USL president Jake Edwards is fired up for the USL Championship’s Sunday evening final between Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Phoenix Rising, and not just because of the talent on the field and trophy on the line.
The match also signals the navigating of a season interrupted by — and played through — the coronavirus pandemic. And he had to laugh when asked if he was relieved to see the season coming to a safe and crowning conclusion (knock on wood).
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“Absolutely,” Edwards told ProSoccerTalk. “It has been a long season and a very challenging year, not just for our league but everybody in this country and around the world. I’m incredibly proud of our clubs and our players, including all of our supporters who have all made sacrifices.”
Edwards had to do more than navigate the pause of a league with such massive investment and numerous young teams/businesses, but the president was tasked with bringing it back in a safe fashion.
The 44-year-old Englishman said that was a privilege and a burden.
“The USL was one of the first leagues to get back playing,” Edwards said. “It was one of the first leagues to be playing in its out stadiums in front of fans, socially-distanced and wearing masks. That was a great responsibility to do that. In a very challenging year, it has been a positive. It’s taken a lot of work but has really brought our clubs, communities, and leagues together. It will be a really special moment on the weekend.”
The game kicks off Sunday at 8:30 pm ET and will feature a first-time champion. Phoenix has been to the final once while Tampa Bay is making its USLC Final debut.
“Two teams who have tremendous attacking talent, high energy teams. Players on the field who have played whether it’s the Premier League, MLS, international level players, a lot of quality out there. Two top quality coaches as well, so you’re going to see a very high-tempo attacking game.”
Tampa is led by Neill Collins, the 37-year-old Scottish boss who played for Wolves, Sheffield United, and Leeds United before heading to Tampa to complete his playing career.
“We’ve got coaches that are starting their careers in the game, coaches with decades of experience. There’s a real hunger here, coaches who are trying to prove a point. Neill’s had a tremendous playing career in the UK and as a former Rowdies player, it’s special for him to be taking them to a Championship Final.”
Good with the banter, too.
— The IRNused SubstiBRUtes ⚽ Show (@UnusedSubsPod) October 29, 2020
PST also asked Edwards about the league’s short- and long-term future.
First and foremost, how has the pandemic affected plans for the 2021 USL seasons?
“The work is underway for the ’21 campaign looks like,” Edwards said. “As we go into what looks like a pretty challenging winter, we’ve got to make plans but allow for flexibility. First and foremost we played this year and missed playing in front of our fans. We thrive on being in our communities and having our fans behind the club. We’ve got to get that back and we have to factor that into how we come back safely.”
We also asked Edwards how expansion has been challenged by the pandemic’s affect on the American business climate.
There are no worries about that for the USL, he says.
“What we see is a continued growth trajectory for the sport and a real hunger and appetite for the sport. A lot of things are moving forward. We’ve got over a billion dollars invested in stadium developments and that hasn’t slowed down.”
Note: This interview was conducted before the USL League One title was awarded to Greenville Triumph due to positive COVID-19 tests at Union Omaha.
How to watch the USL Championship Final
Start time: 8:30 pm ET Sunday
TV Channel: ESPN