Krueger is adamant to include Saints' fans in the conversation, as he wants to make the people who love the club a big part of the future.

Premier League Supporters: The dramatic rise of Southampton FC and their fans


Adam Lallana knows Southampton and its fans better than most.

“When you’re at home and you’ve got a great backing, it’s brilliant. And when you go on the road and you can hear your fans signing it’s what you want as a player. It’s credit to the fans who stuck by us when we were in League One and on the brink of liquidation. It’s good that the fans stuck with us, and now they’re seeing us playing week in, week out, in the Premier League.”

Lallana, 25, is the captain of Saints’ first team. He’s been at the club since the age of 12 and has risen through the academy ranks after being part of Southampton’s painful descent to the foot of England’s third-tier in 2009… and the dramatic rise to fourth place in the Premier League today.

After the first seven games of the 2013-14 PL season, Saints have won four, drawn two and lost one. They have the league’s best defense, conceding just twice, and play an exciting style of high-pressure soccer with a talented group of young players.

Having this PL success so soon after the club’s 125-year plus history was in considerable doubt, is remarkable. The dramatic rebuild has been thanks to a huge cash injection after being saved from liquidation by the Markus Liebherr, who sadly passed away in 2010, and executive chairman Nicola Cortese. The latter has astutely, yet sometimes controversially, put the interests of the club first. Such as replacing the clubs famous red and white stripes with bright red shirts, and other acts that have tinkered with Saints’ traditions.

Despite the ups and downs, the uncertainty and the ecstasy and many thinking Southampton had disappeared from the soccer world for good, the fans, they never disappeared. A feel-good factor is rapidly taking over the City of Southampton on England’s South Coast, and the passionate fans who call the famous Maritime port home are thinking big after the clubs tremendous start to the current PL campaign.


When Southampton take on Manchester United Saturday at Old Trafford, (10 am ET, watch live on NBCSN or online via NBC Sports Live Extra) the Saints are looking to create a seven-point lead over United and take the top spot in the Premier League. For the record, every Saints fan I spoke to is predicting either a win or draw against United.

But the fact is, Southampton haven’t won at Old Trafford since 1988 in the league. In their last 18 league visits to United they’ve lost 16 and drawn just twice. It’s not been a happy hunting ground. But as their terrific early season form proves, confidence is high on the South Coast.

Southampton’s are having a wonderful start to PL season. Can they continue it against Manchester United?

Many Southampton fans are pinching themselves, as the rapid ascent from League One basement boys to slugging it out with England and Europe’s big boys has all happened rather quickly. Over three seasons, to be precise.

“I was outside the stadium speaking to the media and others, waiting for the club to die back in 2010 when we went into administration,” Mike O’Callaghan, a lifelong Saints fan and chairman of the Southampton Independent Supporters’ Association (SISA) said. “Then the Liebherr family and Cortese saved us right at the death. That’s when the feel good factor came back to the club. We are a decent sized club, but to go up two years in a row was like, ‘blooming heck’…  it was totally unexpected.”

Last season was Saints’ first campaign back in the top-flight since being relegated in 2005 — they’d previously spent 28 uninterrupted campaigns with England’s elite — and Southampton consolidated, finishing comfortably in 14th.

With ambitious owners and revolutionary Argentine manager Mauricio Pochettino in charge, Saints fans of a younger generation are starting to get starry-eyed. Nick Illingsworth is one of the older generation of Saints fans, who has been an almost semi-autonomous spokesperson for Southampton fans at every major flashpoint in recent years. He also runs a hugely popular Saints fanzine, The Ugly Inside, which has been around since 1988.

“There is a new optimism,” said Illingsworth with a sense of excitement. “Those supporters under the age of 20 have a belief that Saints can get into Europe and that the sky’s the limit. But an older generation like myself, we have a more pragmatic approach. We only got relegated eight years ago from the PL, but someone who is 18 has only known failure as we dropped down the leagues and into administration,  and then… success. So for them, the sky’s the limit.”


Success and stardom may be swirling round the heads of most Southampton fans as we speak, but the match day routine for many Saints fans hasn’t differed whether they’re playing Chelsea or Colchester United.

Fans will often congregate in City Center pubs, then stroll through the bustling streets of Saturday afternoon shoppers to get to St. Mary’s Stadium in time to belt out “Oh when the Saints go Marching in” and sing about their hatred towards close rivals Portsmouth. (We could write a book on that)

“We still do the old traditional thing,” O’Callaghan said. “We met up at noon before every home game, have a couple of jars before the game, sit down and watch the match at St. Mary’s. Obviously if we’ve had a few beers we loosen up and lose our inhibitions, so you get more involved in the game and show your passion with the singing. Half time comes and there may be an inquest as to what’s going on in the game, then full time comes and recently, more often than not, we celebrate. We are very happy bunnies at the moment, it’s a good time to be a Saints fan.”

To paint the picture on game days, there is no real organization of flags, banners or singing. Unlike the massive Supporters Groups in Portland or Seattle in Major League Soccer, Saints fans go to watch the game and absorb themselves in the 90 minutes of action, they don’t prepare tifos, have any capos or set off any flares. As I walked around St. Mary’s on one of my many previous visits, small St. George’s cross flags hung up from the concourse entrances. “Scandinavian Saints” reads one, “Pride of the South” reads another. The singing comes on spontaneously, it isn’t scripted. And if Saints’ players and the manager aren’t doing a good job, the fans let them know.

Guly, you’re shit,” exclaims one Southampton fan, standing up and pointing his finger acrimoniously at Saints’ 31-year-old Brazilian attacker. “You must be the only Brazilian who can’t play football,” he continued. Then he sits down calmly, takes a swig on his cup of tea and bites into his steak and kidney pie. Passionate, unorganized and totally encapsulated with the game, that is a typical Saints fan.

The anti-Portsmouth songs ring out around St. Mary’s on a Saturday afternoon, and despite Southampton’s success this season while their neighbors 17 miles down the South Coast struggle in the lower reaches of England’s fourth-tier, they’re never too far away from the minds of Southampton’s fans.

source: AP
Can the Saints continue their dramatic climb from the third-tier to deliver European soccer?

“Women come and go, but Saints will always be there,” O’Callghan said. “My ex-wife said ‘you love Saints more than you love me’ and I said… ‘I love Pompey more than I love you.’”

That gives you a quick intro into the animosity that exists between the two sets of fans…


Many teams can have a great start in the PL. Just look at West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City last season, which slipped away dramatically in the second half of the season. The hard part is keeping that run going.

Southampton splashed over $54 million this summer to sign Croatian international defender Dejan Lovren, Italian international striker Daniel Osvaldo and powerhouse midfielder Victor Wanyama from Celtic. Fans of the club are excited about the new additions, but realistic about what can be achieved.

Is qualification for European soccer possible?

“It’s attainable,” Illingsworth hesitantly said. “But it’s a harder job than people would think. It’s very difficult to get a European spot, you’ve got to say from where we’ve come it’s a bit of a fairytale. Is it attainable? Possibly.”

Steve Grant, who runs another fan website SaintsWeb, is a long-time fan who travels down to Southampton from London for the matches. Grant is a little more cautious, but believes a top ten finish is now what Saints should aim for.

“I think in the short term Champions League is completely out of the question,” Grant said. “Even a Europa League position through the league, over a 38-game season it’s going to be very difficult.”

And despite O’Callaghan’s brash positivity, he believes Saints can’t break into the top six just yet.

“I know the Liebherr family is worth over $7 billion,” he said. “But unless they want to go spending silly money like Manchester City and like Chelsea have done, I can see top six being as good as it gets.”

Down on England’s South Coast, Southampton have the biggest stadium and biggest soccer brand south of London.

Likeable Saints fan O’Callaghan is known by many supporters around the ground on a match day, constantly greeting other ‘Saints’ with “how are you mate?” and “great to see you fella” as he strolls confidently through the concrete concourses of St. Mary’s. O’Callaghan has been traveling around to watch Southampton for decades and has been to 91 different soccer grounds in England supporting Saints. He represents the core of Southampton’s supporters, with the vast majority hailing from within the historic city limits.

“When we play the big clubs, we sing ‘we support our local team’ and we are proud to support our local team. We’re not jumpers on the bandwagon,”  O’Callaghan said furiously. “But I know people from Southampton who support Liverpool and clubs like that and they’re from Southampton and I can’t get my head around when Saints are playing Liverpool they are supporting the opposition against the city of their birth. That’s like being a traitor to me. That is being a traitor. What is wrong with your own local team? Most fans say ‘oh my granddad was a Liverpool fan, etc.’ That’s the biggest load of nonsense, have they not got their own brain? Support your local team.”


For some people — I’m looking at you America — it’s not possible to support your local Premier League team, because, eh geography is kind of in the way.

Chances are if you live in the USA, until now you probably don’t know what color Southampton play in, where the city is located in England and their top five players of all-time. But that’s okay, you don’t need to.

source: Getty Images
Fans make their way to St. Mary’s on a match day.

With NBC Sports giving you access to every single PL game live this season — excuse me I’m just going to rest my trumpet down on the ground after that excessive celebratory blast — you can chose any team from across England to have as your own.

So, why Southampton?

“Southampton will appeal to the fans who identify their team with their city and community,” Illignsworth said. “Southampton will appeal to the people of Chicago, the people of Pittsburgh, Boston and Philadelphia. Working class cities that have a community feel.”

Illingsworth, who often travels to the U.S. for vacations and recently watched the NFL’s Saints kick off their season, believes the city of Southampton will resonate with fans of one team in particular.

“Southampton are probably the Chicago Cubs of soccer,” Illingsworth said. “They never really look like winning anything, but we’ve got this big fan base that turns up week in, week out and always has potential and those clubs appeal to people who identify with the triers. For people who like to see success built rather than bought.”


And that success is often built by investing in youth and giving it a chance to nurture at the professional level. If you like seeing teams develop young talent and give youth a chance, Southampton is right up your street.

Bale is the most famous name to come through Saints' academy.
Bale is the most famous name to come through Saints’ academy.

They’ve produced current England internationals Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, not to mention Real Madrid superstar and the world’s most expensive player, Gareth Bale.

In the current team, captain Adam Lallana was called into the England squad last season, left back Luke Shaw is the most promising 18-year-old in English soccer, 18-year-old James Ward-Prowse scored his first goal for England’s U-21 side last week, Nathaniel Clyne has been around the England U-21 setup for many years and 18-year-old right back Calum Chambers is a star in the making.

The list continues, as Saints have an endless conveyor belt of talent rolling out of their Staplewood training ground tucked just inside the marvelous setting of the New Forest national park.

“I would say these days, our academy has no comparison,” Grant said. “I think Saints have now taken over the slogan, ‘the academy of football’ from the likes of West Ham who held that in the past. It very much applies to the ethos around the club now. Regardless of how much money the club’s spent, how many trophies you win, Southampton Football Club is still based in Southampton as a city and still has the support of the people of Southampton. As a result when one of your own breaks into the team, there’s always a greater sense of pride when that player then goes onto be successful.”

And Illingsworth believes the fact that Saints have always relied on youth players being core members of the first-team has enabled them to go on be stars.

“There is a pride,” Illingsworth said. “Even if someone isn’t born and bred in Southampton, there’s still that sense of pride that we’ve made them, we’ve drilled this Southampton thing into them. That’s why over the years people like Matt Le Tissier never left the city.”


With a population of around 300,000 and sitting all alone as the only Premier League club south of London, the City of Southampton is somewhat cut off from the rest of England’s soccer fraternity.

source: Getty Images
Fans pay homage to a statue of Mr. Southampton, Ted Bates, before every home game by tapping it for luck.

But that only makes the bond between the club and its supporters stronger.

“With Southampton there’s a community spirit,” Illingsworth said. “If you walk along anywhere in the world and you see a guy wearing a Saints shirt, you stop and speak to him. Because you know you’re going to have something in common. 10 years ago I went to watch the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden and at the end of the game a guy walks towards me wearing a Saints shirt. I didn’t know him but we had a chat and that’s the type of community spirit Southampton has. You don’t get that from Chelsea, United or Arsenal where the supporters are drawn from a far wider area. It’s not just a pride in the team but a pride in the area and your home city.”

When you walk around and look at the history on every street corner, it makes you realize just how long soccer has been engrained into the minds of the people in Southampton. The club has been around for 128 years, which is a long, long time. But in comparison to the city itself, it’s a baby. Starting off as a Roman settlement named “Clausentum” in AD 43, it soon became a massive medieval port with strong links to France across the English Channel. Today, many of the medieval walls and ruins still remain throughout the newly constructed city that was heavily bombed in World War II. And it was from Southampton that the Titanic made it’s fateful voyage, with many of the city’s streets affected by the deaths of over 700 Sotonians on board The White Star Line’s luxury liner. Now it’s rich shipping heritage sees it dubbed ‘the capital of Europe’s Cruise line industry’ and it boasts the UK’s largest container port.

The city is thriving, and Southampton FC’s successful ascension towards the summit of English soccer has had a lot to do with that.

Crowds are averaging over 30,000, with money, sponsorship and new exposure coming to the city thank to Saints’ success. But some fans aren’t exactly bowled over by the side effects of being back in the PL.

“You’re going to get your ‘Johnny come lately’s’ I call them ‘Bandwagon United,’” O’Callaghan laughed. “They come along to watch Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard, you get that. And that has to do with the price of football and being back in the Premier League. Those kind of fans are pushing the real fans out of the stadium. Which isn’t right.”


Ultimately Southampton’s fans are feeling the pinch in their pocket as the club continues to hike up season ticket prices as demand for seats is increasing, and talk of expanding the 32,000 capacity stadium to over 40,000 rumbles on.

Right now the fans don’t mind shelling out a few extra ‘quid’ here and there… because their team has been relatively successful.

Pochettino has led Saints to new heights.
Pochettino has led Saints to new heights.

A few years ago, back in my heyday as an athlete at college, there was one slogan the administration was always throwing round to try and inspire athletes: “Only Big Dreams.” Like the average pretentious upstarts, we raised our eyebrows and muttered ‘yeah, yeah’ under our breaths.

But when I recently went along to speak with Southampton’s manager Pochettino, he had that same mentality, that same “dream big”

outlook, and shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly when asked if Southampton can reach the top six and beyond. Instead of Europa League dreams, Pochettino is “aiming for the Champions League.” If you set the bar high, ultimately lesser accomplishments are still hugely impressive.

That seems to be what Pochettino is doing.

“The work that’s been happening for the last four years, started with the chairman,” Pochettino said. “His vision for the club and the way he started building the future of the club, the ideas, the philosophy. The basic idea is to take the club to the top of the league and Europe. That’s our ambition.”

From League One to the Champions League in less than five years wouldn’t just be a “Big Dream” it would be a miracle. The chairman Mr. Cortese, who was lambasted by plenty of Saints fans I spoke to when writing this story, has been ruthless in his aim to get Saints challenging with the big boys of England. He’s on his way to achieving that, but can they now make a splash in Europe over the next few years?

Pochettino’s well-drilled charges have got Saints’ fan dreaming again.

With a squad full of internationals, huge investment from the owners in the transfer market and a hungry manager implementing revolutionary high-pressure tactics that are taking the PL by storm, Southampton are on the cusp of something big. A few more steps in the right direction and the growing promise could become sustainable.

Recently I went to check out what all the fuss was about. Pale purple and red skies hung over St. Mary’s Stadium down on the banks of the River Itchen on a chilly evening as summer turned to fall, I was amongst a small crowd watching Saints take on Bristol City in a League Cup game in September. When the team sheet was handed to me and I looked down the list, it was a completely different starting XI than the team that had just beaten Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield a few days previously.

It included the likes of Uruguayan international Gaston Ramirez, Japanese internationals Maya Yoshida and Tadanari Lee, Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis and many other players that would have been nailed on starters for Saints last season in the PL. Now, they’re effectively a reserve squad, albeit it a reserve squad full of internationals. The strength in-depth is getting there, and Saints could certainly go deep in the League Cup and FA Cup on that showing with a strong second XI dominating.

Wanyama is one of the new faces helping Southampton push on.
Wanyama is one of the new faces helping Southampton push on.

The thing that strikes you about visiting St. Mary’s is the large band of supporters who stand, and refuse to sit when directed by stewards, at the Northam End of the stadium. Situated next to the segregation with the away fans, fans at the Northam end are the heart and soul of Saints’ home support. All the chants emanate from this section of the stadium behind the goal, and when Saints players score at that end, they often run to the Northam to revel in the delight. There’s a mix of red and white shirts scattered amongst the Northam, but mostly you’ll find middle-aged men in denim already a few beers deep and smoking a cigarette. This is where Southampton’s average working class man, with strong connections to the City’s docks, chooses to watch the game. No bullshit, no flags, nobody telling him what to do. Just watching the game, singing his heart out and hoping and praying Saints can keep their good run going.

The fans are impressed at how seamless the transition has been since Pochettino’s controversial arrival, following the sudden sacking of favorite Nigel Adkins who orchestrated two-straight promotions from League One. But Argentine Pochettino has taken things to the next level.

“It is attractive football, I know the guy is Argentinian and he’s earned his living in Spain as a manager, but what he’s done, you can’t knock it,” O’Callaghan said. “Saints improved after he came in last season, and considering this guy came in and didn’t speak the lingo and introduced a new system, the players adapted very quickly. They must have a lot of respect for him, they’re playing for the manager.”


source: Getty Images
Saints’ huge band of away fans celebrate Dejan Lovren’s winner against Liverpool.

As aforementioned, Southampton is tucked away down on the English Channel over an hour and a half south of London by car. It’s hard for their traveling band of supporters to get to stadiums across the length and breadth of England.

But they do so in their droves.

Since promotion back to the top flight last season, almost every single away game has seen a sold out Saints section, and the tickets to Saturday’s game at Old Trafford against Manchester United sold out weeks in advance. That isn’t lost on manager Pochettino, who’s astonished by the huge numbers of supporters Saints take to far flung corners of the country.

“The away fans, the 2,000 or 3,000 fans that are with us every single game, we really appreciate their support,” Pochettino said puffing out his cheek in amazement. “Yes, I’ve been very surprised from the away fans. We really want to thank them and congratulate them for that continued support that they give us. We know how hard it is, and how much of an effort they make to come to those games. What I really want from the fans is that they’re supporting the club. That they’re always cheering on and supporting the players, the club itself and to enjoy how we play.”

That massive traveling support shows the willingness of fans to support their local team and represent the city in other parts of England.

And O’Callaghan believes the pride Saints fans have is stronger than ever.

source: Getty Images
Fans applaud Adam Lallana as he scores Southampton’s opener vs. Swansea.

“I have always been proud to be a Saints fan, but I’m even prouder at this moment of time because of where we are right here, right now,” O’Callaghan said with a lump in his throat. “In our wildest dreams, if someone said to us five years ago when we were in the third tier that we’d now be fourth from top in the PL of England, one of the richest leagues in the world, people would think you’re hitting the bottle a little bit too much. We are where we are on merit. You can only be proud of that and also proud of the people at Southampton Football Club who’ve put us in that position.”

That sense of togetherness between the fans and Saints’ players has been growing since the struggles of administration and relegation to League One. Star striker Rickie Lambert, goalkeeper Kelvin Davis, defender Jose Fonte, midfielders Guly Do Prado, Morgan Schneiderlin and captain Adam Lallana have all been on that journey with the fans, the backbone of the squad throughout the successful return to the PL.

Captain Lallana spoke to me about the special relationship between himself and the fans.

“I think I have a great relationship with the fans,” the skipper said with a smirk on his face. “I think I always have since I’ve been here, and I just love playing my football here, week in, week out. I have a really good relationship with the fans, always have and I always will.”

And to end our journey on the fans behind Southampton and what the ambitious club is all about, our friend Mike O’Callaghan can sum up exactly what it means to be from Southampton and support the Saints.

“Southampton is my team. I’ve got a tattoo right across my back that says Southampton FC and it’s written in olde English,” O’Callaghan said with intense emotion flowing through his southern English accent. “It took two hours to do, it has thirteen letters… and it bloody well hurt. But when I go on holiday, and I take my shirt off and I’m walking by the beach or the pool, people know where I’m from. I’m proud of where I’m from, and I love to let the world know as well.”

Premier League Preview: Sunderland vs. Arsenal

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - APRIL 24:  Patrick van Aanholt of Sunderland and Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal battle for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Sunderland and Arsenal at Stadium of Light on April 24, 2016 in Sunderland, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
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  • Sunderland last winless team in PL
  • Gunners lead all-time 56W-40D-45L
  • Black Cats last beat Arsenal in 2012 FA Cup

Arsenal faces another struggling Northeast squad but hopes for an improved result when it visits David Moyes‘ miserable Sunderland on Saturday (7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN and streaming via NBC Sports Live).

Arsene Wenger‘s men drew Middlesbrough 0-0 and needed some fine work from Petr Cech just to find a point last weekend, but Sunderland could be just the tonic.

[ MLS: Seattle beats KC | Montreal tops DC ]

The Black Cats have a mere two points through nine PL matches this year, five points shy of safety.

Playing the first match of the day allows Arsenal to set the tone for the other four teams within a point of the Premier League lead. Look for the Gunners to take it to Sunderland early, and emerge around 9:30 a.m. ET with a three-point lead atop the table.


What they’re saying

Sunderland’s Duncan Watmore on the team’s mindset: “You could say we haven’t had much luck but sometimes you’ve got to earn it, so we will keep working hard for each other and be positive. Our team ethic is very important but we have great lads in the dressing room and good backroom staff, so everyone at the club is pulling in the same direction.”

Arsene Wenger on Arsenal CB Shkodran Mustafi“He is not a quiet guy who hides. He speaks out with his opinion and communicates a lot. Even when you isolate the pictures of the game and look at that he speaks a lot during the game. He has the potential [to be a great defender for Arsenal], which is interesting at the moment. It it is a bit too early to say, you have to be cautious when a guy has played only three or four games.”


At some point, Sunderland has to find a win, right? That is unlikely to be Friday, as Arsenal has an extra day’s rest and was able to take it easy against Reading in the EFL Cup while Sunderland expelled a great deal of energy 24 hours later in a loss to Southampton. Maybe Jermain Defoe finds the net against his old rivals, but Arsenal should find it a few more times. Gunners, 3-1.

Bob Bradley on Swans’ fortunes: “Let’s not worry about luck”

SWANSEA, WALES - OCTOBER 22:  Swansea manager Bob Bradley reacts during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Watford at Liberty Stadium on October 22, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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Stuff happens, so just play well.

That’s the message from Swansea City manager Bob Bradley as his club seeks its first win under the American boss.

[ MLS: Conference semis schedule set ]

Bradley has overseen an entertaining loss to Arsenal and a draw with Watford, and now hopes to get payoff from what he sees as improved form.

And if a loss comes via a bad call or bounce, they’ll deal with it.

From the BBC:

“We had a tough run of fixtures at the beginning. Maybe everyone’s starting to feel a little unlucky,” the former United States manager said.

“Since I arrived, I’ve said let’s not worry about luck and worry about trying to improve in the right areas. You can have a call go against you or a chance go off the posts but in the long run your ability to become a good team is based on doing so many little things right.”

Bradley meets fellow American Geoff Cameron and Stoke City on Monday, with Manchester United, Everton, Crystal Palace, and Spurs following that fixture.

So the schedule isn’t being kind to the first time Premier League boss and there’s a lot of work to be done. Focusing on the little things is a good plan, as Swans need to weather this storm.

A win Monday, however, could boost them out of the drop zone. And that exhalation could be quite a tonic for the Welsh side.

USL’s incredible growth continues, but what’s next?

CINCINNATI, OH - JULY 16: Fans of FC Cincinnati cheer on their team during the match against Crystal Palace FC at Nippert Stadium on July 16, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.(Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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This week a huge shift in the U.S. Soccer landscape took place.

With the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury leaving the North American Soccer League for the United Soccer League for the 2017 season, many are predicting the end is near for the second-tier NASL just six years after its rebirth in 2010.

[ MORE: Latest USL news ] 

Although it may be too early to write of the NASL, it is clear that the third-tier USL is growing aggressively and has found a model for success along with the support of Major League Soccer.

Following a landmark deal in 2013, 10 MLS teams have chosen to have their own standalone reserve teams playing in USL and another 10 for the 2017 season will have affiliate teams which sees them inextricably linked with a USL franchise to provide minutes to young players among many other things.

The steady progress of USL in recent years has been clear for all to see. Now, things are kicking on.

At the helm during the USL’s rapid period of growth (they’ve increased from having just 13 teams in 2013 to 31 for the upcoming 2017 season) is president Jake Edwards, a native of Manchester, England who played throughout the English league system for teams such as Burton Albion, Yeovil Town, Exeter City and others after spending his school days in the USA in New Jersey and then briefly playing for the Charleston Battery in 2002-03.

In an exclusive phone interview with ProSoccerTalk from the USL’s headquarters in Tampa, Florida, Edwards revealed that USL has applied for Division 2 status for the upcoming 2017 season, something they’re hopeful of acquiring, and that the league is currently in discussions with eight cities about joining the league as they’ve placed particular emphasis on adding clubs in both the South East and South West of the USA.

For a league who proudly brands itself as “Fastest Growing League in the World” the USL is true to its word.

“Without disclosing specifics, we are in conversations with markets in all time zones at the moment. I would say there are upwards of eight very active discussions right now across the country. There remains a strong interest in USL but we are of a size now where we only want to bring in markets that we think are really good strategic fit in terms of building those regional rivalries and having derby games that we think will help sustain professional soccer and have a good support base,” Edwards said. “It’s all about: do we have that quality ownership group that is well capitalized, local and committed to building a long-term club for the community? Is there a stadium plan in place? No team is allowed to come into the league now without a road map to build a soccer specific stadium of 8-10,000 seats.

“We now have very active conversations for teams to come into the league in 2019 and 2020 and we are pushing them back because they have to build stadiums and they are committed to doing that. We are working with those local governments and those private investors to get those stadiums up and running and off the ground. Expansion will continue for a little longer. We are in discussions with eight really good markets now. In terms of where we are looking to expand, we have a lot of good clubs on the East Coast but we are looking in the South East and certainly the South West as the two areas we need to prioritize to start connecting some of those cities together. We are in a number of advanced conversations so there will be some more announcements on expansion coming probably in the early part of next year.”

With Tampa and Ottawa joining the league this week, Edwards spoke at length about how both franchises will be huge additions to the USL with their strong ownership groups and fanbases. In turn, their departure was a blow for NASL, the current second tier on the soccer pyramid in the U.S. and Canada.

The USL believes it can challenge NASL for second-tier status but Edwards described that aim as a “long, rigorous process” as they seek second-tier status for the upcoming 2017 season.

“We are in that process and we’ve in that process for the best part of 18 months now, since January 2015. We put our application into the federation and since then we’ve had to go through a number of stages with that process and the federation and that task force. That’s ongoing,” Edwards revealed. “We’ve had unanimous support from our ownership in our winter meetings in 2014,. They felt that is exactly what they wanted to do and felt we met or exceeded those Division 2 standards. Since then we’ve moved the league forward and the teams that have joined the league have raised the bar and all meet or exceed those standards that are at Division 2 level. There are benefits to that designation and we feel strongly that the league and our individual clubs are meeting and exceeding those standards. So why not apply and try to reach that level?”

With USL reaching over 30 teams for 2017, would having promotion and relegation within USL be feasible for the future?

“It’s a question we get a lot now, especially as we are getting bigger,” Edwards revealed. “I played in that system in England. I am very familiar and used to it and culturally it is not alien to me. It is a great thing, in many respects. Promotion and relegation, it works. Especially in the UK. It is a horrible thing when you go down, I’ve been on that side of it as well. I’ve been in promotion chases and relegation battles. Wen teams go down it is the worst thing. Many people lose their jobs and the revenue models completely change. It is not something that would categorically add to the value of the game over here.”

If the USL was to gain second-tier status, would promotion and relegation between their league and MLS be something to consider?

“You have a structure in place with separate business organizations between us and MLS, so there are a lot of challenges there how you would integrate that into a system,” Edwards said. “Ultimately if people are dropping hundreds of millions of dollars on franchise fees and stadiums, to then come out of the league the following year… I’m not sure that’s ever going to be approved by ownership at the top. As we grow we are going to have to look at what our structure might look like down the road. We are at two conferences right now. We are looking to expand to three conferences, hopefully by 2018. East, West and Central. That is a good place for us to be with a national footprint with a regional structure. Beyond that, if there continues to be growth beyond that we will have to look at different models that make sense. Maybe that is something, within our league, which makes sense down the road but probably not anytime soon.”

When it comes to the USL’s affiliate system with MLS, there have been varying degrees of success in terms of crowd numbers with certain MLS reserve teams and some affiliate clubs not making the most of the partnership on offer with the loaning of young MLS players.

Is the affiliate deal with MLS working?

Edwards pointing towards the new hybrid affiliate franchise between Rio Grande Valley FC Toros (RGV) and Houston Dynamo which is the first of its kind and sees the RGV ownership group take care of the financial side of things and the Houston Dynamo franchise take care of all of the soccer aspects of the club.

“You can’t make a decision after a short space of time so we’ve been looking at this now for three years and evaluating how it has going and the impact it is having on both leagues, how our teams and MLS teams are managing with this integration and where the value is. We do believe there is a lot of value and I believe in many ways it has helped the competition get stronger,” Edwards said. “There are some really quality teams in the league now. As it relates to the future of these models, we have to look at what’s the best thing from the technical side and the business side as it relates to the club’s decision to do a full affiliation or a standalone team.

“We look at it from our leagues point of view: where do want this partnership to go? What do we want to see? We have been evaluating that over the past few years and the model has changed. This year we had a new integrated model with RGV in Houston which is the first time we’ve done that and I think that’s a model which might attract more teams and MLS teams to look at that model. That is a model which makes sense.

“For us it is about how you balance the competitive side and you have a good strong club who are playing good soccer at the level we want it to be at, or better. How to balance that with the business performance for the club. Where we are going as a league, it is about what we want these venues and crowds to look like at our games. We are in an evaluation period right now and if something is working we are certainly going to carry on like that. Models that are not working that well or aren’t achieving those goals, we are going to start looking at some other options perhaps. I think you will start to see in the next few years a few options we create between the two leagues for the teams to explore. Or some of the MLS teams looking at a different affiliation model, if that makes more sense from a technical or business point of view. Where we are now, it is not going to look exactly the same over the next two or three seasons. You will see some changes.”

Asked if recent events will see the end of NASL — Tampa Bay and Ottawa joined USL plus Minnesota United joined MLS — Edwards didn’t want to speculate and insisted the USL is fully focused on building sustainable clubs for itself rather than trying to attract big names.

“No league will celebrate failure in any way in any other league of any team. Ultimately, we all want the game to move forward. As it relates to Tampa and Ottawa, they felt their long-term future and the success of their business and the goals they had did not align with the league they were in and were perhaps at risk in the league they were in. They approached us about looking at another option,” Edwards said. “We as a league, we have to absolutely focus on our competition and focus on what we are doing. Focusing on how we can impact soccer communities across America and try and do so in a really responsible, ethical and sustainable way. That is a huge responsibility and certainly not one we take lightly. We’ve got to go into a market, bring professional soccer there and do it in the right way with the right local ownership and the right stadium and the right people behind it. Otherwise, we won’t do it.

“We are focused on trying to get that right and that isn’t easy and it takes time. We just have a very different philosophy and approach to doing that. I don’t want to speculate on the success or failure of another league. We just have to focus on what we’re doing and I think what we are doing is working well and certainly that is part and parcel of why those two clubs have decided that is a better fit for them.”


Asked if there is a specific number of clubs USL will reach and then close the doors, Edwards didn’t want to put a hard number or a cap on how many teams the USL will have.

He also believes some of his teams will move on to MLS as they continue their own rapid growth.

“There is a logical number where just going beyond would operationally be challenging but we are trying to move towards a three conference structure and if you imagine 12 to 14 clubs per conference in East, Central and West, those are manageable numbers with a solid playoff structure and some crossover games. That is probably where you want to get to. Somewhere in the mid 30s,” Edwards said. “Now, that said, there might be some movement over time.

“In the next 5-10 years I do anticipate one or two of our clubs moving up to MLS. There may be some changes with some of the MLS second teams for example, with MLS teams in terms of what they do. The number might fluctuate a little bit. We won’t put a number on it because there may be a market out there where it comes a time you just find this fantastic ownership group, a really strong market, there is funding to build a really quality stadium and you think it’s going to be a really good addition to the league. For us, it wouldn’t make sense then to not allow professional soccer to go into that market and have this great environment just because you’ve reached an arbitrary number. There’s a point where it probably won’t go beyond but there’s not a hard number right now. I would imagine it makes sense to be around the mid 30s. That is probably where we will hover.”

Current USL teams Sacramento Republic and FC Cincinnati are huge success stories (Sacramento averaged 11,514 for home games and Cincinnati an incredible 17,296) and both have been tabbed to become MLS’ next expansion franchises, with Sacramento already making a major push with their new downtown stadium site.

With so many USL teams going on to join MLS after building strong bases in the third-tier, is that something Edwards would continue to welcome moving forward?

“Five of the last seven have done so when you’re talking about Orlando, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Montreal. Clubs like that have had time in the USL whether it be a couple of years or 10-15 years, and what they’ve been able to do is build their brand and build a solid club and build a soccer culture in that community which may or may not have been on the radar of Major League Soccer,” Edwards explained. “When you look at markets like Orlando and Cincinnati, who probably weren’t on MLS’ radar, then through the USL they are able to start building professional soccer fandom in that city. If they do that at a high enough level for long enough then it may be something that they may entertain down the road. Sacramento are going through that process right now. I fully anticipate it.

“We are in some significant markets. We are in some mid-major and some major league markets and we have a very strong, ambitious ownership collective in our league. Many of our owners, they own MLS teams, the own NBA teams, they own MLB teams. They certainly have the wherewithal to own a major league franchise but it’s not everyone’s goal and mostly it is not. It is a serious commitment now to move into MLS with the franchise fee and stadium costs. It is not something everyone wants to do. We challenge all of our teams to ultimately operate at that level and if they can operate at that level long enough and build a club, maybe that becomes an option they want to consider.”

Tony Pulis extends contract at West Bromwich Albion

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 17:  Tony Pulis manager of West Bromwich Albion looks on prior to the Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and West Ham United at The Hawthorns on September 17, 2016 in West Bromwich, England.  (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)
Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images
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Order up a fresh round of baseball caps, cause the boss isn’t going anywhere.

Tony Pulis has signed a contract extension with West Bromwich Albion which will keep him at the Hawthorns through the summer of 2018.

[ PL PREVIEW: Palace vs. Liverpool ]

The 58-year-old Welsh coach has been at West Brom since January 2015, his third-straight Premier League stop after spending 2006-2013 with Stoke City and a 28-game stint at Crystal Palace.

Club chairman John Williams says that making the move was important to the stability of the club given the recent takeover from Guochuan Lai.

Here’s Pulis, from

“I think the bulk of our fans understand the process we embarked upon under the shadow of relegation less than two years ago.
“We have a Club which can aspire to be an established top 10 member of the football league everyone in the world wants to be part of. I want to continue to front that challenge.”

West Brom fans fancy their club a bit more stylish and open than the defense-first mindset of Pulis, and that will have this extension met with significant distress from a portion of the fan base.

That said, Pulis did save the Baggies from relegation in 2015. He’ll have the chance to improve on a sub -.500 record with WBA, and the players he buys in January and August will show us if it was the purse strings holding him back.