USL's president talks division standards, pro/rel's potential, Bethlehem Steel's future

Ahead of the first ever playoff game for Bethlehem Steel, the Union’s minor-league USL affiliate, USL president Jake Edwards spoke with the Inquirer and Daily News in a wide-ranging interview. Here’s a transcript of what he had to say. It has been edited slightly for clarity.

On recent reports that Bethlehem Steel’s future may or may not be in doubt:

From day one, they’ve said they’re committed to the Lehigh Valley and are working towards building a soccer-specific stadium in that region. They need the right venue there to make that work.

The venue they’re playing at right now [Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium] certainly has some challenges, not least because it doesn’t have lights, so it can’t host night games. [And] it’s on a college campus. That presents some challenges.

They’ve fallen short of their own expectations of really creating a club that the community is able to really get behind. That was their goal from day one, and it remains their goal. I think the right venue in that area would certainly help.

Now, as they’ve stated, over the last two seasons, as they and other MLS clubs look at what makes sense for their investment in a second team, and which way they may go with that moving forward, Bethlehem is no different.

So they’ve got to determine what’s the best return on investment into those clubs. Whether that is running your own team in the USL or whether that is partnering with one of our USL clubs, they’ve explored a number of options. And I know they’ve had a couple of conversations with several USL clubs to see if a partnership made sense, in the absence of their ability to get the right stadium plan executed.

That’s kind of where they are. They’re committed to the area. They are certainly moving forward with it next season [in Bethlehem]. But they’re evaluating it, and that’s the case, I think, for a number of the MLS second teams.

On where the USL’s application to the U.S. Soccer Federation for sanctioning as a Division 2 league is at the moment:

We’ve submitted our application for Division 2 sanctioning next year. We’re asking to remove the “provisional” tag. We’ve addressed all of the Division 2-specific standards that we had a waiver for, under our “provisional” tag for the 2017 season — and they were all specific to stadium capacity. Every single one of those has been removed now, and addressed, with the addition of seats or relocation to another stadium.

We’ve put in an application that not only meets the minimum requirements for Division 2 — which is 12 teams, the league fully compliant, and the number of time zones, et cetera — more than double that, in fact. So we’ve put in a strong application.

We’ve requested a couple of generic pro league standards waivers, as other leagues currently have, for pitch dimensions at four clubs. And we’ve provided a road map for them [and] for the federation. It is critical to them that they see a road map to address any pro league standards waivers, and we’ve provided that. Whether that’s laying new FIFA-quality [artificial] turf, and the investment the clubs are going to make in that, or the actual building of a new soccer-specific stadium, such as that in Louisville, and we’ll see that in a two-year time period.

So we’ve put in an extremely robust application. We’ve worked so hard as a league and as a group of clubs throughout 2017 to make sure that we’re fully compliant going into 2018. That’s the approach we’ve taken, and I’m very proud of all the teams and the owners for what has been a very tough two years worth of work. It’s very important for our owners that they meet or exceed the federation standards, so that’s what we’re committed to doing.

We hope that we perhaps hear back from the Federation some time maybe after the end of this month.

On his appreciation for U.S. Soccer’s divisional standards, which are the subject of a lawsuit by the North American Soccer League that claims the standards are “arbitrary” and part of a “conspiracy” against the NASL:

We believe in the need for pro league standards. These standards have been in place for almost two decades. I played in the U.S. and I played overseas. I played in the U.K. There are league standards in other countries. In a country where the sport is in its infancy, we cannot afford for it to go back into the Wild West days of professional soccer, where it’s boom and bust and leagues and teams are coming and going.

I think we’ve all worked so hard and invested a ton of time and energy to make sure we don’t go back and we start to move forward. So it is important that we have some sort of guidelines and standards to adhere to and aspire to.

Our position is we believe in that, and we’ve made the commitment to do that, and so far the Federation has supported that. And we hope, as I said that they will give us a positive response on our application.

On whether he or the league has an official position on the upcoming U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election:

We’ll certainly play our role in it. I think we have about seven percent of the vote. So we will be voting in February in that election. We sit on the Pro Council. We have our views on the role that both the federation and the professional leagues, and the youth and adult [amateur] leagues have, in moving the game forward.

I’ve seen a lot lately, given what’s happened, in terms of who’s responsible for what. I would say that, speaking from the USL’s point of view, I believe that the professional leagues have a large responsibility to move the game forward in the right direction. To create development pathways, and ultimately to produce world-class players. And to create opportunities and environments where we can create world-class players.

We believe strongly in that. We will be pushing forward with that ethos. We are launching a third division. We are continuing to grow our amateur under-23 [age] league, the PDL. We have youth leagues that we operate. We’ve worked closely with all of our Division 2 teams to start to put academies in place, To work with local youth clubs in an affiliation role. To create coaching pathways, referee development pathways, and player development pathways across the country. Not just in MLS markets, but in other markets as well.

That’s our mission: bringing professional soccer, both at the D-2 and D-3 level, and building that structure from the pro level down to the youth level. I think that’s our responsibility as a professional league, to effect some change and effect some growth. So I do believe strongly that it’s not one man, or one organization, or the youth leagues, or the youth system.

We’re all mixed together in this, and we all have to make sure that we’re doing what we need to be doing. So we all share the responsibility. But I can speak from the perspective of the USL, because I’m in the professional game here on the league’s side of things. The USL and the league’s clubs bear a big responsibility for developing players. As does MLS, as do all the pro leagues.

We will evaluate the landscape, as such, as we move toward our voting commitment in February.

On whether there have been discussions to have promotion and relegation between the USL’s two leagues when the Division 3 league launches:

Yes, of course there have been. Our plan is to launch a third division. We have another property as well, the PDL. We’re going to have three very linked leagues. We are looking at ways to connect them.  There will be some affiliation opportunities. We’re looking at inter-league cup competitions. We’re looking at a number of those things.

Of course, the obvious question is, will you have promotion and relegation? We’re looking at that, and how that would work, and if that makes sense. That’s something we’ll also talk with all of our owners about. What would that look like?

I played in that structure, so I understand the good and bad about it. There is nothing good about getting relegated in a system where nearly everybody loses their jobs, and in some cases, the clubs become insolvent. So you’ve got to create a system that makes sense and is stable.

[Edwards played for many lower-league teams in his native England during a playing career that ran from 1998 to 2010.]

What we need to do, and what we’re committed to doing, is launching a third division that is built on the same foundation that has been so successful with the USL, in terms of a sustainable, sensible business model. One that gives owners and clubs a pathway to create a successful business. One that gives us an ability to build infrastructure — build stadiums, training grounds, build clubs that are going to be in those communities for many years to come.

We’ve got to do that correctly first. We’ve got to get clubs that have proper environments, proper stadium. We need to get local owners that are sufficiently capitalized and committed. We need to get the league up and running, and we’re going to run it as professionally, ethically, sensibly and innovatively as we’ve done with the USL.

Once we get to a situation where we’ve achieved that, and we have a stable structure, and some quality clubs, then who’s to say pro/rel is not possible? Of course it’s obvious. And we’re certainly looking at it. But it’s got to be done in a sensible way, and there’s a lot of work to do beforehand.

On how much convincing USL team owners need to get on board with a pro/rel system:

As of yet, it is not something that we’ve spent time with our second division owners looking at, although some of them have inquired about it with a degree of interest.

I think if you come to the conclusion that it’s possible, and there is a legitimate business plan in place to do this that makes sense for them all, I don’t think they’re going to need a lot of arm-twisting. If it’s a direction they want to explore, then we’re going to have to put a very compelling business case together.

That is not something we intend to force upon our teams. It would have to be for us, as we govern our league, done with our board of governors, and there has to be buy-in from the board of governors. It is not something we would mandate.

It is something that we would have to — and we would — study in our sub-committees. On- and off-field sub-committees, technical committees, our business strategy committees that we have, with our ownership and executives. We would have to study this and come up with a plan together that we could all buy into. We wouldn’t do it in any other way.