The league is going to be drastically different in 2019 after a recent reorganization introduced League One -- a third division league to go along with its second division league (the top league of USL), which is now named the Championship. The league also voluntarily recognized a player’s union this past month.
With all of the changes happening, Soccer America’s Brian Sciaretta spoke with USL president and Manchester, U.K., native Jake Edwards on the state of the league and USL’s direction moving forward.
SOCCER AMERICA: The league has undergone a lot of changes heading into 2019 with restructuring and rebranding. How long has this been in the works and what were the reasons for the changes?
JAKE EDWARDS: Obviously with the rebrand, that's been a couple of years in the making. So we moved the USL to division 2 status but we always had the intention of launching a division 3 league. There are so many great football communities that don't have access to professional football. We wanted to make sure we could grow the game the right way and bring professional soccer into those communities. We wanted to follow the model that was successful with the growth of the USL with the right communities, the right owners behind it who are committed to the long-term stability of those clubs, building the right stadiums and that kind of infrastructure. It's a long, long term project but there is a real opportunity to do that in the right way and in a stable way. We wanted to take the lead on that.
Then it was about identifying the three leagues in a recognizable way that is easy to understand, so that you don't have to keep explaining the whole structure ... we wanted something in the naming convention that was a little more tried and tested. We followed, obviously, the naming from the leagues in Scotland and England.
SA: With USL you have a dynamic that is somewhat common in Europe but not in the United States where you have independent first teams mixed with reserve teams for top-flight clubs. So MLS reserve teams are focused first on player development for its first team where independent teams are focused on winning USL. What is the dynamic among the owners and front offices in the USL where not everyone's objectives are the same?
JAKE EDWARDS: In the Championship, we have 36 clubs and eight will be wholly owned and operated by MLS teams. In League One, we have 10 teams and three are operated by MLS teams. So it goes back to the partnership we formed in 2012 to grow the game in North America. We're cooperatively working on that and we offer the opportunity for them to have teams of theirs in our league and play at the highest level in the country outside of MLS.
It's not unlike Spain or Germany, which will have reserve teams in the second or third tier. There are a lot of benefits for that in terms of growing the game and getting those players ready. The game has evolved and the league has evolved over that time and you've seen some great results in terms of some of those players moving on into MLS or their national team programs -- where they might not have been able to do that had they not been playing in USL.
From that point of view, it has been very successful. There are some challenges as the objectives of independent teams and MLS teams might vary. It is something where we are finding the right balance and we continue to do so. Some of the MLS teams have made the decision, and we support them as well, that the Championship is not the right level for them and they're going into League One. We're seeing that with Dallas, Orlando and Toronto FC II. That will be an environment that achieves player development objectives and marries the business objectives that they may have.
2018 USL champions Louisville City SC. (Photos courtesy of the USL)
SA: When you talk about player development, USL obviously takes a bigger role with the gap between the Championship level of USL and MLS. How big is that gap now and do you believe it is narrowing?
JAKE EDWARDS: I would look at some of the performances in the matchups at the Open Cup over the past few seasons. That is one way to look at the level between the clubs participating. I think it's been pretty good. We're focused on improving our competition every year. I think this year was the most competitive USL season.
We have a lot of good players in the league, a lot who are full seasoned internationals from a variety of different countries. I do think the quality on the field is getting better. We're getting better coaches. The interim U.S. national team coach [Dave Sarachan] just signed on in North Carolina. We have a lot of quality coaches and that really helps. I think we're moving in the right direction in terms of their long-term view of player development.
We've had a lot of success but we have a lot of work ahead of us. One of the big projects now moving forward starting next year with our clubs is building out of their youth development programs to get the right plan in place. It's certainly our opinion that all professional leagues should be in the business of developing players and the USL is no different. All professional clubs around the world have youth development programs with infrastructure to bring players through. We're building that out now and that is our responsibility.
Phoenix Rising fans cheer on the 2018 USL runner-up. (Photos courtesy of the USL)
SA: What specific avenues and infrastructure are you referring to with USL teams? Do you want all USL teams to have academies?
JAKE EDWARDS: It is a multifaceted approach but ultimately we have to provide players in all the communities that we're in, a pathway from youth to pro. They need to be able to see at 8 years old that there is a way to get to the professional ranks. It's not going to be easy, but they have to see a system in place and we have to remove the roadblocks in that pathway from youth to the professional levels of the USL clubs. We have to open it up.
From there, if they're good enough, they'll become professionals. From there, they can find their level as a player. It might be a top league overseas or a top league like MLS. We've got to put those mechanisms in place. We've got to get the right coaches working with players at the right age.
SA: MLS Commissioner Don Garber mentioned this in his recent "state of the league" address and it affects USL too. You're starting to see players get developed by clubs, sometimes in USL such as Richard Ledezma at the Real Monarchs, and then leave for free with no compensation in return. How big of a problem to you see this for the USL teams who are developing players, either for independent USL teams or MLS teams via USL, as you begin to put these expensive mechanisms for youth development in place?
JAKE EDWARDS: Partly for us it's about getting the youth infrastructure in place and then it’s about signing those players to professional contracts. Right now, we just don't have any protections or incentives.
When you're asking owners to invest millions of dollars into youth academies, programs, coaching and facilities, there has to be a return on that. The quality of player we have in this country right now more than ever is on the radar of some of the top clubs around the world. They're coming to America, looking at our talent, and trying to get them overseas. Ultimately, that's good for the aspirations of those players. But we've absolutely got to have a training compensation for those players, as all the other countries around the world do to incentivize and recognize the investment we've made into that player. Otherwise, it's a hard sell getting owners to invest into those academies.
We've got to start thinking about a player transfer market. We have been working with our owners the past few years on this -- to understand what the value of a USL player is. So everyone can benefit from the creation of talent. We have to make progress in this area. We have to come in line with what's going on. We have to create financial incentives for clubs to invest and move these players forward.
SA: Have you spoken with Don Garber about this? It would seem with MLS using USL for development, you would need to be on the same page in terms of training compensation and selling players.
JAKE EDWARDS: It is something the pro leagues have discussed at the Pro Council. It sounds like we are getting aligned on this. It's something we're happy to participate and we have participated in those forums. We will continue to do so because this is in the best interests of everybody. It's certainly in the best interests of the pro clubs who are spending an amazing amount of money into these programs. It's something we have to come together on.
SA: There are now a number of independent USL teams that are announced or seem to be in the plans to move into cities with MLS teams -- like New York, Chicago, or the Bay Area. What is the relationship does USL have with MLS when such decisions move forward to bring independent teams into these markets?
JAKE EDWARDS: Our partnership with MLS has a certain scope. Our partnership is focused on driving the game forward and ways we can do that -- such as having some of their teams participate in the USL. When it comes to expansions of clubs in both leagues, that's something we do independently of each other. There is no conversation or consideration. That's not something that is discussed. It's about growing the game and you have to bring more professional soccer to communities that don't have access to it but in some cases it's going to be communities that are big enough that can certainly handle more than one club. I think more soccer is better for those communities and the game itself.
SA: The Chicago announcement made a lot of headlines with its ambitious ownership and downtown stadium designs in a city where the MLS team is struggling on the field and in a location outside the city. What is the latest on that progress? Has there been any stumbling blocks?
JAKE EDWARDS: It's still moving along nicely. We've got a good development group behind it. It is an ambitious project but a very exciting project with a downtown stadium and all the mixed-use facilities around that. We're continuing to work with the Cubs ownership on what this could look like. I think that's going to be an extremely successful USL club in a great location in the city. We'll be up there in January to meet with them. Hopefully, sometime around the coaches convention [in January] we will have some more updates we can come out with.
Nashville SC goalkeeper Matt Pickens vs. New York Red Bulls II. (Photos courtesy of the USL)
SA: The decision to recognize the new USL players union drew a lot of headlines recently. What factors went into that decision and how have your initial relations been with the union?
JAKE EDWARDS: The limited contact we've had with the players association representatives has been very positive from both sides. I think both sides are really looking forward to going through this process and have started the process of cooperation in the right way and in the spirit of improving and pushing this great league forward that these players are proud to be a part of it. They are the most important component of our league, of course.
You have a league office here where pretty much everybody has played the game and a number have played the game professionally. You have a huge amount of institutional empathy here and we've walked in their shoes. We want to make sure they're looked after and that they're listened to, getting what they need, and have a great experience.
SA: The new third division league is currently scattered around the country right now. What prospects are there for expansion and regionalization? Also will there be a competition in USL where the teams from the various leagues compete against each other?
JAKE EDWARDS: We started League One with a single table of 10 teams. That was the right given the clubs we had. We did have a number of clubs that were border line to start the first year but we pushed them to the second year because we wanted to make sure all the pieces were in place, the stadium is in place. We didn't want to rush teams into this.
We have a number of teams ready to go in 2020. There is a chance it could break into two conferences in 2020, that could be 2021. We would like to get that conference structure into place sooner than later to mirror the Championship structure. We've got a lot of teams looking to join over the next two or three seasons. I think you'll see a strong expansion in League One and within five years or so it will start to mirror the size and scale of the Championship.
How do we integrate these two leagues from a competitive point of view to see how they stack up against each other? That's something that's always been in the front of my mind and we're working on it.
We actually presented to our teams from the board of governors of both leagues at our winter meetings earlier this month the initial concept of an interleague cup. We're refining that now. And if that's approved by the teams, then they'll be an announcement next year what that might look like for 2020. It'll be a league cup similar to what you see in England. We've had some commercial interest in that and some media interest for that. That would be maybe a three-month or shorter competition that would end mid-summer.