Commentary

NPSL chairman Kenny Farrell on the importance of improving adult soccer in the USA and a player-centric approach at the youth level

Kenny Farrell, a native of Dublin, Ireland who settled in Louisiana in 1996, launched the New Orleans Shell Shockers in 2003 in the PDL. The club, later renamed the New Orleans Jesters, moved to the NPSL after the 2012 season, and Farrell soon moved onto the league’s board. After three seasons as the league’s corporate secretary, he was elected NPSL chairman this winter, succeeding Joe Barone, who had served since 2013. With the Jesters, Farrell runs an academy program notable for a no-cut policy.

SOCCER AMERICA: The New Orleans Jesters moved into the NPSL after the 2012 season. How did the move from PDL affect the club?

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KENNY FARRELL: It was a leap of faith at the time, and I wasn't happy with one or two things with the USL. We didn't have much say in where we played. We were playing games that were 18 hours away at PDL level.

That being said, I respect and appreciate everything the USL has done. I want that clear. They're doing a great job within the system that they work within and contributing immensely. But I felt at that time we needed to have closer games than we had. The NPSL is providing that. So we moved as a leap of faith. It was heart-wrenching at the time, but it worked out for us. We went into a league that was kind of up-and-coming but definitely didn't have a national footprint.

Since then, obviously the NPSL has become one of the best leagues at this level in the country. So we're glad that the move worked out for us.

Did it impact us as far as fans and everything else? No. The level of play is the same, we're still providing player opportunity. We're still providing entertainment on the field on a Saturday night, putting a team in town in the city of New Orleans. All those things didn't affect us one bit. Not one bit.

SA: And then moving into your other hat as an NPSL leader. Is it exciting for you to see NPSL players moving into the pros?

FARRELL: Always. One of the goals of the league that we're at, if we're to be legitimate, is to provide player opportunity.

The Jesters have two players in Major League Soccer right now. Both of those players started playing at 16 or 17 years old -- Patrick Mullins, now at Columbus Crew, and Andrew Tarbell, now with San Jose Earthquakes. And we were able to bring them in as youth players, and they got into the starting lineups before they went to college.

So it was a big plus that the NPSL could provide that opportunity. And the quality of the play they were playing in those games very much prepared them for for their college careers at very high level universities such as Maryland with Patrick and Clemson with Andrew.

Patrick Mullins won the Hermann Trophy back to back. A lot of that's down to Patrick and his approach to the game, but he will tell you that the environment we created, some of the coaching points we got across to him or some of the mentoring we got across to him really, coupled with his Maryland experience, was phenomenal in helping him step on. At the end of the day, the individual does it, but what we can do is provide that opportunity. So when we see our NPSL players get into that list and get recognized, we do have a great sense of pride, as do other leagues that put players in there. Yeah, we have a great sense of pride about that.


The NPSL fielded 98 teams in 2018. Miami FC 2 lifted the title with a 3-1 final win over FC Motown.

SA: How does the professional league realignment affect the NPSL as a whole?

FARRELL: There was a yearning in what we term as the classic league -- the NPSL classic league -- for a next level. So we put together an opportunity for the next level, and it's still trying to find its feet where it's going to be. But I felt personally there was a gap in the landscape. The United States Soccer Federation has professional league standards now for Division Three, and there's requirements that are needed to qualify for Division Three, and it really comes down to financial wherewithal.

There's a gap, I think, for teams to fill a vacancy in the U.S. soccer landscape, which is just under the Division Three. Where is the stepping stone between the NPSL and Division 3. And if you look at the standards, there's nowhere for a team to go, right? So we originally thought that would be something that was important to us to fill that. Now when we brought the teams together that wanted to move to that level, they wanted to be a pro league. They want to sign professional players, but it has to be through United States Adult Soccer Association. So we started to work towards that.

We don't govern this pro league. What we'll provide for this pro league, at this point in time, is a management services agreement because we got a very good front office. We run an excellent organization from that end of things. We've got great staff.

But they're an independent league. They may take off and be their own thing or they may stay with us over the long term.

I think the benefit for the NPSL is the opportunity for these clubs. You look at Detroit City FC, you look at Chattanooga, who didn't particularly want to go into the USL framework of the franchise system, and they were looking for a place to land. You look at the New York Cosmos, and you look at Miami FC. When the NASL fell apart, they particularly didn't want to move into the franchise private-league deal with the USL. So it was a place for them to land.

SA: One complication of having clubs move up and down between an amateur league and the pro league is the usage of college players. How would you get around that? Would the Jesters, for example, want to move up even though it might affect the eligibility of your players?

FARRELL: The Jesters are focused on becoming a pro team. But we're in a holding pattern as far as waiting to see what the best opportunity for us is moving forward. We've been planning that for years. It doesn't mean you can't have the college league in the summer with college players. But there is room for a year-round league in the national landscape. Because there's not really a truly national league that runs year-round that's run at a high professional level underneath Division 3 of U.S. Soccer, and I think we have the opportunity to do that, and I think that's what we will do going forward.

Privately we term it 3.5, because if you unofficially are Division Four, then there's room for a 3.5, and we plan to do that.

And then what I think is people have to decide if they want to be in a private league like the franchise system or if they want to be an independent league. But the truth is, there's room for both of those leagues, and they should be respectful of each other.

Obviously, one of the leagues has done an extremely good job and is probably further down the road, which is the USL. But then there's an evolving landscape in the United States that looks kind of disjointed, but if you sit back and look at it, it's actually starting to organize itself on its own. It's just when you really have to define what level you are, and then there should be a relationship between those leagues going forward, whatever that relationship is. It could formalize itself over a period of time. I think that would help the whole landscape, it would help U.S. Soccer out overall if that happens. And you'd have two options, basically. You'd have the independent system option, and you'd have the franchise option.

In the general landscape, nobody is trying to do the wrong thing. Everybody is trying to do the right thing. That's the commonality between everybody. It's just that there's a fear sometimes of people talking to each other, and there shouldn't be.

At the end of the day, we want the United States to win the World Cup. We want opportunities for all our players to play all the way through like other countries do. We want multiple divisions that they can play in at the adult level. And we need to formalize it that it becomes a pleasant place to be, and people understand what they're in the game for. And I think that's a lot of the approach I'm gonna have at the NPSL.

SA: In March 2018, there was what was called the Chattanooga Summit. Since then we haven't heard much publicly about talks between the various leagues and various parties. In fact, what we've heard is discord, but are there more productive talks going on behind the scenes that haven't been reported?

FARRELL: The Chattanooga Summit was independently organized by Tim Kelly from Chattanooga. It wasn't an NPSL deal. It wasn't an ASL deal. It wasn't any other league's deal. Obviously, the frustration in the country was there that [adult soccer] wasn't organized, and people felt U.S. Soccer was working against all the independents. I don't believe that for a minute. They're not.

They're just trying to do their best job the best they can, and I think we need to change the way you look at everything in the country. There's obviously things that won't appeal for everybody. But there's a lot of lost teams out there that are trying to find a place to land, and for one reason or another, they don't want to land in the franchise system.

So that's what that was about. They brought a lot of people together. I think it was indirectly productive as far as people started to chat with each other from all over the nation, and they interfaced and kind of expressed their concerns and their woes. But I think the view has to change. It has to be, "OK, it's not about complaining. It's about being productive." So, let's find our common ground together as a bunch of leagues, and let's put this thing together for the long term. And you can only do that when you start respecting each other as organizations and clubs and probably helping each other out, and the trust between leagues has to be better.

There's a lot of fear between leagues right now -- who's going to steal this thing, I'm gonna lose this, I'm gonna lose that. Somehow we've got to get past that and get to the trust factor. It takes a long time to build the trust. But it's gotta start somewhere.

With my NPSL hat on, it's my intention to help that happen while we continue to define our own personal product, the NPSL.

I'm going to put my Jesters hat on -- I'll keep myself open to go pro in whichever is in the best interest of the New Orleans Jesters, and that could be anything. That could be any league. That could be a franchise league, that could be an independent league, it could be Division Two, Division Three that will come sometime. So I've got to juggle all these thoughts and move from hat to hat. But right now, my responsibility is the NPSL, and I think we have a phenomenal product. We've got great members.

SA: Is it difficult to maintain standards across the league of that size?

FARRELL: One of our focuses to define ourselves was to start implementing minimum standards across the nation. It is very difficult to police, but we're moving in that direction. For the last two years, we've been improving minimum standards across the country. We provide waivers for teams that have been in and haven't had to comply with minimum standards. They will run for three years. But if you haven't adjusted in three years, you may not be let back into the league. You have to bring your standard up. You're only as good as your weakest link anywhere.

All these new teams that coming in have these very high standards. But some of the teams that were here from many many years ago don't have those standards, and we incrementally and slowly are moving them towards those standards. That's a heavy focus of the NPSL, and it goes back to defining the league. We want to be the best league at this level in the country, and that's a massive part of it for us.

SA: What would be an example of those standards? Would it have more to do with facilities, having a locker room, having lights of a certain capacity, and not necessarily the economic wherewithal of the ownership group?

FARRELL: Right, exactly. The times have changed, but all over the world, the teams grew out of communities. Doesn't matter if it's Manchester United or Crewe Alexandra or teams from communities over a hundred years. They built into these massive clubs, or even might even be still small clubs, but they're community clubs. And they didn't start with all that money. They started with the community getting behind the team and then moving forward over the years. You can even include Real Madrid, you can include whoever you want in that, high or low.

But who's providing the opportunity for those community teams to really put on a professionally run event that sponsors want to get involved in, the media wants to get involved in, players want to play in, and spectators want to go to see?

I remember when I was running youth and I didn't have an NPSL team or a PDL team, and some of the best players coming through went to college, but they didn't know where they were going after that. It was basically Sunday morning football, and they wanted to continue to play at a high level. And people want to continue their dreams, and they want to play until they're 23, 24, 25 -- maybe even 28, 29, 30.

In fact, one thing that I think is missing is opportunities for scouting. Because if you look all over the world, the scouting is done by the local professional club in the community. That's usually the first place you find a player, in most cases, and then it comes through to that lower-level club, which is then found by the bigger-level club. And it would help us in a scouting manner down the road as well. I've always believed that it would help us find the best players locally if players have that opportunity to play for their city whether it be Toledo or New Orleans. The driven players might just want to get there.

They may never be able to make Major League Soccer or U.S. national teams or whatever the case may be, but they'll strive to get there, and they will put more effort in because they want to be there. So we've got to nurture this level. This level is vitally important to the United States, and I want to get that message across and then say the more relationships we have and the more warm kind of conversations we have with everybody, we can continue to do that. Because at the end of the day, it's about the player.

SA: The current NPSL league system has league play and then a national tournament. The issues there are that you have a lot of players whose season ends in mid-July, then you have a team reach the final that might not be able to keep their players because of college commitments. Is there any thought to a new tournament, perhaps in conjunction with other leagues, that would run concurrently with the league play like the Open Cup or the FA Trophy in England?

FARRELL: I'd be very open to that. It is difficult because we have the college system in this country. But the college system in this country is what helped us get off the ground -- those college players looking to land in the summer, stay fit, play a very high level and prepare themselves going back.

There are Open Cups under USASA, but there may be room for everything once the trust and the conversations begin between the leagues. There's room for all this. But the one thing we can't stop doing is continuing to improve the game at the amateur level. For 35-40 years, we've been trying to improve the youth game. The attention that's been paid to this level is really only over the last 10 years, maybe 10-15 years.

So we've got to continue to work to make it better. If you go back to looking at it through the right perspective, you'd be amazed what can be accomplished and done if you get people together and looking at a bigger picture and finding what the commonalities are. I'm all about it. I don't know that anything has been talked about yet about that. But it's something I think could happen and would be for the betterment of the game overall.

SA: You run the New Orleans Jesters academy, and you said the academy turns no one away. Is it correct to say it's not just whether someone can pay, but what skill level that player has? In other words, would you run the gamut from an advanced player to someone who's struggling with the fundamentals?

KENNY FARRELL: There's a mentality over here to produce all-star teams as soon as you possibly can, and the measure of success for these teams is how many games they win and championships they win. And what happens is the higher-level coaches, or the more advanced guys teaching the game, seem to end up with those players a lot of times.

I think a big problem with the United States at the youth level is that we're cutting out players way too early instead of being patient. I don't care what level they come in at -- if they've got the passion to play, the desire to be there, and we have the right environment that they want to come back and it's fun for them, they're going to get better.

So, when they pick these all-star teams at these clubs all across the country, and they look like they have a massive success, they're actually eliminating probably 80-85 percent of the players because they shoved them down to where a dad is coaching them or somebody else is coaching them. In all honesty, they're some of our best players. And they get lost. They don't have a chance to come through.

So at the Jesters, we've got three levels: Purple, Green and Black. The Black level is the level where the people really don't have the skill. We keep them at recreational soccer, but we keep training them because they want to be there.

You'd be surprised how many players, if you're patient over two or three years, actually come through and actually go on to be the better players. They weren't physically developed enough or maybe just weren't mature enough as the other players at nine, 10, 11, 12 years old. They weren't seen as the players who could win the game. So they got pushed aside. Well, we don't do that.

You'll find that most of the United States will say that, but what they really want when it's coach-centric and not player-centric, is they want to win the game, then they look at the team performance, and the last thing on the list is individual development.

And I think if we can turn that around across the United States, we have a chance to produce a world-class player, and I don't believe we've produced one yet. There may be one on the way in [Christian] Pulisic, but I don't believe we've produced one yet. And I think this is a major problem in the United States.

SA: So, players come in who aren't quite as advanced yet, may be playing games at a recreational level but they're getting a little training. Is that right?

FARRELL: We're partnered with a very good recreational group here in New Orleans called the Carrollton Boosters Soccer Association, and they are pure and true to our recreational game. So while we train some of those players that are in our lowest level -- the Black level -- they will still play in the recreational program to get their games in every week. But if I was to put them on the field with better-level players like the Purple level, they'll never see the ball. So I have to put them where they can actually develop. What happens is they graduate from that to the Green level, and then if they continue to improve, they graduate to the Purple level.

But no one will get turned away. And they don't get turned away financially. We shouldn't be turning anybody away financially, and we shouldn't we turn anybody away, for any reason, that really wants to be on the field. That's our philosophy. And if they're there because they want to be there, not particularly because their parents want them there, but because they want to be there, then we'll invest in them if they're investing in us.

Photos: New Orleans Jesters & NPSL.com

(Beau Dure is the author of “Single-Digit Soccer: Keeping Sanity in the Earliest Ages of the Beautiful Game” and the host of the podcast “Ranting Soccer Dad.” He coaches and refs youth soccer in Northern Virginia.)

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