Jake Edwards, president of the second-tier USL, spoke with the Inquirer and Daily News while in Philadelphia for the United Soccer Coaches convention and Major League Soccer’s draft. Here’s a transcript of the conversation, edited lightly for clarity.
How hard of a process was it to secure Division 2 sanctioning for the USL from the U.S. Soccer Federation this year?
That’s been a rigorous process. For us, it dates back to the winter of 2014 when we first pitched this to our owners, and then first acknowledged to the Federation our intent in January of 2015. We’ve had a two-year process, including the provisional side [sanctioning] in 2017, and now full sanctioning for ’18. So it’s been a few years.
It’s been rigorous, which it should be. It needs to be. And we’ve worked hard as a league and a set of clubs to overcome deficiencies. To make additional investments, address waivers and all of those things. And now to be fully compliant for Division 2 standards has been a great achievement.
We work with the Federation now on a couple of the Pro League Standards waivers to be addressed that are outstanding. But overall, we’re thrilled with the decision.
You noted that there are some Pro League Standards waivers that need to be satisfied. In plain English, what does that mean?
So, you have Division 2 standards and you’ve got to meet those, in terms of stadium capacity, ownership net worth, number of teams, certain positions in the front offices of the league and at the clubs. We’ve met all of those and exceeded all of those.
Then you have pro league standards, which are generic for any division, men’s and women’s professional leagues. Those are things like coaching licenses, or field dimensions, or FieldTurf [artificial surfaces] being FIFA-rated. Those are things that, again, we’ve worked hard to address. We’ve only got a few outstanding issues.
We’ve got one pitch that needs to be re-certified for FIFA — I don’t want to disclose all the teams and their particular issues — but we’ve got one pitch that’s going to be changed in 2019 and have new turf laid down.
We’ve got two teams that have had waivers for field dimensions, one of which will be corrected next year: it’s a baseball stadium and they’re putting a retractable [pitcher’s] mound in. And the other is actually building a new stadium in a downtown of that city, and that’s a two-year project. So that’s 2020. We had a coach who’s now on an A License course this month. So we’ve had just a few, and we’ve addressed them for 2018, 2019, and in the case of — I’ll say Louisville — building a new stadium for 2020. That’s the work we’ll continue to do and update the Federation over the next season or two.
[Note: As Edwards acknowledged, the team leaving a baseball stadium for its own venue is Louisville City FC. The team getting a retractable pitcher’s mound at its baseball stadium home is the Tulsa Roughnecks. The coach on an A License course is Dave Brandt, who had to step down from the Pittsburgh Riverhounds because he had not taken the course yet.]
The coaching license point relates to something that a lot of people across American soccer have been talking about lately, which is the high cost of acquiring those licenses. When a professional club’s coach takes the license courses, does the coach pay the cost or does the club?
Typically, the clubs are paying for that. The coaches might have something like that in their contracts. I know that some of the coaches that were looking to get on the course for the A License, that was paid for by the clubs.
In some instances, where you’re looking at the [highest-level] Pro License, which we’ve had nine coaches go on this year, that’s a significant investment for the coaches. That’s kind of up to the coaches to do themselves, or the clubs may pay or subsidize that as well. If they’re investing into that coach over a long period of time, that’s something the teams might do. That’s not something we do as a league.
A question about the USL’s relationship with MLS. Orlando City decided to put its B team on hiatus from the USL this year. There has also been a move back toward MLS clubs affiliating with USL teams instead of MLS clubs running their own USL teams, such as in Vancouver and Montreal; though that is perhaps balanced by Atlanta launching its own USL team this year. How do you see that landscape at the moment?
I think it’s just changing a bit in terms of the technical plans of the various MLS teams. They’re not all doing the same thing. Some of them are looking at the opportunity to get their very best academy players into a professional environment, and at the moment, the only option has been USL Division 2. They want to play at the highest competitive professional level they can outside of MLS, and they’re getting those experiences with us.
But in some instances, those players are skewing younger and younger now, into 17, 16 and in some cases 15 [years old]. And that is not really the right environment to be in as the USL is going forward. So for some of the clubs, they’re looking at other options. This is something we’re working with MLS on right now: to create some other options.
We’ve got options in our league. We’ve got Division 2 as is. We’ve got the option to affiliate with some of our new expansion clubs, which we’re seeing. And we’ve got the option to look at the third division, which is coming in 2019, and I know that’s something that some of those clubs are looking at as well. Orlando is looking at that. But that’s something we need to work with MLS on to make that a formal option for them.
So there’s some committee-level work, there’s some approval-process work we have to go through with MLS. But that will be an option for those teams as well. We’ve had a great partnership with MLS over the last few years; we hope to continue to do so [and] we will. We enjoy working with their clubs as well. It’s about creating options that make sense.
Vancouver has come out of the [USL] league this year because we have challenges there with the stadium options, and we’ve got to be rigid with the Division 2 standards and the USL standards. They tried very hard, they weren’t able to get it sorted out. So it makes more sense for them now to affiliate with our new expansion team in Fresno, and I think Orlando is the same.
They were considering their options, and what they want to do in their technical plan and their vision for player development over the next few years. They didn’t feel it was the right place at the Division 2 level in the USL. So they’re going to take a year out, re-evaluate, work on some new options. Possibly it’s a third division option, possibly it’s an affiliation. We’ll work with Orlando and MLS on that over the next few months.
To clarify, the third division is on track to launch in 2019?
Correct. We’ll be making our first club announcement soon. Very excited about that. We’re going to have a number of announcements over the coming months. We are targeting a 10- to 12-team launch ahead of 2019, and then we’ll build [from] that on sort of a regional basis over the next three to five years.
Let’s go to a subject that has been a continuing theme in your interviews with the Inquirer and Daily News: promotion and relegation between your second and third divisions. You’ve said before that it’s a possibility. Where are things now?
This is the exciting thing about having a third division. You’ll see this year a real concerted effort to integrate not just the third division [with the second] but the PDL as well — the three main properties that we run. We’re going to start aligning them much more closely.
I think it would be very interesting to look at pro-rel between those two divisions. We certainly could do it now and I think there’s an interest to do it among our board. We are going to experiment with precursors, such as maybe some sort of inter-league competition, an inter-league cup. We’re going to look at options like that to see if that works.
To be sensible, we’ve got to get the structure and the quality right first at the Division 3 level. We’ve got to make sure we’ve got the right owners; stadiums that are the right size and the right quality; and we’ve got a number of teams, and maybe a structure, that’s maybe a bit more aligned and mirrored of the second division.
I think that’s going to take a little bit of time. We’ll get that done, and then I think as we’re doing that, we’re going to look at integration opportunities. Then, beyond that, if the structure is in place and lends itself for it [pro/rel], then it’s absolutely a possibility.
Lastly, another question you discussed in your last interview here. Has the USL decided yet whom it’s backing in the U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election?
Before, we had stayed out of really focusing on that because we had an application pending for Division 2 sanctioning. We’ve now accomplished that. So now, for the next two weeks ahead, we’re going to be meeting with the candidates. It directly affects our organization and the ecosystem we have, the mandate of the president moving forward.
They’ve met with me here and they’re going to be coming down to our headquarters in Tampa over the next week or two. I’m very keen to understand the plan that these guys have moving forward. How that impacts the USL, how it impacts the professional landscape, what their vision is for the sport at all levels.
We haven’t had time to do that with them. So now it’s about understanding what the manifesto is of each of these potential candidates. Then we’re going to have to make an informed decision. I don’t see us doing that until closer to the actual election date.