection with the minor league Richmond Kickers, announcing an affiliation as part of a larger partnership between Major League Soccer and USL Pro, the third-tier league to which the Kickers belong.

As part of the agreement, United will send four players to Richmond on long-term loans during the 2013 season.

"We have had a long-standing relationship with the Richmond Kickers, and we are thrilled to now have a formal partnership in place that will benefit both organizations," D.C. United general manager Dave Kasper said in a statement. "Many current and former D.C. United players have gained valuable experience while playing for the Kickers over the years."

United defender Ethan White and forward Long Tan each spent time with the Kickers last season. But the larger agreement between the two leagues is meant to bridge the gap between the back end of MLS rosters, where promising young players traditionally have not had the opportunity for enough first-team games, and a league like USL Pro, where teams can use that talent to make its product more attractive.

"It's our belief that having a vibrant and robust lower division in this country is absolutely critical in terms of building the game in this country," said Todd Durbin, MLS executive vice president of player relations and competition.

The byproduct, according to Durbin, is a better system of player development that raises the level of soccer across leagues.

USL Pro currently has 13 teams. D.C. United is one of four teams to announce direct affiliations with USL clubs, along with Sporting Kansas City (Orlando City), Philadelphia (Harrisburg) and New England (Rochester). Teams that don't have affiliates have scheduled games against USL Pro teams that count in the USL standings. Durbin said MLS clubs also can choose in the future to create their own USL Pro affiliate clubs.