The United Soccer League’s 2017 season is charging past the midway point and into the dog days of summer. As the coaching staffs and players on the field adjust rosters and ease aches and pains for the playoff stretch, the league office is reflecting on off-field growth, and how best to manage it.
Jake Edwards, President of the USL, sat down with SoccerNation to talk about a few of the biggest stories in the league this year.
Edwards first touched on USL Productions, now 117 employees-strong across the country, which will produce almost 500 games this season in multiple languages. Some fans are aware of the partnership with Vista Worldlink, which allows the USL to do a great deal of the work remotely, vastly reducing the cost of streaming for any given club.
The most important aspect of this innovation is the relative ease with which USL teams can now be seen on cable in markets across the continent. “We’ve created a TV network that now has 20 teams….working with their local affiliates,” Edwards said. The league is already working with incoming expansion teams on their local agreements. “There’s a real appetite for that,” he said. “Our teams are benefiting from five days a week of promotion.”
Fans who may have been only vaguely aware of their local soccer club are now being marketed to in a whole new way. Edwards said, “I believe that’s in part driving the 30% increase in attendance this year.”
Overall, Edwards believes operations with USL Productions have gone very well, albeit with some hiccups, which were to be expected, and are being addressed. He stressed the integration of Opta to enrich the broadcast experience, and says that this year is the first step towards even bigger things.
When asked about the fact that some commentators, like Mike Watts and Morgan Conklin, call the games remotely while some are local, Edwards said, “I think the ideal solution is you have quality local-based commentary teams.”
While Edwards says that he thinks the remote announcers have come a long way since the beginning of the season with respect to getting to know the league and the players, in the long term he’d like to for all matches to have local commentary that is not only impartial but highly insightful. He says that current local commentary teams are doing a great job, and are being constantly analyzed by the league. “It’s a work in progress,” he said. “And there is work to do, for sure.”
An oft-misunderstood subject is that of referee management. While the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) is responsible for around 100 elite and secondary referees, Edwards said that their value to the league “is something we have an active role in.” The United States Soccer Federation and PRO manage recruitment and training of referees, as well as selection for the games. The USL competition department is working directly with them.
New this year are mandatory referee performance evaluations from every head coach to the league. The USL, in turn, supplies feedback to PRO. The league places value on keeping referees from covering the home matches of any one team too often, and also takes into account the experience level required to handle a match of greater importance or in a higher-profile environment.
The USL and its clubs are investing in improved payments and treatment of referees, who are still heavily subsidized by PRO. In 2015, 8% of USL games were covered by fully PRO crews. In 2016 the number jumped to 24%, and in 2017, 68% of all games will have PRO referees.
The USL tested Video Assistant Referee (VAR) in 25 games this year, and very few calls were overturned. Feedback from the International Football Association Board and MLS, on the data collection from the USL test has been very positive. USL will not be integrating in full next season, but MLS probably will. The costs involved with installing particular equipment and camera angles is steep, but the real obstacle is the scarcity of fully trained and qualified crews.
The USL currently has 30 teams (10 of which are owned by MLS franchises) with independent clubs in Nashville, Fresno, and Las Vegas set to enter in 2018. Birmingham and Austin have been announced for 2019, and Edwards acknowledges that one or two MLS teams are looking to add squads to the USL in the next two years.
The league is entering what Edwards calls the “final phase” of expansion. “The group of owners we have continues to evolve and improve,” he said. “There’s a few markets we really have our eye on, and I know there’s a couple of markets that’s going to surprise us as well.”
With the USL staying committed to the regional competition model, the board is exploring adding a third conference as soon as 2019. “There’ll be one or two others coming into the central part of the country.” Edwards also mentioned that one or two more clubs would be added in the West.
With regard to NASL teams making the switch, as Ottawa Fury and Tampa Bay Rowdies did last season, Edwards said, “Possibly.” He says the USL is focused on right club, right city, and right ownership, while also making moves that are good for the sport and have the potential for an excellent regional rivalry. “There’s a few cities out there that we’d love to see in the USL.”
Edwards called USLD3, set to launch in 2019, an “exciting project,” saying that all the attributes that have made the USL successful will be taken to D3. On launching clubs, he said, “We’ve got to make sure that we do that in the right way. It’s a great responsibility that we not only launch a club, but it’s there for decades, and it becomes a fixture of that community.”
The interesting thing about D3 is that while D2 markets are nearly all spoken for, there are still 70-80 million people who don’t have professional soccer in their community. That gives USLD3 the chance to be a touch point for fans, especially when they are young, to have local access to pro soccer.
“There’s a huge opportunity to do it properly. We’ve got a number of applications that we’re excited to start announcing soon,” Edwards said.
Some fans have called for MLS-owned squads to be summarily banished to D3, but Edwards said that those decisions will depend on the team.
“For us the focus is on expansion markets, bringing new clubs, new communities into the league,” he said. “The partnership with MLS right now is between MLS and our USL league. It’s not easy to speculate two or three years down the road. But, we need to launch the league… and then the MLS teams can have a look at it. They can have a look at what the quality looks like, and the facilities, and all those things that we know are going to be at a high standard. For some MLS teams that might be something that makes sense for them, for their second teams. And some of them have indicated that to me already. For some of them it might not. That’s a little bit of a fluid situation.”
(Editor’s Note: Kyle’s full interview with Jake Edwards has been provided to us at SoccerNation from the good people over at The USL Show. Listen and enjoy!)