Jake Edwards, One-on-One: Pro/rel ideas for USL, how Indy Eleven joined and the U.S. Soccer election

The USL is now a fully sanctioned second division, with a third division joining the pyramid in 2019. Just how big will the operation grow? FFT caught up with USL president Jake Edwards.

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FFT: The USL is at 33 teams for the 2018 season, with four more announced expansion sides. Do you have a vision for how many teams will be in both Division II and Division III?

Jake Edwards: As it relates to Division II, with some future expansion coming, we’re looking to 2020, possibly 2021 as closing the expansion for Division II. Now, in that time, there is going to be some changes. We’re going to lose, it looks like, probably two teams to MLS, we’re launching a Division II league in ’19, and then maybe some teams, over time, come down into the third division as well.

But we’re building the third division with new, independent clubs, new markets that don’t have access to professional soccer, but there certainly will be an opportunity for some clubs, if it’s right, to move into that league as well.

We know when USL comes to town, what that means for the city and what it’s going to deliver for the fans. And it’s not a comparison to, in that case, an amateur league. It’s a very different animal that’s going to come.

Now, what it looks like in terms of the next few years is, potentially, we’re going to be moving the alignment to a three-conference structure, with east, west and central at the Division II level. I sort of envisage 12 to 14 teams – somewhere in that range – per conference through 2021. Then we’ll have each conference getting home-and-away, and we’ll have some crossover games and a slightly different playoff format.

As we look to build Division III out, we’re aiming to start that with 12 clubs in 2019, and we’re going to build that fairly quickly over, I would say, a three-year horizon. Ultimately, we would like to get that over maybe a five-year horizon to mirror the second division, roughly in terms of number of teams – plus with a three-conference structure as well.

Again, I think what’s worked for us so far is the regionality of the league on a national scale, but the regionality of getting the teams to drive, fans being able to travel. That’s been successful, and we can replicate that in the third division as well. Now, what that lends itself to for us in the next few seasons is some interesting inter-league opportunities – interesting inter-division opportunities. And that’s important to us that we have a connected structure in Division II and Division III and the PDL, as our amateur league. We’re working on ways now to connect the three, with inter-league competition and various other ways. This year, we’re looking at some branding and we’re going to be making some structural changes in aligning the divisions.

FFT: We spoke briefly about Division III last year, and you mentioned the possibility of promotion and relegation between the divisions. Is that what you mean? Is that on the table?

Edwards: Yeah, it’s something that’s possible. We’ve spoken already internally. Obviously, at the league office, we’re looking at it. We have an executive committee, which is a subset of our team owners, and they actually even brought it up. We discussed it a little bit. There’s a lot more discussion that needs to take place, but for us, we’ve got to build the structure first. We’ve got to get the right teams, right owners, the right stadiums. We’ve got to build an infrastructure with substantial stability and quality. Any sort of movement between leagues that’s potentially possible needs to have the foundation in place. It’s not something that you can engage in day one.

Probably a sensible step is to look at an inter-league cup and see how the two leagues interact with each other, and then maybe as we progress we can certainly look at moving teams up and down.

FFT: Starting at 12 or so on the D-3 level, would that be a regional league that is quite concentrated geographically?

Edwards: Yes. We obviously want to expand the footprint nationally for Division III, and we’re really, in terms of 8-12 teams – we’re targeting 12; we need eight as a minimum – we are looking more at a sort of south/southeast/central in terms of the teams that are quite far ahead with us right now. That’s where it looks like it is spreading.

We’re hopeful to get some more teams on the East (Coast) and then maybe it launches as a full East Coast conference. But the way we’ve attacked it, really, is a phased approach looking at different regions that come online as we get a critical mass of teams in those areas.

FFT: So the south is the starting point?

Edwards: Yeah, it’s the furthest ahead. Sort of a south region, looking at Georgia – there are a few cities there, so I think that will certainly be phase one.

FFT: When you are looking at a potential city to go into, how much does that cities status in another league potentially factor? I think of Hartford, among so many others, where there is currently an NPSL team and where there has been this battleground for USL, NASL and now even NISA. Is there an issue of saturation?

Edwards: We look at a market and we say, ‘What’s going on there?’ So, there’s an amateur league NPSL that have a team there, and we’ve got a proven model, and we know what we are looking for in terms of ownership and the stadium and the investment level. We know when USL comes to town, what that means for the city and what it’s going to deliver for the fans. And it’s not a comparison to, in that case, an amateur league. It’s a very different animal that’s going to come.

The footprint of the USL is significant, and we touch all the areas from youth all the way to the pros. So, it’s not something that should be ignored.

Football enthusiasm in a market plays a factor, whether it’s people watching the game in the pubs, whether it is the kids and people playing adult leagues, whether it’s an amateur league team that’s already there. It all factors in to our decision making. So, if there is an amateur-league team, it’s a good thing. The game is there, people are watching. We had the same thing in Nashville, we had the same thing in Birmingham and Fresno; we had a PDL team there. So there are amateur teams ahead, and now there’s a professional team, so it’s a longer season and it’s a higher level and it’s all good things that are going to come with it. It’s the economic impact, so it’s not something that dissuades us, but we look at: How can we bring that together?

We’ve done that in Nashville; they took over the team and they brought them into the ownership in a minority position. Fresno bought the PDL team and brought them on board, and the same thing in Birmingham. Now, some of the founders of the Birmingham NPSL team are now staff members with the pro team. So, it’s a collaborative effort when we go into market, and there’s something there like that. How do we engage and get together? And that’ll be the same in Hartford now as we bring a pro team to Hartford [D-II; 2019].

FFT: How did Indy Eleven become a member of USL? Was that a fairly sudden jump due to the NASL’s uncertain future, or was that something ongoing?

Edwards: Go back into the ’16 season, when there was some turmoil in the NASL, there was some instability there and doubt about its future. We were asked by the federation and the board of the NASL to attend a meeting in Atlanta to talk about the future of the league and if the USL could help or play a part, or if there was some sort of coming together.

Obviously, Indy were present, and that is when we first got to know Ersal [Ozdemir], the owner. We talked and had dinner, and we talked – with all of the teams – about what life could look like in the USL, and is that something [of interest]. We offered to support anything that they were looking to do, and at that time, those discussions sort of came and went, and the NASL carried on for the ’17 season.

People aren’t paying $5 million on a USL franchise and spending $20-30 million on stadiums in their cities because they want to see a player move up to MLS. This is about building a quality professional league and a bigger infrastructure when we launch the third division.

Obviously, North Carolina came over at the end of the ’17 season; had approached us through all the proper channels, indicated their ability to leave that league and their interest to join ours. We went through the federation on that and through their board. They came over at the end of the season. Indy did the same thing and expressed an interest, but then didn’t pursue it initially, and I think were maybe looking to see the outcome of the appeal and what have you. Even though that is still not resolved, they came to us again a couple of weeks ago.

FFT: I assume that was a factor, that the NASL’s fate remains unresolved?

Edwards: That hasn’t been resolved, but the decision has been made that it is not a sanctioned league [for 2018], and the remaining clubs have decided to postpone the season and try to do something in August, later in the year in some fashion. Obviously, Indy thought that was not in the best interest of their club, and they wanted to carry on. So, regardless of the final appeal verdict, they weren’t going to wait for it. They knew to join our league, our schedule was coming out, everything was a matter of days, really, if they were going to make a move, or else they were going to lose the year. Our teams and our fans, I have to say, have been excellent partners to delay the schedule and delay a bunch of things while we try to accommodate bringing Indy over, which we have done.

FFT: Speaking of sanctioning, do you still have waivers in place despite receiving D-2 sanctioning?

Edwards: We have a couple of pro league standards waivers. We worked hard to remedy all the Division II waivers, which is why we had provisional sanctioning – because we had a few Division II waivers. Those have all been remedied now, going into the 2018 season, so we’ve worked hard there. There was only a couple – one or two stadiums that needed to add capacity and a couple of other issues that we’ve addressed. So, that was part of the removal of the provision.

Now, there are generic pro league standards that all leagues have had waivers for and have had to address over time. Although we’ve had a number of those and have reduced them, we still have a couple. What we’ve presented is a one-year in some instances and a two-year timeline in other instances to remedy those. We’ll continue to give updates to the federation. They are to do with pitch lengths or widths.

We have a couple of fields that are maybe two yards too narrow or two yards too short, which have been addressed. We had a coach that hadn’t completed the A-license course and now has. So, there are a few of those that have been addressed and we’ll work toward [that]. We had a team that had FIFA-compliant turf, but it wasn’t re-certified, so that will be swapped out for the ’19 season. So those are the kind of things that are not insurmountable.

FFT: Mostly all stadium related?

Edwards: It’s size-wise. I can’t disclose the team, but it was in a baseball stadium that was two yards too narrow, have now installed a retractable mound so they can move the field over and it gets the full dimensions; we solved that. We’ve got a field that was two yards too narrow; they are actually building a new stadium downtown, a significant stadium downtown – but we are two years away from that. We have another stadium in Louisville that is two years away as well; they’ll start there in 2020.

So, we’ve provided a road map to address all of those and in the instances of building new stadiums, that’s a great solution – that’s what we want. [U.S. Soccer] were happy with that. They’ll keep monitoring that; we’ll keep updating them. For us, it was about meeting all Division II requirements, which we did. We moved out of provisional, and we’ve got two years – or less – to address some of these pro league standards.

FFT: The U.S. Soccer presidential election is dominating every soccer conversation in this country right now. Does USL plan to endorse any of the eight candidates? Does someone stand out?

Edwards: I don’t imagine we are going to formally endorse anybody. We are going to, obviously, make our decision and we’ll cast our votes in the February meeting. We’ve focused the last few months on our application, the pending application, and getting through that process first. It wouldn’t have been right to endorse somebody prior to that in our minds.

Now that that’s finished and we’ve accomplished that, we’ll take the next couple of weeks here to listen to the candidates’ manifestos just to see how we feel about that and if, in our minds, that is the right thing for the game and does that have a positive impact on the sport and the USL. We’re going to have to have a look at that. Those candidates are coming down to Tampa and the league office to share their vision, and now, we’re listening. Then, we’ll listen to everybody and make the decision.

FFT: Candidates are coming to Tampa, or they have already, some of them?

Edwards: One or two have come down and one or two have expressed interest to come down. We’re hopeful that we get to hear from them all prior to the votes. That may or may not happen, but that is our hope anyway.

FFT: Where do you see USL fitting into these broader conversations taking place? The U.S. men’s national team’s failure to make the 2018 World Cup has forced a lot of necessary conversations, but it also seems to have taken away from other areas of the game which need attention. Do you feel like you have been looked at enough by these candidates? That they are speaking to you about what you think and what you need?

Edwards: As I said, we haven’t had any formal sit-downs with them, so that will happen in the next few weeks. I’ll be interested to hear from those candidates to answer those questions. The USL now is the second division in the United States. We have over 35 clubs in our league. We’re investing hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in the game now, building stadiums, investing in talent. There are well over a thousand players playing in our system now.

And if I look at the wider ecosystem of the USL, we’ve got over 80 PDL clubs, with the elite players – many of whom will be drafted. We’ve got over 600 teams in our youth league, Super Y. So, the footprint of the USL is significant, and we touch all the areas from youth all the way to the pros. So, it’s not something that should be ignored. So, we’ve spent many years building and being part of the soccer ecosystem, and play a significant role in it. We’ll continue to do [that] in the future.

So, I would hope that whatever candidate and future president would recognize that and wants to be engaged in not just what we are doing, but how we can help and how we can continue to help grow the game.

FFT: What do you see as the end goal of the league? Its place in the pyramid is now firmly D-2, but there’s a constant conversation around MLS feeders vs. independents. Is success defined by players moving up to Division I?

Edwards: No, we set ourselves a goal – it used to be – of being one of the top second divisions in the world. So, we want to be one of the absolute top second divisions in the world – one of the most admired and respected second divisions in the world. And there are some phenomenal Division II leagues around the world.

So, what does that look like from our point of view? It’s about continuing to attract sophisticated business owners. We’ve got a world-class ownership group coming into the USL. Why? Because they see it as a good business and investment. It’s a thriving business and it’s something that they can be involved in building sustainable clubs in their communities that they can see a healthy return on. It doesn’t require half an billion dollars.

When we look at being one of the top second divisions in the world, it’s about attracting quality owners, it’s about building quality stadiums across the country, attracting great players – we’re starting to see some phenomenal players in the league – and just building a football experience, a fan experience in the communities that we are in. The sustainable clubs in those communities. When we look at this league, those are the challenges ahead of us. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we’ve made a lot of progress in three years. We’ve had a partnership with MLS for a few seasons now. We’ve seen some tremendous benefits from the player development point of view; that was the genesis of the partnership, giving players a chance to play in a top-level, professional league. So, we didn’t lose talent.

Now, we have a lot of talent that was in the national teams all the way up to the senior national teams. That may not have happened without the ability to play in the USL, so we’ve tried to model that’s had some ups and downs. The point of it has worked – but that’s not the point of the league. This is an independently owned and operated professional league. People aren’t paying $5 million on a USL franchise and spending $20-30 million on stadiums in their cities because they want to see a player move up to MLS. This is about building a quality professional league and a bigger infrastructure when we launch the third division.

And it’s about building a sustainable set of leagues now, from the first division all the way through the third division. That’s what we’ve seen in other countries to great success, ultimately, to the national team level. The leagues need each other. So, we don’t look at ourselves in terms of anything other than – our purpose is not developing players. Like any league, players will move through and the best players will rise to the top. There are some phenomenal players in the Championship in England who are good enough to play in the Premier League. 

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