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USL begins 10th season with eye on future

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The United Soccer League begins its 10th season on Friday with a pair of matches in the Championship; Seattle Sounders 2 will host Reno 1868 and Orange County plays host to El Paso Locomotive.

A lot has changed in under a decade. The Championship division now has 35 teams, while the third-tier League One has another dozen (with 30 more lobbying to get into it the thing).

We caught up with some USL mainstays at all levels to talk about the progress, from league president Jake Edwards to San Diego Loyal co-founder Warren Smith and Pittsburgh Riverhounds coach and serial hardware winner Bob Lilley.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

The coach is a good place to start. Lilley has won titles in the A-League with the Montreal Impact, the USL First Division with Vancouver Whitecaps, and the USL with the Rochester Rhinos in 2015. Now he’s turned around the Pittsburgh Riverhounds ahead of the 2020 season.

He sees the USL’s growth as pay-off for a generation of players, coaches, and owners who were willing to put in the time for the good of the sport, looking back fondly on the role he played in helping ambitious clubs Montreal and Vancouver win on their way to MLS.

“It’s an investment that starts out where you’re just putting pennies in a piggy bank and at some point it grows big enough that it takes on a life of its own,” Lilley said of the USL’s progress. “The increases keep getting bigger, and the last 3-5 years we’ve been really driving forward. We need to find new ways to be meaningful to our market. We need to stay aggressive, trying to keep pushing this thing forward.”

Like Lilley, Smith has done this dance and done it well in a lot of different places. Now the president of first-year side San Diego, he’s overseen the resurgence of the Portland Timbers and the growth of Sacramento Republic.

Smith makes a remarkable claim about what a USL club can mean to a market.

“The difference between us and MLS, just because of where they are choosing to have to put their teams, I think New Mexico United means more to the whole state of New Mexico than most MLS teams mean to their particular cities. We’re able to electrify communities and bring people together, uniting and celebrating the people of the region.”

To Smith and Edwards, it comes down to the variety of top minds running clubs.

Smith says that less than a decade ago, the investors in the room were coming from soccer backgrounds. Now, it’s others who see the investment as sound.

“In 2012 at the annual meetings, the room was full of soccer fans, soccer people, more soccer people than business people,” Smith said. “Since then with the success of Orlando and Sacramento, we’ve seen an influx of more experience and different sports experience. There’s a lot more sophistication, and the league has chosen a good group owners who want to grow the brand. The USL was good football then, but it’s even better now.”

Edwards said the league likes “to hang its hats” on its ownership groups, who in turn have had to learn from the successes and mistakes of their forebearers while also recognizing that this giant country has a plethora of soccer cultures.

“You’ve got to listen first and foremost,” Edwards said. “You’ve got to spend the time in the community and learn it before you launch to learn what it is they want out of a football club. You have someone who owns the team but really they own the team.

“Ultimately they’ve got to listen and be amongst the community and let the fan base have a voice. Our clubs can be such a great representation of their communities. There’s a real sense of pride people have in their communities that they might not have an outlet for, and the football club gives them that outlet. Go down and be with six or seven thousand people, and wear your colors and show your passion to be from Louisville, Albuquerque, Austin, or Oklahoma City.”

What Edwards stresses is doing expansion “the right way” over the long-term, angling to grow and grow to make a massive impression when all eyes are trained on the United States for the 2026 World Cup in North America.

“What do we want to look like when it arrives?” he asks. “We will see between now and the World Cup, a few more expansion markets like Providence, Buffalo, Des Moines, and some of you haven’t heard of yet. League One is a huge focus for us. We’ve gone from 10 to 12 teams, and now we have 30 markets that are actively lobbying to bring League One to their communities.”

Lilley says it helps that the soccer has improved tremendously since he was a player in the early 90s, pre-MLS.

“It’s just a whole different landscape now,” Lilley said. “You know the movie ‘Slapshot?’ Some of the start of me coming into the pro soccer environment — NASL was done. MISL was just shutting done — in the late 80s, some of the fights and some of the stuff going down on the field was comparable.”

The players are better, and the coaches, too. Three of his former players, in fact, have gone on to coach in MLS (Mauro Biello, Mark Watson, Nick Dasovic).

Lilley has seen the tactics grow from when he instituted a flat back four in the late 1990s after seeing it become all the rage in Europe. He’s worked past three at the back, five at the back, you name it, but it’s only in this last stage of the USL that he’s seen big changes in coaching (so credit to whom for still winning).

“From 1997 to 2010, whatever I saw from a team early in the season a lot of times it would be the same thing later in the season,” he said. “That’s not the case. I think it makes everyone better when new ideas… everyone’s trying to win and that’s the expectation of owners. It’s not okay just to make up the numbers.”

Bob Lilley
Lilley coaches Pittsburgh in the U.S. Open Cup (Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Lilley says that’s why he’s sure to instruct his players on being functional outside of a base system. He switches it up on them.

What drives him?

“Trying to survive,” Lilley said. “Trying to win so I can stay in it. I try to build flexibility in my team. I think part of growth is not just giving guys game but trying to give them information tactically. There’s so much tape out there, we’re always looking for an edge. Sometimes with the team, if you play the same way all the time and it’s not quite working, and then you change, you can send them in a tailspin, ‘Well what’s wrong? What did we do?’ but if you tell them you’re preparing them and looking for an edge, well, good players adapt to the environment, to the coaches, to the system, to the weather, to the referees, to the opponent. It’s hard to prepare for us because we do a lot of things well.”

So as the league drives forward into Year No. 10, there is a collection of executives, staff, and coaches who’ve been through the proverbial war and are smarter for it. There’s been attrition, of course, but now there’s stability.

And it’s Edwards’ job to remember where they’ve been as much as where they are going.

“When I think back to the wild west days, the boom or bust days, it was a core mission to get away from that,” he said. “We’ve done that, but we’re still in growth mode.”

Scott Parker’s first season as a manager ends in Fulham promotion

Fulham promotion
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after just one season in the EFL Championship, and that means Scott Parker has worked something of a minor miracle in west London.

[ MORE: Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship ]

Parker took on a hefty challenge when he accepted his first senior managerial job last year. Fulham were a virtual lock to be relegated from the Premier League when he was named interim boss in February, and their place in the second division had long since been confirmed by the time he was named Claudio Ranieri’s permanent successor in May. The squad was expensive, bloated and full of players who had no intention of sticking around after relegation.

Given the club’s wealth of resources relative to the rest of the Championship, promotion at the first time of asking was more an expectation than a hope at Craven Cottage. Fast-forward 15 months, and the 39-year-old has quickly proven himself the right man for the job after doing just that — taking Fulham back to the PL by way of Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final.

Promotion may have been sealed on Tuesday, but Parker believes it was earned over a long period of transition and self-reflection by the players, beginning when he first took the job — quotes from the BBC:

“We’ve done what we’ve done tonight, but there’s still improvement, and that’s what makes me so proud and happy.

“For all of the good players and everything you see, what makes me so happy is I see a group of players who only a year ago were struggling psychologically, didn’t have a mindset or mentality.

“I’ve driven this team every single day and what makes me proud is I stood on the touchline tonight and seen a team that represents what I’ve been saying over the last 12 months.”

Now comes the the truly difficult challenge for Parker: after winning Fulham promotion he must assemble a squad of players not only good enough to stay in the PL, but also one full of individuals who want to be at his club and not simply any club that just so happens to be in England’s top division.

Promoted! Fulham back in PL after 1 season in Championship

Championship promotion playoff final
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Fulham are headed back to the Premier League after claiming west London derby delight at the expense of local rivals Brentford in Tuesday’s Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Ranking the new Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

It was an incredibly cagey affair — as the Championship promotion playoff final tends to be — that saw the two sides combine for just 17 shots (four on target) through 90 minutes of regular time. In the end, it was the most unlikely of restarts halfway through extra time that sent the Cottagers on their way.

Brentford were nearly the architects of their own downfall early in the first half. FirstIt was a poor back pass from Henrik Dalsgaard that left David Raya in worlds of trouble in the 10th minute, though Fulham were unable to find a proper chance amid the chaos inside Brentford’s box.

Fulham were perhaps fortunate not to go a man down in the 29th minute, when Harrison Reed slid through Christian Norgaard and put studs into the Dane’s ankle. Reed came over top of the ball in a 50-50 challenge and, despite first making contact with the ball, came in with borderline excessive force and in a reckless fashion. Nonetheless, only a yellow card for the on-loan Southampton youngster.

[ MORE: Christian Pulisic issues injury update ]

The start of the second half looked like more of the same from the first half: Fulham with an early chance and Brentford scrambling to stay level. Neeskens Kebano curled a free kick around the wall in the 48th minute, likely beating Raya if it was on frame, but only managed to rippled the outside netting.

Championship Golden Boot runner-up (25 goals) Ollie Watkins had the final scoring chance of regular time in the 70th minute as he fired from the edge of Fulham’s penalty area, but Marek Rodak was able to comfortably palm the ball over the crossbar. Still, the first threatening signs of life from the Bees.

[ MORE: Man United, Dortmund in talks over $140 million Sancho transfer ]

The decisive moment finally arrived in the 105th minute, and it came from absolutely nothing — less than nothing, one might credibly argue. Joe Bryan was tasked with restarting play following a foul roughly 50 yards from goal. Rather than lofting the ball high and to the back post, as Raya so clearly expected him to do, Bryan wrapped his left foot around the ball and whipped it toward the near post — as “near” as it can be from 50-plus yards. Raya was painfully slow to recognize the shot and tried to scramble across the face of goal, but never had a chance of getting anywhere near the ball.

Bryan doubled Fulham’s lead in the 117th minute. It was fast and fluid one-two atop Brentford’s penalty area and the left back tucked it away to seal promotion back to the top flight, and it turned out to be hugely necessary after Dalsgaard poked home a late consolation goal for the Bees with virtually the last kick of the game.

Fulham spent the 2018-19 season in the Premier League but finished with just 26 points in 19th place and were relegated back to the Championship after one season. Only time will tell if they’re able to stay in the top division this time, or if they’re a full-time yo-yo club.

Transfer confirmed: Ferran Torres to Man City for $26 million

Ferran Torres to Man City
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Reports sending Valencia youngster Ferran Torres to Man City have been burning red-hot over the last 24 hours.

[ MORE: Ranking the new Premier League kits for 2020-21 ]

Man City confirmed their capture of the 20-year-old — one of the brightest prospects in all of Europe — on Tuesday.

Torres, who came through the Valencia academy, tallied six goals and seven assists in 43 appearances (all competitions), including two of each in the Champions League, for Valencia this season.

He broke into Valencia’s first team back in November of 2017, at the age of 17, before establishing himself as a regular over the last two seasons.

[ MORE: Man United, Dortmund in talks over $140 million Sancho transfer ]

Reports out of the UK claim it will reportedly cost just $26 million to bring Ferran Torres to Man City, plus possible add-ons, as he had just one year remaining on his contact with Valencia. Torres reportedly met with City sporting director Txiki Begiristain earlier on Tuesday, adding further fuel to the fire that a move was imminent.

Torres seems an obvious replacement for recently departed winger Leroy Sane. He’ll join Raheem Sterling as one of only two natural wingers in Pep Guardiola’s squad, offering more tactical flexibility — not to mention, width — after City were fairly limited in the wide areas during the 2019-20 season.

Championship playoff final: How to watch, start time, odds, prediction

Brentford - Fulham
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Fulham – Brentford: Team news is in with the two West London sides set to do battle for a place in the Premier League in the Football League Championship promotion playoff final at Wembley Stadium.

We can hardly wait to find out who’ll claim the 20th berth in the 2020-21 Premier League season in the richest game on earth.

[ MORE: Predictions, Odds for Europe ]

Kickoff is at 2:45 pm ET Tuesday at Wembley Stadium.

Team news


Key players

Fulham leading scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 26 goals were the joint-most in the Championship and more than three times as many as Tom Cairney, second amongst the Cottagers. He’s healthy for the first time after missing the semis with a hamstring injury.

Brentford’s Ollie Watkins scored the same amount of goals as Mitrovic, tying for the league lead, and he’s joined by Said Benrahma’s 17 goals (fifth in the league) and Bryan Mbeumo (eighth). The latter have combined for 16 assists, too. The Bees can sting.

Their seasons

Brentford won a even-straight league games to surge into the mix for automatic promotion but lost their last two, meeting Fulham on 81 points.

As for the Cottagers, Fulham finished the season on a seven-match unbeaten run which included five wins

Their playoffs

Brentford overcame a 1-0 first-leg deficit to oust Swansea City in the semifinal, while Fulham’s first leg win was enough to outlast Cardiff City’s strong second leg in their semi.

Odds and ends

Brentford beat Fulham twice, 1-0 at Griffin Park and 2-0 at Craven Cottage.

The Bees are favored to win the match at +108 odds, while Fulham carries +265 odds of a win.

Prediction

Mitrovic’s availability is huge for a Fulham side hoping to break down the league’s second-stingiest defense. Brentford feels like it’s the superior side but Fulham has been here and Cairney even scored the goal to beat Aston Villa in the 2017-18 playoff final. That experience is an X-factor, but we’ll still call Brentford 2-1 winners.

How to watch Fulham – Brentford

Kickoff: 2:45 pm ET Tuesday
Stream: ESPN+