“Long may it continue” — Talking USL growth with Jake Edwards

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Jake Edwards sees the growth of the United Soccer League. He’s impressed, but far from sated.

The 41-year-old league president sounds more like a man focused on quality than quantity these days, though there’s little denying the USL’s rise beyond 30 teams is impressive.

In the battle to lay claim to markets, Edwards can’t help but note the strength of those markets as more important. Anyone can place a team in a city, or invite a group into a league, but fostering clubs that will endure? That’s a worthwhile target.

Edwards spoke with PST about that and more this week.

PST: Jake, let’s start with an outstanding week in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The USL has made no pretense about aiming to succeed in the tournament, so how did it feel to watch so many of your clubs win?

Jake Edwards: “It was a good week. We have nine clubs that have progressed to the fourth round. The U.S. Open Cup remains a very important part of the season calendar for our clubs. The last two non-MLS clubs to win the competition were the Rhinos and the Richmond Kickers, and Battery have been in the finals.

“The new clubs that have come into our league over the last year or two want to make their names and have a good run. It remains a vital part of this landscape. I sit on the committee, and the committee members and I discuss how to expand the awareness, perception, and value of this competition and there are some things that are being kicked around.”

PST: Surely there’s only so much you can say about those plans, but can you give us an idea of what you’d like to improve about the tournament?

Edwards: “One of the big things we need to address is the broadcast of the games and the exposure it gets. We have some at the very later stages of the competition, but we need to work that out in the earlier rounds. We had some challenges with the platform the federation used to showcase the games. We need to bring these games to a much wider audience.

“Another thing is we need to make sure we are playing those games in the right stadiums. The reward for a lower division team is to play a high division team in a big stadium. Perhaps they wouldn’t get that opportunity normally.”

PST: Let’s talk about USL3, the third division project you plan to launch in two summers. Your league hasn’t been shy about the project, sharing meetings on social media, and letting regions know what you’re doing in their town and when you’re there.

Edwards: “It’s important that we have people at the league office who are going across the countries, meeting with cities, with mayors, with investment groups in a number of communities we’ve identified and a number who’ve invited us there.  We’ve been working on this for the last 18 months, and we intend to launch the league in 2019. We’ll start to make announcements as we progress toward the fall this year. As a league and a group of clubs in the USL, we’ve strived hard to represent the game in the right way. I think people have seen that, and they believe they can also have a club in those communities that will be well supported. There’s no need to that behind closed doors.”

PST: Growth is important, I get that, but the benefits of growing in numbers are navigating the massive obstacle which is playing on such a gigantic continent.

Edwards: “I played in the UK for many years and you’re never that far from another club. It’s a much smaller country heavily populated with football clubs, but the major focus of our expansion push is to recognize the size and scale of North America and to understand as much as we are the world’s game, we have some inherent challenges and major ones are the landscape, the weather, and other sports that might drown you out.

“We’ve focused on the regionality and building those derb.y games. It’s been great to see this past year the amount of fans who can travel and support their teams away from home. We’ve seen that in Louisville, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, and between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, even Sacramento and L.A. that’s not that close. There are lots of markets at D-2 and D-3 level that can reduce our travel and costs.

“We’re working towards a three conference model and getting there within the next season or two to see the benefits of that regionality.”

PST: What’s the thing that isn’t being noted enough about USL, in your opinion? When you read an article, what leaps out as ‘Why aren’t they talking about this?’

Edwards: “The explosion of attendance and support that our clubs are getting in these communities. We’ve worked hard at the league levels to work with our clubs to engage the fan base, but what we’re seeing now is an engaged local ownership group at each of clubs who are making the requisite investment into those clubs. We’re seeing that pay dividends. We’re averaging about 6,000 fans a game, with a 30 percent increase in attendance, sponsorship, and engagement in our communities. We’ve had 1.5 million through our gates last year, and are on track to pass two million this year.

“Long may it continue, and I think it will with the new crop of team coming into our leagues in the next few years.”

PST: Obviously being with NBC we’re major fans of the Premier League. What’s your take on your hometown club?

Edwards: “I was born in Manchester, and I’ve always been on the red side of the city. I’m glad to see them back on track and into the Champions League next year. I was a lifelong supporter of the club. I used to go watch them in the 1980s when there were terraces. They were not as good as Liverpool in those days.

“I played against them a couple of times back in my playing days which was a big thrill for me. It’s nice to see them back where they belong. It’s funny enough when I was at Exeter City we played them in the FA Cup at Old Trafford, we drew 0-0 in 2005-06. (NBC Sports broadcasting wizard) Rebecca Lowe on NBC Sports, who does a great job, her husband Paul Buckle who’s now a head coach at Sacramento, he was my teammate at Exeter.”

Vidal rips Ronaldo ahead of Confederations Cup semifinal

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Chile hopes to make a statement on Wednesday when it faces EURO 2016 champions Portugal and Ballon d’Or champion Cristiano Ronaldo.

The 2015 and 2016 Copa America champions can lay claim to another inter-confederation title with two more wins in the 2017 Confederations Cup, beginning with the semifinal in Kazan.

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Chile finished behind Germany in Group B but didn’t lose a match and only allowed two goals. That’ll be tested by Portugal and its seven goals in three matches.

Two of those goals came from Ronaldo, but don’t tell that to Arturo Vidal. Chile’s hard-edged midfielder doesn’t like him much.

From Goal.com:

“Cristiano is a smart ass,” he told reporters. “For me he does not exist.

“I have already told my Bayern Munich team-mate Joshua Kimmich that we will meet again in the final.”

Germany will have to take care of Mexico to make that happen, though we have a feeling a certain smart ass will have a thing or two to say before it’s all said and done.

Vidal has spoken loudly of his desire to get Chilean teammate Alexis Sanchez, a former Barcelona man, at his club Bayern Munich. If Ronaldo is on the market, this isn’t a great recruiting tool. Ah, jokes.

Trio of Crew players in Ghana roster to face USMNT, Mexico

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Ghana’s team to face the United States men’s national team on Saturday in East Hartford will look somewhat familiar to fans of Major League Soccer.

Columbus Crew players Harrison Afful, Mohammed Abu and Jonathan Mensah join David Accam of the Chicago Fire, and Gershon Koffie of the New England Revolution on a unit with Kwadwo Poku of the NASL’s Kwadwo Poku.

John Boye, Asamoah Gyan, and Mensah are the only three players from the loss to the USMNT in the 2014 World Cup.

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Like the U.S., this is a less than full-strength squad. Missing are a number of Black Stars standouts, with Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew, Afriyie Acquah, Daniel Amartey, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, Christian Atsu, Jeff Schlupp, and Baba Rahman not with the team.

Saturday’s match is the last USMNT outing before the Gold Cup begins on July 8 in Nashville against Panama.

Goalkeepers: Addo Joseph (Aduana Stars), Richard Ofori (Wa All Stars)

Defenders: Lumor Agbenyenu (Munich 1860), Harrison Afful (Columbus Crew),  Nicholas Opoku (Berekum Chelsea), Jerry Akaminko (Eskiserhispor),  John Boye (Sivasspor), Rashid Sumalia (Al Gharafa), Jonathan Mensah (Columbus Crew), Samuel Sarfo (Liberty)

Midfielders: Mohammed Abu (Columbus Crew, Isaac Sackey (Alanyaspor), Ofori Ebenezer (Stuttgart), Kwadwo Poku (FC Miami), Winful Kwaku Cobbinah (Hearts of Oak), Frank Acheampong (Anderlecht), Thomas Agyepong (NAC Breda), Gershon Koffie (New England Revolution)

Strikers: Asamoah Gyan (Al Alhi), Raphael Dwamena (FC Zurich), Majeed Abdul Waris (Lorient FC), David Accam (Chicago Fire)

Timo Werner abused in Germany but key to World Cup defense

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) The abuse has followed Timo Werner for months, gathering pace as rapidly as the striker has amassed goals.

No German player was more prolific in the Bundesliga last season. No player was as ostracized.

But Werner is now a full-blown Germany international, scoring his first goals at the Confederations Cup on Sunday, and he could hold the key to the World Cup defense next year.

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That could require Germany supporters to forgive a player they jeered at during his first competitive game for Joachim Loew’s team earlier this month.

“Kobe Bryant has also been booed everywhere and he always been the best,” Werner reflected ahead of Germany’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Mexico on Thursday, seeing a kindred spirit in the basketball great. “I do not want to say that I am the best like him, but (the abuse) is a bit of an incentive.”

If playing for the ascendant but deeply unpopular Leipzig wasn’t bad enough, a dive in December by Werner provided a focal point for the animosity – jealousy, perhaps – toward the Red Bull-funded team.

The insults have even been hurled far from Germany, far from soccer stadiums. The dive won a penalty against Schalke, and provided Werner with one of the 21 goals that helped to propel Leipzig into second place and a Champions League debut next season.

“There was a dive, he made a mistake and he admitted it,” Loew said, “but he is very, very young player.”

And a potentially very important one for Loew at the World Cup in Russia next year. Germany’s striking options are being assessed at the eight-team Confederations Cup as Loew still seeks a long-term successor to Miroslav Klose as target man for the world champions.

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Werner opened his account for Germany on his fourth appearance, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory over Cameroon on Sunday in Sochi.

“Werner put in a lot of legwork,” Loew said. “He showed how dangerous he is and that he’s got a great nose for goal. Both of his efforts were very well taken.”

Werner’s rivals for a place in the squad next year include fellow squad newcomers Lars Stindl and Sandro Wagner. They are both close to 30, while the 21-year-old Werner has youth, strength and speed on his side. Even Wagner said he has “never seen such a good striker at that age.”

That’s a result of Werner fusing his pace with intelligence on the ball, mastering dribbling at high speed first with Stuttgart and then at Leipzig.

“There’s no recipe for it,” Werner said. “The quickest players just know how to do it automatically. I like to knock the ball three or four meters ahead of me when I’m on the counter or have space in front of me, that way I can increase the distance between a defender and myself.”

Such proficiency should help Werner win over fans beyond Leipzig. Time, he hopes, will heal the fractures, and there’s certainly support from his new international teammates.

“I wish him well because of the issues he has had to endure,” captain Julian Draxler told Germany’s ARD television.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP Confederations Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/ConfederationsCup

USMNT Gold Cup 23-man roster leaves some questions

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We have Bruce Arena’s 23-man United States men’s national roster for the Gold Cup, and there are more than a few surprises left out of the bunch.

Often a chance to experiment, those who thought this year’s Gold Cup roster would be one aimed at reclaiming glory with authority may be surprised to see the status quo.

Jurgen Klinsmann brought most of his big guns to the 2015 party — which didn’t go well for Brad Guzan and Co. — but Arena will roll into this summer’s tournament without most of his big names. There’s no Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Clint Dempsey, nor Jozy Altidore.

Those aren’t huge surprises, though who Arena neglected from his original 40-man short list is a bit of a shock to the system (Players can be called into the mix after the group stage, which is a fairly simple affair for the USMNT to navigate versus Panama, Martinique, and Nicagarua).

Arena is going with Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson, and Bill Hamid in a trio that fails to impress. Hamid does have a big crowd of fans who’d like to see him get a chance to assert himself as the future, and hopefully either Johnson or Hamid finds time between the sticks against a serious opponent like Panama. No surprise that Tim Howard and Joe Bendik didn’t leap into the trio (EDIT: This post initially questioned the omission of Jesse Gonzalez, but his one-time switch from Mexico to the USMNT has yet to go through).

We’ll ignore the omission of Danny Williams for the most part considering he was absent from the 40-man list, but he must have said something seriously awful to Arena or someone at U.S. soccer.

The group of forwards leaves little to complain about, as Juan Agudelo and Dom Dwyer very much deserve their chances to compete for playing time with Sounders star Jordan Morris, but the midfield provides some head-scratching. Gyasi Zardes may be a longtime Arena favorite, but the Galaxy man has been ice cold in MLS. The 25-year-old has a single assist in almost 1000 minutes of play this season, and that came back on April 8. Tommy McNamara has not lighting the league on fire and Chris Pontius and his six assists are 30 years old, so much of the grief should be directed at the 40-man again, but Zardes has to embrace this opportunity. And maybe it’s a way to help the Galaxy and Zardes get a little mojo.

As an aside, Wil Trapp is among leaders in several MLS passing stats, which leads me to believe Arena is going to play Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta a ton and doesn’t see much of a need for Trapp in this tournament, not ever.

Defenders Steve Birnbaum and Jonathan Spector were not rewarded with looks, though Graham Zusi was included in what must be an arm reaching out for USMNT experience. Birnbaum is leading MLS in aerials won per game and Spector is by far Orlando’s top rated player since returning from England. Yes, Spector is 31 but this is about still qualifying for next summer’s World Cup, not the 2022 cycle. Spare a thought for Matt Polster, who has been decent since returning from a knee strain. This is nothing against Zusi, a consummate professional who won’t kill the team by any means and will be an tremendous asset in leadership.

What about you? Any other gripes? Or do you love the bunch?