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

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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.”

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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.”

Tottenham – Newcastle United: How to watch, start time, prediction, odds

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Tottenham – Newcastle United: Can Newcastle United score an upset against travel-weary Tottenham Hotspur in North London on Sunday (Watch live at 9 am ET Sunday on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com)?

Spurs have gone from London to Bulgaria to Southampton to Macedonia and are now back in London for Sunday’s match-up with a Newcastle team that surprised them at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium a little over a year ago.

[ MORE: How to watch PL in the USA ]  

Spurs bent Shkendija in Europa League play on Thursday, with Heung-min Son posting a goal and two assists over 90 minutes. Harry Kane and Giovani Lo Celso came off the bench in what could be a sign of Jose Mourinho’s intent for Sunday.

Newcastle has been off since Wednesday’s 7-0 demolition of 10-man League Two side Morecambe in the League Cup. Steve Bruce did the trick without fitness-question Allan Saint-Maximin as well as rested Jonjo Shelvey and Callum Wilson.

STREAM TOTTENHAM – NEWCASTLE UNITED LIVE

Here is everything you need to know ahead of Tottenham – Newcastle United this Sunday with team news, odds, stream link and more.


Team news: Tottenham – Newcastle United (INJURY REPORT)

Tottenham Hotspur – QUESTIONABLE: Sergio Reguilon (ankle) | OUT: Gareth Bale (knee), Japhet Tanganga (thigh)

Newcastle United – QUESTIONABLE: Allan Saint-Maximin (ankle), Jamal Lewis (eye) | OUT: Matty Longstaff (thigh), Martin Dubravka (ankle), Fabian Schar (shoulder), Paul Dummett (thigh), Dwight Gayle (knee)


What they’re saying: Tottenham – Newcastle United

Spurs boss Jose Mourinho on Tanguy Ndombele’s 90 minutes versus Shkendija: “He played very well. Of course in a game where I can imagine our percentage of ball possession was very, very high and our percentage is high he feels obviously much more comfortable. However, even without the ball he had recovery, he had duels, he had defensive transition. It was a really positive game from Tanguy, really happy.

Newcastle’s Steve Bruce on meeting Spurs: “We can’t think we can go and play against the top teams and match them just in a game of football. We have to do something different, tactically. We did it well against the top teams last year. Let’s hope we can do the same again this year.”


Odds and ends (full odds provided by our partner, PointsBet)

Newcastle United is not expected to get anything out of this, +600 to win and +360 to take a point compared to Tottenham’s -225 to win.

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Prediction: Tottenham – Newcastle United

The Magpies can take some hope from Palace’s consecutive wins away to Manchester United, but Spurs should deliver the goods. Questions about Saint-Maximin’s fitness even if he does play ask even more, as does the fact that Steve Bruce has been keeping Miguel Almiron on the bench to start matches. Throw in Bruce versus Mourinho and it’s safe to expect Spurs to overcome their travel-weary legs and post a 3-1 win.


How to watch Tottenham – Newcastle United stream and start time

Kickoff: 9 am ET Sunday
Online: Stream via NBCSports.com

Serie A: Inter win 7-goal thriller with 87th, 89th-minute goals (video)

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s results in Serie A, where Inter Milan scored twice in the final five minutes of regular time to beat Fiorentina 4-3…

[ MORE: Transfer news: Rice in, Jorginho out at Chelsea; Skriniar to Spurs ]

Inter Milan 4-3 Fiorentina

This is your weekly reminder that Serie A remains the most underrated, insane top-flight league in the world — particularly in the last-game-of-the-day time slot, at 2:45 pm ET. Seven-goal thrillers capped off by a late goal, or two, are more of the rule than an exception.

Anyway, Inter Milan’s title dreams looked set to begin with a home defeat to last season’s 10th-place finishers until Romelu Lukaku and Danilo D’Ambrosio scored an 87th-minute equalizer and an 89th-minute winner, respectively.

Inter started in a hole, down 1-0 after just three minutes. Lautaro Martinez pulled Antonio Conte’s side level in first-half stoppage time, but it was hardly an ideal start to the season. Federico Ceccherini put the ball into his own net in the 52nd minute to put Inter ahead.

The lead lasted just five minutes and just as quickly turned into a deficit, as Gaetano Castrovilli and Federico Chiesa bagged goals in the 57th and 63rd minutes. That, of course, only served to set the stage for the end-of-game heroics.

Torino 2-4 Atalanta

Saturday’s other thriller only featured six goals, though it still proved to be highly entertaining as well.

Andrea Belotti fired Torino ahead after 11 minutes, but Atalanta were level through Alejandro Gomez just two minutes later. Eight minutes after that, Luis Muriel put them 2-1 ahead. It was 3-1 in the 42nd minute, but Belotti scored again to make it 3-2 just a minute later. Marten de Roon restored a bit of breathing room and made it 4-2 with the game’s final goal in the 54th.

After finishing third, four points behind Inter and five behind champions Juventus, it’s a strong start for Gian Piero Gasperini’s side in 2020-21.

Other Serie A results

Sampdoria 2-3 Benevento
Cagliari 0-2 Lazio

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Spezia v Sassuolo — 6:30 am ET
Hellas Verona v Udinese — 9 am ET
Crotone v AC Milan — 12 pm ET
Napoli v Genoa — 12 pm ET
Roma v Juventus — 2:45 pm ET

La Liga: Real Madrid steal late win against 10-man Betis

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s results in La Liga, where Real Madrid were quite fortunate to come out with three points…

[ MORE: Transfer news: Rice in, Jorginho out at Chelsea; Skriniar to Spurs ]

Real Betis 2-3 Real Madrid

Opposition own goal? Check. Opposition red card? Check. Late-game penalty kick? Also check. The defending La Liga champions needed all of that in a span of 35 minutes, and a bit more, to escape their trip to Betis with three points.

Things started off well for Zinedine Zidane’s side Federico Valverde put Los Blancos ahead after 14 minutes, with a little help from Karim Benzema. The 1-0 scoreline didn’t survive until halftime, though, and neither did the 1-1. Aissa Mandi and William Carvalho each scored two minutes apart for Betis just before the break.

Real Madrid got back to level terms three minutes after the restart, thanks to an own goal from Emerson. 20 minutes later, Emerson was shown a straight red card for denial of a goal-scoring opportunity. Things went from bad to worse for Betis in the 82nd minute, when Marc Bartra was deemed to have handled the ball inside the box following video review. Sergio Ramos stepped up and sealed the win with a delicate chip down the middle.

Full-blown crisis averted, for now, after drawing with Real Sociedad on the opening day of the season.

Valencia 1-1 Huesca

This season looks set to be a hugely difficult one for Valencia as the club endures untold financial hardship and looks to sell off as much of the first-team squad as possible in an attempt to balance the books.

Saturday’s draw with newly promoted Huesca was simply the latest chapter, of which there will be many, of struggle for Javi Gracia’s side.

Other La Liga results

Alaves 0-0 Getafe
Elche 0-3 Real Sociedad

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Osasuna v Levante — 6 am ET
Eibar v Athletic Bilbao — 8 am ET
Atletico Madrid v Granada – 10 am ET
Cadiz v Sevilla — 12:30 pm ET
Real Valladolid v Celta Vigo — 12:30 pm ET
Barcelona v Villarreal — 3 pm ET

Fulham – Aston Villa: How to watch, start time, team news, prediction, odds

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Fulham – Aston Villa: How early is too early to call a game “must-win” in the Premier League? Perhaps we will find out on Monday (Watch live at 12:45 pm ET, online via Peacock), when bottom-of-the-table Fulham host Aston Villa at Craven Cottage.

FULHAM – ASTON VILLA STREAM LIVE

Scott Parker’s side has had a torrid start to life back in the PL — not at all dissimilar to the way their last stint ended — and find themselves with zero points and seven goals conceded after their first two games. Losing 3-0 to Arsenal on the opening day of the season wasn’t altogether surprising, but following that defeat with four more goals conceded to Leeds United last weekend will undoubtedly have done a number on the Cottagers’ confidence.

Villa, on the other hand, have played just once and secured a 1-0 victory over Sheffield United earlier this week. A win on Monday would see Dean Smith’s side start the season with back-to-back PL victories for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.

[ MORE: How to watch PL in the USA ]  

Here is everything you need to know ahead of Fulham – Aston Villa this Monday with team news, odds, stream link and more.


Team news: Fulham – Aston Villa (INJURY REPORT)

Fulham – No injuries or suspensions

Aston Villa – OUT: Bjorn Engels (thigh), Tom Heaton (knee), Wesley (knee), Ahmed Elmohamady (thigh)


What they’re saying: Fulham – Aston Villa

Scott Parker, on a “must-win” game: “I don’t see it as drastic as a must-win. We want to win. I know it’s either high or low in a drastic world, but we need to stay level and take realism of where we are in the campaign and where we are as a team. We will try everything we can to take some points and be up to the challenge. I don’t think we’re the only team at this present moment in time who have let in some goals in the first two games. It’s not ideal, of course not. Villa at home on Monday is a game we’re going to try to get three points.”

Dean Smith, on needing another signing: “We’re always looking in the market, we’re probably one short in the squad at the moment so we’ll keep looking at that. I think there’s seven days left until the window shuts internationally, another seven days domestically. Our sporting director at the moment has got his finger on the pulse, hopefully we might get one more in and maybe a couple more out.”


Odds and ends (full odds provided by our partner, PointsBet)

This one is just about a coin flip with Fulham (+185) ever so slight underdogs to Villa (+150). In a game that could go either way like this one, the draw (+225) might just be the safe middle ground.

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Prediction: Fulham – Aston Villa

There’s not much to separate these two sides right now, and there likely won’t be much ground between them come the season’s final table. There should be a few goals, but that’ll be more down to poor defending than excellent attacking quality from either side. Fulham 2-2 Villa.


How to watch Fulham – Aston Villa stream and start time

Kickoff: 12:45 pm ET Monday
Online: Stream via Peacock