“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.”

PL Sunday preview: Wayward Watford welcome woeful West Ham

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In a reversal of roles, based on preseason projections at least, Watford welcome West Ham United to Vicarage Road on Sunday (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com) for a clash of mid-table climbers and relegation fighters, respectively.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup — Man Utd, Chelsea win big… so do Man City ]

Watford began the 2017-18 Premier League season in fine form, winning four of their first eight games and losing just one (to runaway leaders Manchester City, no less). In their last three games, however, the Hornets have conceded eight goals, while scoring just four themselves, and winning zero points. Coincidentally — nor not, perhaps — that three-game slide began at the same time Watford manager Marco Silva‘s name was linked with the vacant manager’s job at Everton. With Ronald Koeman fired almost four weeks ago now, Watford have rejected approach after approach from Everton owner Farhad Moshiri. Silva, for his first three months of efforts, has been roundly praised by the club’s supporters and players alike.

“Everybody could see he changed a lot of things in the team. We had quite a lot of the same players but we improved a lot,” defender Christian Kabasele said this week. “When you have somebody like this and other teams are looking for him it’s important that Watford try to do everything possible to keep him.”

West Ham, meanwhile, started the season poorly and have remained equally so in recent weeks. Slaven Bilic was subsequently fired two weeks and succeeded by David Moyes, who had been out of a job since guiding Sunderland to relegation at the end of last season. Sunday’s bout with Watford will see Moyes make his debut for West Ham, the fourth club to employ him since leaving Everton four and a half years ago. To make matters more difficult, the Hammers’ leading scorer, Javier Hernandez (4 goals), won’t be available after picking up an injury on international duty.

“It’s a clean slate for the entire squad,” Moyes said last week. “They’ve all worked very hard this week and responded in a positive manner to everything we’ve asked of them. It will obviously take time for the players to fully understand our style and methods but the initial signs are very encouraging — they’ve bought in what we are trying to do and that’s a good base for us to build on.”

INJURIES: Watford — OUT: Troy Deeney (suspension), Nathaniel Chalobah (knee), Isaac Success (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Younes Kaboul (hamstring), Sebastian Prodl (hamstring), Roberto Pereyra (hamstring) | West Ham — OUT: Javier Hernandez (hamstring), James Collins (ankle), Sam Byram (thigh), Jose Fonte (foot); QUESTIONABLE: Michail Antonio (ribs)

The 2 Robbies: North London Painted Red

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In today’s pod, the Robbies heap praise on Arsenal’s impressive performance in the North London Derby (00:30), analyze Manchester United’s 4-1 win against Newcastle on the back of Paul Pogba’s return (10:00), ask if this Man City side is the best Premier League side ever (18:25), debate where Kevin De Bruyne’s current form ranks in the league’s greatest ever players (23:45) and pick the best summer signing so far this season (27:15; hint, hint – he might be leading the league in scoring).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

La Liga: Draw in Madrid derby puts Barca 10 clear of capital rivals

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MADRID (AP) Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid played to a scoreless draw in their first derby at the new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium on Saturday, leaving both teams further away from Spanish league leader Barcelona.

Barcelona won at Leganes 3-0 earlier and ended the day 10 points in front of both Madrid clubs after 12 matches. The thriving Catalan club is seven points in front of second-place Valencia, which will try to extend its seven-game winning streak at Espanyol on Sunday.

The draw extended Atletico’s winless run at its new home to five matches. It drew three straight entering this weekend. Diego Simeone’s team has won only two of its last 10 games in all competitions.

Both teams will have to remain nearly perfect for the rest of the season to try to catch up to Barcelona, which has won 11 of its 12 league matches.

It was a tense between Real and Atletico from the start, with hard fouls from both sides.

Real had control for most of the game but was not able to create many significant chances.

Atletico had one of its best opportunities early when forward Angel Correa entered the area free from markers with only goalkeeper Kiko Casilla to beat but sent his shot wide.

Substitute Kevin Gameiro also came close in the second half, but his shot over Casilla was cleared by Real defender Raphael Varane in front of the goal-line.

Real threatened with a few runs by Isco and a couple of free kicks taken by Cristiano Ronaldo.

It was another tough night for Ronaldo and Antoine Griezmann. Ronaldo has scored six times in the Champions league but only once in La Liga, while Griezmann has only three goals in 14 matches with Atletico in all competitions. The France forward was jeered when he was replaced by Fernando Torres near the end of the second half.

Luis Suarez scored twice to end a five-match scoring drought in Barcelona’s win.

The Uruguay striker found the net in each half and substitute midfielder Paulinho scored late to give the Catalan club its 11th win.

Leganes, ninth in the standings, had its chances early in southern Madrid but couldn’t beat Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Suarez opened the scoring in the 28th after Leganes goalkeeper Ivan Cuellar dropped the ball in front of the goal after a cross by Paco Alcacer. Suarez’s second in the 60th was a rebound shot after Cuellar parried a shot by Lionel Messi. Suarez hadn’t scored in more than a month.

“What mattered to me was that I was feeling good and was helping the team, and today the goals helped us get the three points against a difficult rival,” Suarez said. “We always try to play better, but it’s not always possible.”

Paulinho sealed the victory in the 90th after a pass by Messi, who was on the ground fighting for the ball when he tipped it back to the midfielder.

Leganes, playing only in its second season in the first division, wore a specially designed purple shirt to promote the fight against gender violence.

“We had our opportunities, but in the end we knew that we were playing against the best team in the world, and with very little they can score on you,” Leganes midfielder Ruben Perez said.

Sevilla recovered from its loss to Barcelona in the previous round by beating Celta Vigo 2-1 to move back to fifth place.

Celta got on the board first through Maxi Gomez, but the hosts rallied with goals by Luis Muriel in the first half and Nolito in the second.

It was the fourth win in five matches for Sevilla in all competitions.

Markel Bergara and Jorge Molina scored in the first 10 minutes to lead Getafe to a comfortable 4-1 win over Alaves at home.

It was the 10th league loss for Alaves, which remains in 18th place. Getafe is 10th.

“Our performance was embarrassing,” Alaves coach Gianni De Biasi said.

Bundesliga: Bayern running away (again) after slow start

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BERLIN (AP) Robert Lewandowski scored twice to help Bayern Munich stretch its lead in the Bundesliga to six points with a 3-0 defeat of Bavarian rival Augsburg on Saturday.

It was the 500th league win for Jupp Heynckes as a player or coach and extends the 72-year-old’s winning start to eight games across all competitions since he returned for his fourth stint.

“That’s a surprise for me. I don’t bother with statistics and numbers,” Heynckes said on being told about his winning landmark. “But it’s an impressive number (500). I had a long career as a player, and now as a coach. It wasn’t planned.”

Heynckes was coaxed out of retirement to take over from the fired Carlo Ancelotti on Oct. 5. Bayern was trailing then-leader Borussia Dortmund by five points at the time. Now the side is nine points ahead of Dortmund, which hasn’t won in the league since Sept. 30, and six ahead of Leipzig, held to a draw at Bayer Leverkusen.

Bayern midfielder Arturo Vidal broke the deadlock after half an hour, swiveling to fire home the rebound from a difficult angle after Mats Hummels’s effort was blocked and the ball ricocheted off Niklas Suele.

Vidal turned provider seven minutes later, playing Lewandowski through on a counterattack to shoot past Marwin Hitz.

The Poland striker claimed his league-leading 13th goal of the season early in the second half with a perfectly struck volley to Joshua Kimmich’s precise long cross from the right.

Vidal headed against the crossbar just afterward before Bayern conserved energy for Wednesday’s Champions League game at Anderlecht.

The win stretched the side’s unbeaten record to 28 games at home.

Winless Cologne’s terrible start to the league continued with its 10th defeat in 12 games, while the discussion over video assistance in the league will continue after two mistakes by referee Felix Brych.

Daniel Brosinski’s penalty before the break was enough for a 1-0 win for Mainz against Cologne, but how it came about will ensure the controversy over video assistance goes on.

Brych pointed to the spot when Pablo De Blasis fell under Frederik Sorensen’s challenge. He then consulted the video assistant, who had the benefit of studying replays in Cologne, and stood by the decision – despite television showing that Sorensen made hardly any contact with the Mainz player.

Brych later sent off Mainz’s Giulio Donati for what he perceived as striking Leon Bittencourt after a tussle between the two. However, Bittencourt’s foot struck Donati in the face beforehand. Donati, who was lying on the pitch clutching his face, brushed the Cologne player away when he went to lift him up.

Following controversial decisions in previous games, the German soccer federation said video assistants were only to step in when there was “a clear wrong decision.”

Ten-man Leverkusen came from behind to salvage a 2-2 draw at home against second-place Leipzig.

Timo Werner’s early penalty put the visitors in front before Leon Bailey equalized before the break.

The home side’s hopes took a blow when Benjamin Henrichs was sent off for handball on the line and Emil Forsberg scored the resulting penalty, but Kevin Volland equalized again with a quarter-hour remaining.

Wolfsburg defeated Freiburg 3-1 at home to give coach Martin Schmidt his first win after he started with seven draws.

On loan from Bayern, Serge Gnabry did brilliantly to set up Mark Uth for Hoffenheim’s injury-time equalizer in a 1-1 draw with visiting Eintracht Frankfurt.