“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.”

Injuries aren’t halting Red Bulls from proving to be MLS’ top club

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It would have been understandable if the New York Red Bulls dropped their heads in agony last month after the club’s disappointing CONCACAF Champions League defeat to eventual tournament winners Chivas de Guadalajara.

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That wasn’t the case though, and for manager Jesse Marsch and Co., the club has been rewarded in the biggest of ways for its perseverance.

Sunday night’s 3-1 win over Atlanta United proved once again in 2018 that this season’s Red Bulls are the class of MLS for a number of reasons.

The team’s 7-3-0 start is its best in modern Red Bulls history, which dates back nine seasons to when Red Bull Arena was first opened in 2010.

Marsch and his group currently ride a four-match win streak, which includes away wins over LA Galaxy, Colorado Rapids and Atlanta, with a 4-0 beatdown of rivals New York City FC bunched in the middle of the road trip.

It’s easy to look at wins and losses to determine which teams are serious MLS Cup contenders and others that will struggle throughout the season, but when diving deeper into this Red Bulls team, there are a lot of special qualities that make them different than previous years.

Heading into 2018, questions surrounded the team following Sacha Kljestan’s departure for Orlando City, as well as the club’s ability to defend with a back line that didn’t appear to have much depth.

The Kljestan question has not only been answered, but turned into Alejandro “Kaku” Gamarra becoming a household MLS name and legitimate MVP and Newcomer of the Year candidate.

The Argentine (possibly turning Paraguayan) leads MLS in assists (9) through the Red Bulls first 10 matches, after Kljestan posted 17 for the club during the 2017 campaign.

Kaku is a spark plug that manages to find himself in the right positions on the field at any given moment, and his work rate perfectly matches what Marsch his instilled in the squad since the moment he first arrived.

Defensively, the Red Bulls have far exceeded expectations, conceding the fourth-fewest goals (12) in MLS, despite a host of injuries.

Jamaica international Kemar Lawrence went down with a scary injury on Sunday, leaving his immediate availability with the club unknown, while Homegrown player Kyle Duncan will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL.

That’s not including outside back Connor Lade, who has battled an ankle injury early in the 2018 campaign as well.

While the addition of Kaku has paid dividends in the biggest of ways in the attack though, it was the Red Bulls ability to bring in center back Tim Parker from the Vancouver Whitecaps that has really changed the team’s outlook at the back.

Parker has formed a strong bond with fellow central defensive partner Aaron Long, and the two are easily the best center back pairing in MLS through the opening two-plus months.

The bigger test for the club in the long-term will be if Lawrence does miss significant playing time, though.

That would force Marsch to rely more on Lade, who only returned from injury on Sunday to replace Lawrence, or young outside back Ethan Kutler, unless the Red Bulls manager opts to switch to a three-back system (as he has done in the past).

Nainggolan ends Belgium career after World Cup snub

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As World Cup squads fill out their rosters ahead of next month’s great tournament in Russia, a number of high-profile names won’t feature at the World Cup.

[ MORE: No World Cup for Spanish Chelsea trio ]

Belgium named its 28-man provisional squad on Monday, which includes Premier League stars Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard, however, one notable midfielder was left out of Roberto Martinez’s squad.

Radja Nainggolan won’t be on the plane to Russia next month for the Red Devils, who take on England, Panama and Tunisia in the group stage.

That decision by Martinez has prompted the AS Roma midfielder to end his international career, which Nainggolan revealed in a social media post following the announcement.

Martinez commented on the Roma player’s omission from the roster.

“Radja is a top player,” Martinez said. “The reason is tactical. In the last two years the team has worked in a specific manner. Other players had those roles.

“We know that he has a very important role in his club and we cannot give him that role in our squad.”

Emery set to replace Wenger at Arsenal

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Unai Emery will be the next man up for Arsenal, with the BBC calling it a “unanimous choice” from Arsenal’s search committee.

[ MORE: Nashville hires ex-Liverpool CEO ]

The BBC’s David Ornstein is reporting that Arsenal will appoint the ex-PSG and Sevilla boss as its new manager.

Emery had massive success with Sevilla in tournament and league play, and led PSG on a rollicking run through Ligue 1 but was deemed replaceable thanks to a Neymar-less loss in the UEFA Champions League.

The Basque manager will be the first Arsenal manager not named Arsene Wenger since the Frenchman took over at the Emirates on Oct. 1, 1996.

It feels a natural fit, as Emery has had success with multiple systems at both favorites and relative underdogs.

Emery has also overseen Spartak Moscow, Almeria, and Valencia.

Mikel Arteta and Thierry Henry were also rumored as potential Wenger successors.

Transfer rumors: Willian, Alderweireld to Manchester United

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The transfer rumor mill is picking up steam this Monday, including some persistent whispers regarding two Premier League players with possible futures at Old Trafford.

Both of these make a lot of sense.

[ MORE: Nashville hires ex-Liverpool CEO ]

A day after Nemanja Matic stressed the need for experienced players at United, two good fits hit the rumor mill (again).

Matic’s old Chelsea pal Willian has interest from United if he seeks a way out of London — which seems likely — where he’s said to be ready to go if Antonio Conte remains as manager.

Then there’s Toby Alderweireld, whose been very strong at Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur but reportedly fallen out with current Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino.

During a rut, the Tottenham manager claimed that Alderweireld was held out of Spurs’ lineup due to the form of the players in front of him.

Also from Sky, we’ll leave this quote from PSG chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi on the idea of possibly selling Kylian Mbappe.

Al-Khelaifi told Canal+: “You want me to give you a number? More than €1bn! Yes, I said one billion! And even if you gave me a billion, I wouldn’t sell him.”