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Edwards hopes USL changes breed ‘soccer junkies’

Jake Edwards USL president 1

By ADAM TROXTELL

When the 22-year-old Charleston Battery face first-year club Toronto FC II on Saturday, the United Soccer League they compete in will come with more than just a new logo and a name change.

The USL has 13 expansion teams this year, eight of which are owned and operated by Major League Soccer franchises. There is now an Eastern and a Western Conference, there are new rivalries to cultivate, and a new league president in Jake Edwards, formerly the executive vice president.

The hope is that these changes to the USL operation, and those still to come, will drive the grass roots of soccer in America further into the soil. This, Edwards said, will inevitably lead to bigger things for everyone involved.

“If you want to have players in the top leagues, and do well on the national stage, those players have to be soccer junkies,” Edwards said. “They have to be hooked from a very young age.”

More clubs that promote local fan and player growth, in addition to a handful of teams with direct links to the top league, will attempt to create those junkies from one of the biggest offseasons the USL has ever seen.

“I don’t think we’ll be growing like that year-by-year again,” Edwards said. “But part of that is where the league is and where the sport is in the country. It’s in a really fantastic place right now.”

Even after such growth, more is expected. Edwards said the league hopes to announce expansion teams for 2016 in the coming months.

“We use the phrase rising, and that’s probably a good word to capsulate where it is,” Edwards said. “It was a pretty momentous offseason, but that was many years in the making.”

Edwards oversaw the league’s rebranding, which will come into full effect this weekend. The idea is to present the USL as a national league, but to do so on a regional, more personal level.

He compared what the USL is doing to how soccer operates in his native England, where fans will follow the big teams while also supporting smaller clubs closer to home.

For example, second-year club Oklahoma City Energy FC is affiliated with Sporting Kansas City of MLS, and the area is close to FC Dallas. The club offers fans there a local, first-hand experience, one that will be enhanced this season with rivalry games against expansion club Tulsa Roughnecks FC.

Edwards hopes that expansion clubs like Roughnecks FC, Saint Louis FC and Louisville City FC will tap into a niche market of fans in parts of the country where the sport does not seem as popular.

“There are so many markets like that, it’s unbelievable,” Edwards said. “You’d be surprised at how many people go to the pubs and watch games.”

The league changes are also designed to give spectators a different look at the growth of soccer in the U.S. The addition of eight MLS-owned franchises — or MLS “II” teams — will likely lead to an influx of young talent.

With more MLS-USL club affiliations in addition to the new teams, seeing “the next best thing” gives fans at USL games another reason to head out to stadiums, Edwards said.

“If you want to see the best players over here, turn your TV on or go to MLS stadiums,” Edwards said. “It makes no sense for us to compete. The USL has to be something different. You’re going to see young, dynamic players.

“You’re also seeing guys who have had a really good career, loads of guys who have had careers in MLS who are experienced pros, leaders in their club, and stand-up guys in their community. It’s a more intimate experience.”

Comments

  1. I’m confused by listing St. Louis as in a part the country where soccer is not as popular. As a native St Louisian that comment makes absolutely no sense. St. Louis has had strong amateur soccer for decades. We lack a billionaire owner and stadium but there has always been plenty of soccer fans in St. Louis.

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  2. A club system with promotion and relegation breeds soccer junkies. No one will ever care about a minor league to an already minor league (MLS).

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    • No, soccer played in your home town breeds a junkie… which requires expansion. Pro/rel, an unknown in the US, is a non-factor unless you are a Eurie. Enough with the eurosnob BS.

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      • Well said, Nkfedrich.

        I for one am looking forward to following the new pro team in my middle-sized city in flyover country. When I first started playing in 1982, soccer was a cult sport here locally and I never imagined that I would ever see a pro team here. Over the years as a player and coach in the area, I’ve seen the sport grow immensely locally. Lots of people here of my gen and later who grew up playing the game are absolutely interested in following the home team.

        Sure, fans will follow bigger teams in the US and overseas, too, but anyone who thinks that this will not take hold has not been to a AAA minor league baseball game.

  3. The interesting thing here is the comparison to smaller English clubs that relied on local and grassroots support. My understanding is that those local community clubs were sponsored by effectively a benefactor who really never expected a return on the investment. The sponsor looked at it as a way to give back.

    I suspect that is not what USL investors are doing. I wonder what type of profit can be made by these smaller regional clubs? Or are they really being run without profits in mind?

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