The United Soccer League has been on the rise for some time now. Following the formal affiliation with Major League Soccer in January of 2013, the USL has forged ahead at a remarkable rate, growing from 13 teams to 30 in the current 2017 season. In recent weeks, the league has also confirmed several more expansion clubs set to launch in 2018 and 2019, further cementing USL as the largest second division professional soccer league in the world.
I caught up with USL President Jake Edwards to discuss the strengths of the league that have brought it to the place it is now, and where the league is actively looking to improve. Our conversation ran longer than expected, and the following excerpts reflect a league that, while is certainly enjoying the so-called Golden Age of American Soccer Expansion, still has a long way to go before reaching achieving its goals.
On the topic of the USL’s rise to prominence
Dike Anyiwo: I know you have a big landmark to hit tonight as far as the 1.5 million threshold that you’re looking to crack, and that is representative of the success you’ve had. I want to know what it is you think that has brought you to this point and where we go from here.
Jake Edwards: Tonight is going to be another landmark in a tremendously important season.
This 2017 season for USL has been so important on a number of fronts. Not least with the Division 2 sanctioning, new teams that have joined, the launch of USL Productions and the new TV network now in 20 markets and a couple fantastic new stadiums that we’ve opened.
We knew the attendance was going to have a strong uptick from last year, and tonight is going to be a very big night for the sport in generally, really, because at the mid-year point of our season we already surpassed the 1.5 million mark of fans in the stadium supporting their local teams.
Tonight we anticipate breaking the two records: the largest ever midweek crowd we’ve had over the 5 games we have tonight. We expect that number to be over 50,000 fans watching the games this evening which will put us over the 1.5 million mark for fans in attendance this season.
To pass last year’s marker, just past the midway point of this season is phenomenal not just for the USL but for the sport in general. It shows you the growth at all levels of soccer and support of professional soccer.
What’s driving that growth? If I can speak to the USL, apart from the broader narrative of the popularity of the sport growing in this country, from the USL’s point of view there are a couple of factors.
Firstly its the focus on professionalizing our competition over the last few years. We do that not just by how we run things from the league office here (in Tampa Bay, Florida) and how we go about maintaining and improving standards but really it’s about the environment.
We’ve been working hard on improving the stadiums, building new soccer specific stadiums and showcasing the game in a really quality environment that speaks to the fans’ experience when they come to watch a USL game.
We’re also focused on improving the level of competition. We know we can track that with partnerships with Opta and other organizations, but we can see the quality on the field. We had 20 players in the Gold Cup this year. A couple of USL players were in the Gold Cup Final.
We know we have a lot of quality players here now. Not just the world class players like Didier Drogba and Joe Cole etc, we’ve got a lot of very good professional players who have played all over the world.
The excitement and the quality on the field is driving growth as well. I think the launch of our TV network showcasing and promoting teams the entire week leading into the weekend’s match is helping. Its driving awareness and showing people how exciting these games are.
Really it’s also about the commitment our owners have made across the country to invest in their clubs from top all the way down. From the professional level to the youth infrastructure and of course facilities and everything that goes into a club.
I certainly applaud the owners and their commitment to investing in the game and building long-term sustainable clubs. I think the fans are overall just responding to what they are seeing. We’re up about 30% in attendance across the board from last year.
I look at our 20 USL clubs and where they are tracking in attendance and we’re really pleased. We have almost 2/3 of the teams now are averaging attendance of 5,000 or above. A few are in the eight to 10 to 12 thousand range on average, and you have Cincinnati on top breaking all kinds of records.
I think it just speaks to the overall health of the game and our mission to deliver great top quality professional soccer in a great environment and give a great fan experience across the country in markets that just have not really had the chance to support a team of their own.
Breaking down the player development pathways of the USL
Dike Anyiwo: One thing I’m really curious about that heightened level of investment that you mentioned, particularly with respect to the infrastructure of each USL club’s youth set up. Something I saw out of San Antonio the other day impressed me. It’s one thing to attract world class players from around the globe and it’s another thing entirely to develop your own. What is the USL doing deliberately to foster investment there?
Jake Edwards: You have to do both. This isn’t the Premier League over here and so the economics are not there to continually attract world class talent. We saw back in the 60s and 70s that that’s good for a time but then it dies a death. It’s not sustainable.
We feel the USL should really be the foundation of the sport; not just of professional soccer but of the entire pyramid.
As we look to expand the success we’ve had of the USL at the second division, and that’s by no means a fully arrived at situation, but we’re launching a third division. It’s going to be in slightly different markets. It’s going be a different opportunity for players to get on the professional ladder. We’re launching that in 2019 in a whole host of new market who would not ordinarily have access to their own professional club.
And then what’s next after that? We have this fantastic property which is the PDL which is an elite amateur competition. We’re looking to see how we can improve the level and relevance of that league. The PDL is a long-standing property that enables our pro teams to keep local collegiate players within their system who have chosen to go to university and play and not go professional just yet and keep them coming back and keep them involved with their clubs.
And just underneath that we have the Super Y League with over 600 teams across North America. We’re very active in the youth space. What we’ve been trying to do is connect the Super Y League into our USL professional leagues in the right way.
We’ve started a few things to do just that. Two years ago we started something called the USL Experience. It was most recently held in San Antonio, and was in Cincinnati prior to that.
What we do there, is we take the elite players from the Super Y program and we bring them into a professional USL club for a couple of days.
They play games, they train, they listen to the coaches talk, they meet the players, they do press conferences, they are on the pitch and they learn to understand what it looks like to be a professional during an immersive 2-3 day experience.
We fund that. We run that. It’s been fantastically successful and that’s something we want to build upon.
For us it’s about giving these young kids exposure to the game at a professional level. Giving them the first touch point and trying to control the first touch point with professional soccer in their communities in order to influence that young person’s decision to follow the game to a university level, maybe professionally, maybe down the road as a sports executive.
We want to get them involved in professional soccer at a young age. We’re looking at how to do that with the Super Y and with these kinds programs.
Navigating the youth soccer circuit
Jake Edwards: As we work with our pro clubs, we have a full-time department here at the league office that just focuses on youth development initiatives and supporting the local youth clubs. We have a full play book that is customized to each team, each market.
Our USL clubs have got full-time employees that work with their local youth clubs.
If they don’t already have a youth structure in place, how do you go about putting that together in a cost-effective way? It’s not cheap to put a whole academy in place. How do you make that work and how do you make a sensible decision to navigate the landscape in each market?
Some markets already have Development Academy clubs and how do you not become a threat? How do you foster youth development and take the lead? You’re a professional club ultimately. Our point of view is that you as the USL club should take the lead.
We work with all of our clubs for them within three years of them joining the league to all have some kind of academy in place or some form of youth setup.
We’ve had a number of our teams now with full DA academies. As you mentioned San Antonio does a fantastic job, as well as Sacramento, Richmond, St. Louis. We have got some great clubs with really strong DA academies.
We have a number of clubs with academies not in the DA or not yet in DA. We have a number of them that are affiliated with youth organizations and are going that route for the time being.
It is important to us. So we work hand in hand with each club to help them put a sensible infrastructure in place. It’s different in each market but its a major area of focus that we affect the development of players from a young age.
Dike Anyiwo: If you were to overlay a map of where the USL and USLd3 clubs will be in the next few years with one of where the Super Y clubs are now, are there any obvious areas where the Super Y could fill in to support the professional clubs in those areas?
Jake Edwards: We’re continuing to look to grow the PDL and the Super Y. We’ve had a significant push out west of the Super Y. We had a lot of interest at the NSCAA convention out in LA earlier this year. The Super Y has been heavily east of the Mississippi and we want to take it west and we’ve seen a lot of interest and appetite there, and it will continue to grow.
It is a case by case basis. If it can add value to the landscape then I think its right. It doesn’t compete with certain other leagues. The Super Y League is a summer series. I think that generally, more soccer is good, but we need to take it in a case by case basis. If there’s a lot of clutter and a lot of other leagues and offerings in a particular region then we have to see if it makes sense to add more programming.
Kids need to find a balance in terms of how much soccer they are playing throughout the 12 month period. In some cases it’s not enough and in some cases its far too much, and so we’ve got to see if it makes sense with whats currently there, if it compliments what’s there and if there are professional teams at the second or third division level then they need to be doing their part in the youth space. If they can align with whats already there then great, if they need to launch their own thing then that’s great.
At times its just too much soccer in the calendar year and we’re losing a lot of talented players because of entry fees and other things.
It’s been too fragmented. There are too many different organizations and missions and objectives. Too many agendas and what we have is the ability to do is just align and create some sense around, if not if not the entire structure, then at least our structure. We’re working with all these other organizations to see if we can make it easier to navigate so that the hierarchy from when I kick a ball as an eight year old to when I turn a professional is there. The kids need to see a defined pathway.
There are too many youth clubs with this league or that league and this summer league or that winter league. We have got to try to find the development pathway and tidy it up a little bit. That’s a big project and an ongoing project of ours. Our job is to take a leadership role in that. I think we’ve got that responsibility to do that and hopefully impact the game in a positive way.
Regarding the USL’s stance on training compensation
Dike Anyiwo: You mention the necessity of the professional team to take the lead in their market… one thing that is ongoing in American soccer is this concept of training compensation. I was reading about something that Toronto FC did recently, giving scholarships to local area youth clubs who they had picked up players from. I wonder if that is something you’d like to see more of across the USL.
Jake Edwards: As it relates to the training compensation, that’s an ongoing challenge we have here. It’s an ongoing issue and I hope it will be solved. We have a lot of people here in committees who are participating with the federation and MLS and the other leagues to see how we can incentivize people to invest a significant amount of money. We’re talking about millions of dollars in these academies.
Ultimately we cannot have kids paying to play in the sense they are now. Even overseas there is somewhat of a pay to play model but not to the extent that it is here. I don’t think it right that kids and parents should be paying three or four or five thousand dollars a year to have the kids participate. We lose so many kids then that couldn’t afford to do that.
We have to look at a compensation model where we can incentivize teams to invest and then be able to sustain those investments and allow more and more kids to be able to come into these academies without prohibiting their participation with these high costs to join these clubs.
We’re trying to find a business model that makes sense that ultimately gets more kids involved not just the ones who can afford to pay these significant sums of money.
The advantage to having these programs, and what we’re starting to see with some of the MLS teams that are participating in USL, is the signing of younger players to professional contracts.
It’s more a challenge for MLS than it is for our teams, but its an issue for MLS teams who are investing heavily in producing really quality young players and losing out to teams in Mexico or Germany or other European leagues who are taking these 15/16 year olds out of their academies and there’s nothing the teams can do about it.
So we’re seeing it a bit now, where MLS teams are signing them onto USL contracts at 15, at 16 because they are really good players, and they are giving them game time in the USL but they are protecting them now and ensuring they can keep them at the club, or at least ensuring they can get some compensation if these players go abroad. That’s more of an MLS thing but I think we’ll see more of our USL clubs doing that in the future.
On what is coming down the pipeline
Dike Anyiwo: Going back to the options afforded by the USL’s various properties, is there any thought towards bifurcating the player pool to some sort of ‘professional player’ path and ‘academic player’ path?
Jake Edwards: We’re going to be launching a program and we’ll make announcements in the coming months. We’re working on an initiative that’ll start with the PDL and then expand into the USL.
We’re partnering with a major football business university and we’re going to be creating pathways for players, initially specifically in the PDL, to come into the sports business. Giving them experience in the sports business environments at our pro clubs and overseas. We’re partnering with an overseas institution as well to get them some experience working in a professional club environment both in the US and overseas.
We’ll do that in and around their studies and their playing. We want to expose them to a different environment and give them the opportunity to see future potential careers. These players will be able to shadow executives at our clubs and start to understand what the business side looks like.
If that’s something they want to get into while they are at university via internships and then eventually when they graduate into full employment, they’ll have had that taste already.
We’re actually going to extend this opportunity into the high school age kids as well through the youth properties we have. Very few are going to go and play collegiately and even fewer will go and play professionally.
There’s an enormous amount of players to whom the game can give so much value to their lives. I played at university and I’m a huge believer in that track but I also played professionally and you can do both. We’re seeing a trend now where more players are making that decision in the U.S. earlier. A lot of players are going down the professional track.
Some of our clubs are partnering with universities and giving their professional players the opportunity for their professional players to do a degree while they are playing as well and the clubs are subsidizing that. That’s a model I’m in favor of.
LA Galaxy II pioneered that and are doing a great job providing educational opportunities while playing for their second team.
We’re seeing more players want to go the professional route. Only a few players are going to get to do that, so the university is still really important. A lot of players won’t progress beyond that in terms of professional play so we’ve got a responsibility on the league and our clubs to see what we can do to expose them to the business side.
We need, as a league, to make sure that our teams and the sport is in good hands moving forward at the executive level. We need people who are passionate about the game, have played, have grown up in the game and are able to affect the future of the game. The more we can do from that point of view the better.
There’s a sporting aspect but we’ll be announcing soon some educational partnerships where we’re going to be putting some pretty cool programs together to expose the high school and university kids that are playing in our system and give them the opportunity to get involved in the professional game.