Commentary

Jake Edwards on USL growth, the Open Cup impact, and pro/rel prospects

Jake Edwards  became United Soccer League (USL) president in 2015 after serving as executive vice president for two years. The England native moved to New Jersey as a child with his parents. After college at JMU, Edwards spent a decade playing pro with teams in England and the USA, including the USL's Charleston Battery. He joined the USL front office after three years as a  strategy consultant with Octagon, a global sports and entertainment agency.

SOCCER AMERICA: First memory of playing the game?

JAKE EDWARDS: It was at the local park with my local team. My first memory is — it must've been in the winter time — it was absolutely freezing cold. Not uncommon for England. But we're playing into hail and what have you — my fingers were so frozen that I couldn't undo my boots at the end of the game. I was absolutely miserable — bright red and couldn't undo my boots. I remember that day quite vividly.

I was 6 or 7 years old at the time. From there, I went to Brighton & Hove Albion's youth setup before moving to the U.S.

SA: How did your move to the USA came about and playing college ball at James Madison?

JAKE EDWARDS: My family emigrated in the 1980s for my father's work. We ended up in New Jersey. And I started playing with local teams — the Union Lancers, Kearny FC. I got recruited to JMU in 1994.

SA: How different was the soccer environment in New Jersey compared to your early childhood in England?

JAKE EDWARDS: Back then, it's nothing like it is now. In the Northeast, there were pay-to-play type youth clubs. That was new to me. In England, you play for your town team, then maybe your county club, then to a professional team's academy if you were good enough.

What I noticed in the Northeast is that there was a history of working men's clubs and they still existed. They were related to their communities — you had a Ukrainian club, a Portuguese club, a Scottish club. You didn't travel that much and it was pretty cheap — maybe $100 and you got a shirt and played on a field that had no grass.

It was just before the 1994 World Cup and I was able to participate as a volunteer. It was the birth of the modern era of the game and a lot of it was happening in the Northeast.

What was most important is that very much like England and other places, people were playing the game after school and outside of a structured environment. Nowadays some kids only play the game in highly organized youth clubs on certain evenings of the week.

SA: What is the biggest difference in the American soccer landscape today from when you left JMU and returned to England?

JAKE EDWARDS: One of the biggest things is the accessibility of the sport. Fans of the sport are able to consume soccer in a way that's so easy and readily available now in comparison to a decade ago. That makes it more relevant in peoples' lives because they're exposed more to the sport, which is fantastic.

I played professionally in England for a decade or so and my parents could only see games when they flew over because they were in the USA. So the accessibility is a big improvement.

Then, the investment in the sport is at an all-time high. The quality of people and the level of their investment allows us to have an infrastructure that we've never had before. In the USL, to think that we're working on building $100-150 million stadiums in places like Indianapolis ... that would've been unheard of 10 years ago. We didn't have that. So to see that level of investment in stadiums, training grounds and youth development pathways ... it's leading to such an influx of clubs that are relevant in their communities in a way that they weren't before.

They are permanent fixtures in their communities in ways they weren't before and they're stable businesses in ways they weren't before. ... The quality of the player now that we're seeing in the USL who are coming either through those development pathways or being attracted to the league because of the quality of it and the environment.

SA: Your thoughts on USL teams in the Open Cup this season. What is the impact of their success?

JAKE EDWARDS: I think it's immeasurable. The Open Cup is about those fantastic story lines of beating teams from higher divisions, and we've seen that 14 times this season. That must be some kind of record. Eight of those 14 wins were against MLS sides. That's what the cup is about — the romance, the Cinderella moments where you can go on a cup run.

For us, it makes a statement. Both about League One sides and USL Championship sides. I think it's given that competition the boost that it needed. It's brought a lot of attention to the competition again which is fantastic. For Sacramento to be leading the charge all the way to the final is kind of unheard of throughout the world. For a lower-division side to make it to the final of a cup competition. They've earned the right to be there and I think it's a big moment for the sport to have Orlando City and Sacramento in the Open Cup final.

SA: Your thoughts on Sacramento’s Open Cup run?

JAKE EDWARDS: It's been galvanizing for the city of Sacramento, for the team, for the fans and for the community of that club that has had some ups and downs over the last few seasons. I think it's the tonic that the club and community needed. They've always had strong support from their community but this has really rallied everyone around Sacramento. Outside of Orlando City fans, I think the vast majority of soccer fans in America will be cheering them on [in the final]. Whatever happens, they've made a huge statement about their club and their city.

SA: Is USL happy with the USL Open Cup format? If you could change it, how would you?

JAKE EDWARDS: Well it's a challenge. There are a lot of professional clubs now and everyone's getting squeezed — their calendars are getting squeezed to participate in it.

There are more clubs in the competition than ever before. Everyone's calendars are getting more and more busy with other competitions and the fixtures within the pro calendar is tough.

It might be time to revisit how many teams on the professional side participate in the cup instead of mandating that everyone participate. There are some exciting initiatives we're working on — this year more than ever, coming out of Covid and returning to the competition I think it's been a great time to get everyone excited about it and see what it could be. I do hope it continues to grow and gets the investment it needs.

There probably are some reforms needed, but the committee are certainly looking at that on a yearly basis.

SA: What will it take for USL Championship champion to earn a berth in expanded Concacaf Champions League?

JAKE EDWARDS: I think it's a great idea and something we've been working on with Concacaf and other various stakeholders to see how we could do that. I do believe the USL Championship is one of the top three leagues in this region in a number of ways. It is unrecognizable to second division leagues in other countries in this region. So I think it's something that's important to our clubs and we're working on that to see how best we could enter the competition or go through some sort of qualifying format.

My hope is that we will find a way to do that in the next couple of seasons.

SA: After two years as VP you became USL president ahead of the 2015 season. What accomplishments are most proud during your tenures?

JAKE EDWARDS: Oof. Well. I think the relevance of the USL from what it was 10 years ago — the expansion of the league, from about 10 clubs then to about 40 now, including current and expansion. The infrastructure that we've built, the quality on the field and the size of the fan base now. We're approaching 3 million fans that are coming to games now. All of that, you know, quantitative data — we are very proud of what we've built.

But really what I'm most proud of, to be honest, is the fact that we've built so many hyper-relevant clubs across the country. What I think is most important about my role and the USL is that we can bring soccer to communities that haven't had it. And that we do it in the right way and build something that's lasting and relevant.

We're learning all the time as we go through that process and it's a great responsibility. We've had some fantastic success doing that. We've built some wonderful clubs that are so important in peoples' lives. That's what I'm most proud of.

SA: What have been the biggest challenges of your job?

JAKE EDWARDS: It's a national league, so it's a role that is very wide-ranging across a whole host of different issues all the time. The challenge is also the growth and managing the speed of the growth. Historically we've been one of the fastest-growing soccer organizations in the U.S. We're doing more and more locally and nationally and internationally. We've got a staff here of over 100 people. It was about 15 when I started. We're in about 200 communities now from youth to pro. We're launching a professional women's league and building out a pyramid of development on the women's side.

It's about managing the growth and as the league matures that's a natural thing. That's a good challenge, but it is the challenge.

SA: What is the biggest difference in organization since when you started with USL?

JAKE EDWARDS: It starts with the quality of the owners. We want to service the clubs as much as we can — we have a very robust club services department here. We do a lot of work across the club businesses to make sure they're going in the right direction. In terms of governance, it has changed a lot. When you have 100 people and a board of governors, it's a little different — in the old days we could share the same taxi to the board meeting. We've got a good governor structure and a lot more committees and sub-committees in terms of how we make decisions around competition, media and commercial.

We have a historic CBA with our players that we've embarked on and are working through. We didn't have a players union a few years ago. That's a new structure. Those things are signs of growth and maturity and how you run a much larger organization.

SA: We're coming up on the first anniversary of the Collective Bargaining Agreement you mentioned. What's the impact been? How about its effect on the league moving forward?

JAKE EDWARDS: We want to make sure that our league has some uniformity for the player experience. We have different clubs and players will have different experiences but it gives us a baseline to know that our players will have a certain experience. It holds our clubs to account to make sure that they live up to those expectations. It provides a degree of stability for our clubs — everyone benefits from having that mandate. That stability is attractive if you're an owner or an investor of a club. The attractiveness for players, both domestic and internationally, is that they know they're going to be in a stable environment and be looked after.

In addition to the CBA, we've invested internally. We have a new compliance department and a player safety and welfare department that works directly with the player's union and the clubs to make sure everyone's operating in accordance with the CBA.

SA: What effect has the launch of MLS Next Pro had on USL? By the 2023 season, a dozen MLS affiliates will have moved from USL to MLS Next Pro.

JAKE EDWARDS: It hasn't had a detrimental effect in any way. It has enabled us to get the room focused and have clubs who are all aligned in terms of how they want to operate their clubs — clubs that want to win championships and be relevant in their communities.

Everyone in League One is aligned on that. We've seen just exponential interest in groups joining both the USL Championship and League One — great clubs coming like Lexington and Knoxville that want to build stadiums and have really relevant clubs. That's what it's about and that's what we want to be about moving forward.

SA: So would you say teams that are moving to MLS Next Pro may not have as much interest in terms of competing for championships and being relevant in their communities?

JAKE EDWARDS: Well, I don't think it's necessarily that. I think it's the MLS teams that had a II team playing in the USL just had different goals and objectives for that club. I don't think those goals and objectives change now that they're playing in MLS Next Pro. It's always been about developing players for the first team.

SA: Will Loudoun United be in USL Championship in 2023? What is status of Las Vegas, which worked with LAFC on stocking its roster?

JAKE EDWARDS: Loudoun has always indicated its intent to be a USL Championship club. They will continue. The status with Las Vegas is that they're working through things with LAFC. LAFC will be in MLS Next Pro [next year] so that affiliation relationship will end.

SA: One of the USL’s key executives is Justin Papadakis, whose titles include Chief Real Estate Officer. Would it be fair to say that all professional soccer leagues are as much in real-estate business as soccer business? How important is it that every new club entering the league have the real-estate puzzle solved?

JAKE EDWARDS: We might be one of the only leagues that has a Chief Real Estate Officer, but we're also probably one of the largest real estate development leagues in the U.S. — maybe even in the world. Now that's in large part due to the maturity of other clubs who have already built their stadiums. We're in this amazing period of time right now given the amount of stadiums we're looking to build and have built.

As we sit here today, we've got about $3 billion invested in stadium development and mixed-use development projects. We're seeing so many projects where the stadium is the anchor tenant in an entertainment district. We've got about 31 out of the 38 pro clubs that we have who are in stadiums that are specifically built for soccer or are being retrofitted specifically for soccer. We've opened great new stadiums in Colorado Springs and Louisville before that.

This season Monterey Bay has a new [renovated] stadium. Charlotte invested in a fantastic new stadium in downtown Charlotte — Chattanooga as well. We've announced Des Moines, Iowa and Rhode Island too.

We have about 11 more stadiums to build prior to the World Cup coming [in 2026]. That takes a lot of organization to coordinate that many stadium development projects.

We have a new department that helps integrate league partners and new owners coming into the league. It's about six people in this new department that works with the expansion groups and current clubs on stadium development projects. How do you structure them? How do deliver value to the entire community? How do you work with the local community?

The exciting thing is that when we get to that World Cup, you'll have a landscape with so many soccer stadiums built at all levels. That's something we've never had. That's about the stability of the game.

It's really important that we resource that problem and we have people thinking about it all the time.

SA: You've said that promotion and relegation between the Championship and League One is a "realistic possibility." What's the status of that possibility?

JAKE EDWARDS: That's something we've been working on for some time. We have an internal working group and some external groups that we're working with on that. We are also engaged with sub-committees on the club level as well ... looking at not just promotion and relegation but a lot of competition reform that will enable us to create a more meaningful competition and a more competitive competition. We want to have more games of consequence and more games of jeopardy. We believe that that will drive more interest in the USL and build the fanbase across the country.

That work is ongoing. We're getting close now and we're working on those reforms, but it will ultimately be up to the clubs to decide and vote upon.

SA: What are some of the changes you are considering?

JAKE EDWARDS: It will be fairly broad. We're looking at, as you mentioned, promotion and relegation between our divisions. We're looking to make games outside of the playoff structure and playoff games. More games that add meaning and value outside of the playoffs.

We're looking at cup competitions between our divisions and potentially international competitions with leagues from abroad as well. We want more opportunities to win trophies and silverware.

SA: Can you throw out a year when you think the USL will have promotion and relegation between its divisions?

JAKE EDWARDS: Oof. I'm hopeful that if it happens it might be before the [2026] World Cup.

SA: The USL has plans to launch the women’s pro league, the division II USL Super League in the second half of 2023. We are less than a year away. When do you anticipate announcing initial teams and how many teams does the league anticipate will launch in 2023?

JAKE EDWARDS: It's very exciting. We're hoping to achieve the 10-12 mark in terms of clubs we feel confident in. We've brought in Amanda Vandervort as president of the Super League and we're building out a fantastic team here internally. Everyone's working extremely hard and we will have some exciting announcements to make this fall regarding the league and the clubs that'll be in the Super League. So we'll come back to you then.

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2 comments about "Jake Edwards on USL growth, the Open Cup impact, and pro/rel prospects".
  1. R2 Dad, September 7, 2022 at 3:59 p.m.

    And this is why pro/rel will never happen in the US. The league's customers are their clubs--are they really going to make their lives more difficult by subjecting them to additional pressure to perform? No. The US FA (USSF) has to manage the league and force the clubs to comply; this can never happen under the current regime, even at the league 2 level. Oh well, as long as billionaire club owners can make money, we should all be happy inert consumers of football "product". 50+1 anyone?

  2. uffe gustafsson replied, September 8, 2022 at 8:41 p.m.

    Tell me about your thoughts on the womens USLW
    i know Oakland roots are fielding a team in that new league.
    I think personally it's a good thing since for not only players get a chance to play and earn some money but more importantly more cities have teams to watch and support.
    roots is a really fabulous community organization and we all love to watch em.

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