USL: A League On The Rise
With the FIFA World Cup set to return to North America in 2026, interest in soccer in the United States is booming. Capitalising on this surge is the United Soccer League (USL), the largest professional soccer organisation in the U.S., led by former pro-footballers, chief executive officer Alec Papadakis and president Jake Edwards. fcbusiness spoke to the Manchester-born Edwards to find out more about the development of the game in the country.
Born in Manchester, England and raised in the United States in New Jersey, Jake Edwards returned to the UK to forge a career as a professional footballer. After stints at several clubs in the Football League and non-league, he would return to the U.S. having retired from the game and made an impact as an executive at both Solihull Moors FC and Octagon Worldwide.
His appointment as vice-president of USL in 2013 came during a significant overhaul of the league property and in 2015, Edwards was appointed by Papadakis to be president of the organisation.
Since then the league, originally founded in 1986, has become one of the most sophisticated soccer organisations in North America. Comprised of three leagues as it entered 2019, the USL is set to bring high-level competition to more than 100 markets across the United States and Canada in the coming years.
Fuelling soccer’s growth soccer in the U.S.
“We’re in an unprecedented period of growth for the sport over here and there are a number of things fuelling it,” explains Edwards. “First and foremost is the rise of a supporters culture, and the passion of the fans.
“There’s also a generational thing that’s starting to be passed down now, because people who played soccer in the past now have children and those children are playing the game in record numbers.”
Soccer is now the no.1 youth participation sport in the U.S. with many kids now choosing the game over the traditional American sports of [American] football, basketball and baseball.
However, it’s from an organisational level that Edwards suggests the real growth is happening. “At a professional level it’s still in its early stages compared to other countries,” he said. “For a little over two decades now we’ve had organised professional soccer leagues, and I think we’re really starting to get our act together from an organisational point of view.
“At the USL, we’re building our structure and pathways every day, and are starting to finally put the organisation in place where we have a coherent structure that spans from youth development all the way into the professional game.”
Expansion & sustainability
In order to continue growing, Edwards says they are mindful of the need to bring the right people into the game to continue to drive its growth. The expansion of the league depends upon attracting the right owners and investors who see the long-term impact of the clubs within their local communities. Sitting below Major League Soccer (MLS), the cost of creating an expansion team in the USL is significantly lower but making the club, and the league, sustainable is still a crucial requirement.
“We’re bringing the right owners to the clubs and they are investing into facilities, stadiums and youth academies to help bring quality players into their organisations. In our league, as in MLS, we’re building sustainable clubs that are well supported.
“But our owners are also business people, so it has to be an investment that makes sense. Fortunately, we’ve seen sky-rocketing valuations for professional soccer clubs, and year-on-year, those franchise values are seeing tremendous growth.
“Looking forward, with the World Cup coming in 2026, we’ve got a seven-year runway and a massive amount of media interest, investment interest and commercial interest coming into the game that will further accelerate that growth. It’s a really explosive period.”
That ‘explosion’ has seen the launch of fourteen new clubs in the USL in 2019 alone – seven teams each across its two divisions – the Championship and the newly established League One.
“Soccer right now is probably the best investment in sports in the U.S.,” Edwards continued. “The business makes sense and the impact it has on a community makes sense.”
The unique way in which ownership of traditional U.S. sports are structured means that professional teams are usually based in high-density urban areas which can, and often are, moved on the whim of the owner – take NFL franchise the Oakland Raiders, who are due to relocate to Las Vegas in 2020, as an example.
The USL takes a different approach to this format as Edwards explains: “We want to have owners who are local, based in, or have a relationship with the community, and who want to deliver sustainable community assets.
“Almost all of the owners across our leagues are passionate soccer fans as well as very successful business people. They care about the investment, but they also care about making their communities better places to live, work and play.”
U.S. sport is a crowded market place
Edwards admits despite the growth in interest and youth participation, soccer is still a challenger sport in the U.S.
“At the top level, soccer is arguably only the fourth-most well supported league behind the NFL, Major League Baseball and NBA. It’s not the no.1 sport like it is in the UK so right away we’re challenging the marketplace,” he said.
“It is not as big of a national sport as some of those other leagues are when you talk about big media rights and commercial partnerships – we’re just not at the same level but we’re making great strides forward.”
As a challenger brand within sport, and in soccer behind MLS, USL sees itself much like the EFL in England behind the Premier League, which Edwards believes works to their advantage in many ways.
He states: “We’ve got to really work hard, be innovative and be as different as we can to take advantage of all the resources around us. But because we are not one of those top-three leagues we are not beholden to set methodologies. We can do different things, we can be experimental. The great thing we have is that soccer, as it is in most other countries, is a tribal sport.
“It’s followed and consumed by American fans differently to the way other traditional American sports are consumed by their fanbases. We have a very passionate fanbase and a massive amount of cities that don’t have access to a professional soccer team in their community.”
One of USL’s key objectives is to bring professional soccer into communities which have not had access to professional sport and deliver, and build a team of their own. “We’ve had huge success with that,” says Edwards. “Although we’re not a top-tier sport we’re community based and we’re building community clubs that are well supported and well followed locally.”
Leading the way on some of the game’s biggest issues
USL’s recent appetite for taking the lead on tackling some of the biggest issues in the game has seen them receive global headlines and widespread applause. Most notably, perhaps, USL was first league in the world to implement VAR following a test-pilot program approved by the IFAB and run in conjunction with Major League Soccer.
More recently, USL has taken a zero tolerance approach to foul and abusive language – especially racial abuse. That policy saw a Tulsa Roughnecks player have his contract terminated following an intensive investigation into the verbal and racial abuse of Oklahoma City Energy’s Atiba Harris during a game in April. The decision was made by the club just 24 hours after the conclusion of the match between the two sides and is indicative of the stance the league has taken.
Protecting players’ health and wellbeing is also taken seriously and the USL has applied for an experimental rule change waiver that would allow the league to implement a temporary head injury substitution policy for both the Championship and League One in 2020.
World player’s union, FIFPro is stepping up its campaign around concussion after a spate of mishandled cases of players with suspected concussion. Fabian Schaer continued playing for Switzerland in a UEFA Euro 2020 qualifier even after passing out because of a clash of heads.
The organisation is calling on football’s stakeholders to adopt new measures to improve concussion management, and USL’s application to IFAB to implement the substitution policy is one of the first of its kind.
“We’re an organisation that is in many ways run by former players,” said Edwards. “Our CEO, Alec Papadakis, played professionally, I played professionally and a lot of our staff played as well, so we have a great deal of organisational empathy for what professional footballers experience day-in, day-out.
“Maybe most importantly though, we’re fortunate as an organisation to be in a position where we’re nimble enough to take quick, decisive action on issues we think are important. Whether it’s VAR, or head injury protocol or whatever the issues might be – we’re happy to take the lead, try things quickly and learn from them. We’re always going to do what we think is right for the players, the fans, and the game as a whole. It’s that simple.”
A digital savvy fanbase & content creation
“We are a digital content company – we’re a digital content producer,” Edwards states bluntly. “We’ve got amazing players, great goals and a fantastic game but we’re always thinking about how we share that and engage our fanbase, and then how we ultimately get them to go and watch the games live?”
The answer to that question lies in the USL’s heavy investment in digital broadcasting and social media to engage with their “very digital savvy fanbase”.
USL operates a centralised system of digital operations for all its teams through an accredited digital network of websites.
“The teams post local content and we operate the national content which we can share across all those websites as well as commercial content. We standardised the look and feel of those websites and by doing that it keeps the quality high. Clubs have differing resources and not everyone can hire digital staff so we employ everyone here centrally and we do a lot of centralised programmes.”
USL’s main media partner is ESPN, which broadcasts games across its national television platforms but also distributes games on its OTT platform, ESPN+, which will broadcast over 800 Championship and League One live games this season. In addition, clubs are licensed to have local television deals in their region whilst international distribution is traditionally hosted through the USL’s YouTube channel.
From a facility in Fort Lauderdale, South Florida, the USL works with a production company where all the commentary in multiple languages, production elements, replays, graphics and sponsor overlays are added before being sent to its media partners.
“We have to continually work on the sport and build relationships with our fans and our fans’ relationships with the clubs. We’ve got to help the clubs maintain a 24 hour a day conversation digitally,” says Edwards. “We have to have a constant stream of good content going out there. But it’s very organic, we’re constantly monitoring what we’re putting out, what works and what doesn’t – is there anything we can change? We have a very robust digital strategy.”
The In-Game Fan Experience
Edwards admits that the huge amount of work being done digitally has one ultimate aim – to drive people to the stadium to watch and experience the game live. “We embarked upon a major push two years ago, and we would like to get this accomplished before the World Cup arrives in 2026, which is to improve the stadiums we play in.”
Over the last decade 16 soccer-specific stadiums have been built between the two divisions with roughly 25 stadiums scheduled to be built and completed before the World Cup arrives. Edwards admits that there is still much to be done to ensure a great fan experience at games.
“First and foremost the fan experience in the stadium has got to be right,” he states “because you have to be in the right kind of stadium. Where the U.S. is way behind countries like England is we just don’t have the soccer stadiums. We have a lot of stadiums but not that many soccer-only stadiums.
“We’ve got to be creative while also taking best practices from MLB, NBA and MLS stadiums. We’re looking at what the other sports and leagues are doing really well in their venues in terms of technology and connectivity, their premium spaces and the ability to enhance the fan experience, adding our own twists to maintain an authentic soccer experience.”
Players for the future
The World Cup will arrive in North and Central America in 2026, after the United States’ joint bid with Canada and Mexico was successful in its application to host FIFA’s showpiece tournament. By then, Edwards hopes a significant number of players playing in the World Cup will come directly from, or have experience playing, at USL clubs.
“We’re closing in on close to 100 senior international capped players across the Championship and League One. A lot of those players are from CONCACAF nations but there’s a significant amount increasing each year so when the World Cup comes we should have a strong representation globally – especially considering the overall growth of our leagues.”
Player development is key area of focus for Edwards whose experience in England has helped inform the creation of a formal youth development structure across its member clubs.
“Being at football clubs in England and seeing how they’re structured and how much attention is given to the player training side of the business, that is something I’ve spent a lot of time with our club owners discussing.”
Edwards believes that there is an untapped pool of talent which, with the right systems in place, can be unlocked and, over time, become a significant revenue stream for clubs through the transfer market – especially in Europe. Edwards points to Christian Pulisic as an example, the United States international who recently signed for Chelsea for £57m from Bundesliga side, Borussia Dortmund.
“There’s a lot of talent in the U.S., but we’ve just not had the infrastructure in place to capitalise on the millions of kids playing the game. There are some great players and great athletes, and at the moment, we’re losing them, we’re not bringing them through.”
This year will see the launch of USL’s first academy competition, as well as in future years, an academy league, which will create the infrastructure and mechanisms within member club communities to identify talent.
“We’ve got to invest in quality coaching down through the youth levels. We’re working on the academy league and developing the standards and coaching quality. Then we’ve got to create pathways and remove the obstacles that exist in the U.S. to bring players through to the first team.
“Over the next three to five years we’re going to have upwards of 70 to 80 professional clubs under our supervision and as all of those clubs invest in youth academies and youth infrastructure to join our youth league then that will become very successful.
“We’re going to change the model in the U.S., which has always been led by youth clubs and organisations to now being led by the professional clubs and the business of developing players will become more professional. That will be a big game-changer here, it will be a long project but I think we will start to see the results by the time the World Cup comes in 2026 and certainly thereafter.”
Developing the talent pool will increase the overall strength of the USL and ultimately the U.S. national team but Edwards cautioned that a balance needs to be struck with ensuring the talent created stays within the league.
“We’ve got to get that balance right,” he said. “It’s something we’re spending time with the owners discussing. Part of club sustainability is about moving players on at the right time but also about winning championships and getting the quality on the field to enables you to do that.
“Some of the best and brightest young players, national team players and under 20 national team players are here – there’s an exciting crop of players in addition to a great group of professionals that have had good careers in the MLS and leagues around the world. Ultimately, the USL is about local grassroots, passionate and entertaining football and we want players that are reflective of their communities and reflective of the clubs.”
There’s clearly a lot more work to be done to continue to establish the USL in the U.S. and world soccer but with the ambition, drive and influence of Papadakis, Edwards and the rest of the team, the road ahead looks brighter than ever before.