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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”