As much as MLS has been emblematic of the broader reach of soccer in this country over the past decade, the USL might be doing a better job of providing a bellwether as to exactly how rapidly the game’s profile is rising in the U.S. Not only among fans, but among buyers as well.
Late in 2016, U.S. Soccer granted provisional Division 2 status to the NASL and the USL, the two leagues nominally underneath MLS on the disconnected American pyramid. For the NASL, which seemed to waver on closure earlier in the year, it seemed to represent a step backward. The league already occupied the No. 2 slot, and after contracting to single digit teams in 2017 its future appeared murkier than ever after the ruling.
The USL, though, rose from the third to the second tier, and its rapid expansion echoed belief in many corners that it was only a matter of time until the league occupied the No. 2 tier by itself.
MLS is clearly where the big money is - new owners now pay upwards of $150 million for franchise fees - but the USL’s steady growth at a lower tier indicates real interest in the game’s roots in the U.S. To get to the bottom of its growth, I recently spoke with USL president Jake Edwards in a wide-ranging interview that touched on expansion, its relationship with the NASL, development growth and more.
When you look kind of broadly at where the USL has come in the last maybe 2-3 years, where do you think the league’s come the furthest?
“I think a large part of the success we’ve had is off the back of bringing in really quality owner-operators into the league. The ownership of our clubs now looks very different than it did even three or four years ago.
“The main thing that’s affected the growth of USL is the growth of the sport itself, the popularity of the sport, the rise of the supporter culture. But certainly having a strategic plan in terms of moving the league forward and executing on that (is important). But one of the main areas of that plan was to bring in locally-based, committed ownership groups who were able to fund at the required level to create a sustainable, valuable business and to invest in infrastructure and training facilities and youth development initiatives.
“Once we were able to put together what I would say is a world class ownership group, we were able to provide the strongest ownership group of any second division in the world, without a doubt. We have owners that own and operate NBA teams, Major League Baseball, lacrosse, MLS. People who understand the economics and what’s involved in making a successful, sustainable business.”
Cincinnati’s been maybe the hottest team in terms of attendance and buzz over the last year. From an MLS perspective, the prospect of adding a hot USL team like that is obviously exciting. But from your point of view, does losing your best clubs to MLS hinder your progress at all?
“We’ve had five teams over the past 10 or more years that’ve come out of the USL. Some of those are arguably the most successful clubs in MLS and built very good fan bases and had a lot of success at the USL and the MLS levels. For us, I think we take great pride when we see one of our clubs move into the MLS and be successful in the MLS. We were able to build that club, build the brand, build the fan base, energize that city for soccer. If we were able to do that over a number of years in the USL, well, that’s a testament to the quality of our league and what our owners and the whole enterprise were able to put together to grow the game. Ultimately we’re happy with that, happy for the club if they’re able to move up.
“We have to challenge all of our teams to really push the bar every year and try and operate at the highest possible level. If that happens in the future to any of our clubs, we’re fully behind them.”
You guys continue to add teams year over year. Have you identified an end game? Is there a number you’d like to hit in terms of teams and conferences where you’d feel comfortable stopping expansion?
“There’s no rest for the wicked. We don’t have a finite number. We’re working towards a three-conference structure. That’s something our board of governors are in favor of, that’s something we’ve been working towards for the last two seasons. We think maybe as early as 2018 we’ll be able to break into an East, West and Central Conference. We’ve got a couple of expansion markets we’ll be announcing very shortly in the coming weeks for our final couple of spots for the 2018 season. At that point I think we may well be able to get into a three conference structure. Certainly we’ll be able to do that in 2019 if we don’t achieve that in 2018. But I think 2018 is very doable.
“We’re looking at a three-conference structure and it’ll be a sensible number of teams per conference. That’s where we’ll find that resting place (for clubs). I don’t know if it’s mid-30’s or high-30’s or what it may be. It’ll be a sensible number that we can operate that remains competitive. We’re focused on markets that are in those regional areas that can contend with other local teams and create those exciting derby games and sort of regionalize the competition in a way that makes sense on a number of fronts while still growing nationally.
“There will be more expansion to go, and we’re looking at markets where ownership groups are committed to building 10,000-seat soccer specific stadiums and I think are very exciting, dynamic markets. There are a number of markets that don’t have professional soccer and I think would be tremendously successful in the USL. A number of those will be coming in over the next two to three seasons.”
Once you get to a certain expansion point, provided the number is there in terms of clubs, has there been any discussion or interest put into making some sort of internal, self-contained promotion/relegation system within just USL clubs? Do you think that would ever make sense at a certain point?
“Never say never. It’s something we probably would have the ability to do, if we had two divisions. It’s something that structurally we certainly may have the ability to do that. It’s not something we’re going to be looking at or able to do imminently. But it’s something we’ll look at moving forward.”
There’s been a lot of talk globally about how to allocate foreign spots vs. those of domestics. You guys currently have a max of 7 foreign players allowed per roster. Are you comfortable with that number, or would you like to see it lowered to stimulate domestic development?
“We count Canadians as domestic players as well as U.S. players, so we’ve got over 75 percent of our league now is domestic. And so we have some tremendous foreign players that are adding a lot of value to the competition, to their teams. But the vast majority of our league is domestic based players, so I don’t see that international number increasing, and certainly there’s no desire on our side for it to increase.”
How do you see the league’s overall role going forward in youth development, not just for MLS-connected teams but for those maybe looking to foster its own academy kids?
“The MLS partnership is about developing professional players and not youth or amateur players. Those are young professionals that are in the U20 national teams and have bright futures ahead, be it on the MLS or national team level. That’s a different group of players we have. But we have a huge responsibility to the development of the game, not just spreading professional soccer but that it’s sustainable and we have clubs with a youth development infrastructure in them.
“We have a policy that within three years of joining the USL, you have to have a youth development structure in place. We have a competition department, and a subset of our competition department is focused on player development initiatives. We have a full time individual, Gordon Bengtson, who’s working on some very exciting youth development initiatives.
“We’ve put an academy playbook together for every one of our clubs that spoke to their market, that spoke to the unique challenges of that market, understanding the youth club landscape, whether there’s a DA (Development Academy) setup or not in that community. So we work with our teams and the expansion teams coming in so that they can navigate those waters. Because it’s complicated if you’re coming into it as a professional team. You don’t want to step on too many toes. You want to collaborate and bring people together for the best result for the spot overall.
“So we work with them, we send our folks to each of those teams to help put the building blocks in place. And they have a ticking clock once they join the USL to do so. We have a number of teams that have full academies now in the DA, we have number of teams that have academies not in the DA, and we have a number of teams partnered with youth clubs and multiple youth clubs in their regions. We have some, Oklahoma City for example, has partnered with the state association and is doing things on a statewide level.
“There’s a real push at our end to focus on bringing the development of the game at the youth level into the professional clubs and giving those kids the ability to see a pathway forward from 10 years old all the way through to PDL at the collegiate level, if that’s the way they want to go, and into the pro level. We’re working with some other groups as well, such as Alianza, one of the premier player recruitment camps in the U.S. focusing on the Hispanic player and giving those players the exposure they may not be getting otherwise. We have an exclusive partnership with them, all of our teams are involved in those events.
“We have the USL Experience we launched last year. We’re hosting it this year in San Antonio, very successful event last year in Cincinnati, taking the best 72 players out of the Super-Y League that we operate and putting them on a national platform with one of our pro clubs and showcasing what they can do and immersing them in the professional experience, what it’s like to be a pro player for a few days. So we’re doing a number of things that we think are positive steps in the right direction.”
What’s your opinion on the U.S. Soccer Federation allowing a split in Division 2 status between the USL and the NASL?
“They’re certainly within their rights to do that. The bylaws allow multiple entities into any one division as long as you meet those requirements. In this case they made that decision to sort of co-sanction both leagues, and both leagues have a road map ahead of them to remove the provisional sanctioning tag for the 2018 season. We’ve provided a road map of how we’re going to do that, how we’re going to address any areas that need to be addressed.
“We aren’t focused on what’s going on with other leagues or the federation, we’re just making sure we’re laser-focused on everything our clubs and we need to do and executing on that this year.”
What’s your relationship with the NASL? Can you foresee any collaboration down the road maybe in terms of cup matches, or do you view the two entities as entirely separate?
“We don’t need to participate in anything like that (intra-NASL cup matches). We participate together on the pro council as we look at how pro leagues can improve the game and how we can collaborate to improve the game or improve the player experience in our leagues. We all sit on the pro council with the MLS and the NWSL, and we discuss those kind of things and areas where leagues can come together where it makes sense in the best interests of the game. And we do that at that level with the pro council and with the federation.
“In terms of gimmicks and other things like that, there’s no need to sort of get involved with that kind of thing.”