You’ll have to forgive me for a moment as I step away from the stack of history books on soccer that presently inhabit my workspace and dive into something a bit more contemporary. My friend’s at the Orlando City-centric blog The Maneland did an interesting interview with United Soccer Leagues (USL) President Jake Edwards. I love the USL. In the years before, during, and after Orlando City came through the league on their way to MLS I enjoyed watching this lower division of American soccer. I’ve been able to refocus on it as Orlando City have added a reserve squad to the league.
So this blog post is just, quite honestly, an excuse for me to talk about USL and Orlando City a bit. It should be clear that Gavin Ewbank from The Maneland deserves all the credit for the work on this interview, I just wanted to engage it a bit. Since the league has been around since 2005, I can certainly make a flimsy excuse that having a look at this interview has some connection to history, sure maybe a little. Really, I just wanted to talk about USL some.
(Full disclosure, I wrote for the Maneland in the past and remain on great terms with the staff. If you feel like this is an advertisement for their blog, I can only assure you it isn’t, and only done because I enjoyed the topic and wanted to engage with it.)
The first question out of the gate involved a renewed rivalry between Florida clubs Tampa Bay Rowdies and Orlando City who are moving from the new-now-falling-to-pieces NASL to the USL for the 2017 season. This rivalry has been stoked by those of us in Orlando, I’m not sure people in Tampa have ever cared all that much. I think the bigger take away is the survival of a historic club in the Tampa Bay Rowdies. It is a topic I’ll look to talk more in the coming months, the United States has a staggering number of soccer teams that dissolve, the Rowdies have been playing in some form or another since 1975. I hope the move to USL allows them to thrive under what has been a successful umbrella for so many teams over the years. And I hope they lose to OCB on a seasonal basis.
Following that, Edwards addressed the local OCB or Orlando City B team now playing an hour away on the east coast in Melbourne, Florida:
“I think it did have hopes that the extension of the club’s brand into Melbourne would resonate, as they hoped it would draw supporters in from that area to watch the first team games would be equally well-followed down there, and it hasn’t worked out that way. And the crowds had been far less than we had hoped for, far less than Orlando City had hoped for. So being in the main stadium in Orlando would certainly be our preference.”
There was a lot of debate here about where exactly Orlando City would place the “B” team. Knowing how Central Florida is, there was no outstanding “right” answer and Melbourne seemed as good a place as any of the other suggestions. If I was to glean any hints from this I’d put some money on OCB playing in Orlando’s new soccer specific stadium in downtown Orlando, or at least that might be what USL would prefer.
I think, with Orlando’s new stadium seating about 5,000 less than their average attendance last season, playing games in downtown Orlando could be a good benefit for those looking for, and unable to get, tickets to first team games.
The next three questions address “MLS2” or MLS reserve squads that have been competing in USL since an agreement between the two leagues in 2013. Reading the interview, it sounds like Edwards is well aware of the challenges that of being a half reserve league and half established local club league have presented. Edwards talks about how some MLS reserve clubs have gone to the “MLS2” brand, while other’s like Philadelphia Union and Sporting Kansas city have created separate identities for their reserve teams, Bethlehem Steel and Swope Park Rangers, respectively as examples.
“It’s a time now where two or three seasons into this it’s a good time to reflect on the brand and the positioning of the brand — has it been successful as a stand-alone identity that they’ve created, and is there more value and interest in going in another direction? Or maybe not, maybe not in some cases, but maybe in some other cases that we’re looking at. I think from a perception point of view, perception can be reality, and so you have to take a close look at the brand and see if it’s reflective of the parent organization’s brand values, and are we trying to create a different character around this second so we can have not only success on the field, but off it as well. We’re looking at it from a league view.”
I think this look is extremely important for the league. Local clubs with no MLS or very loose affiliations do infinitely better in terms of attendance and for the most part on the field. The championship was won by New York Red Bulls II this year, so of course no broad based assumptions are ever totally perfect. Arguably in US soccer the most important (and certainly the most obsessed over) statistic is attendance. The league was led this year by the impressive crowds brought in by FC Cincinnati (High: 24,376 Average: 17,296). They are followed in the attendance table by eleven stand-alone clubs with only loose affiliations with MLS clubs. The best attended MLS owned club was Bethlehem Steel (High: 3,664 Average: 2,573). The lowest, Montreal Impact reserve side who never drew a crowd over 1,000 and had 58 fans at one game.
While I’m sure the league will identify this wide ratio of attendance numbers as a challenge, it should be noted the league has always had a bit of volatility. For every Orlando City or Sacramento Republic success story there is an Antigua Barracuda or a Charlotte Eagles who could never fully solidify the home support.
Edwards talks about the independent clubs, both the historic ones and the new ones:
“When you talk about Richmond, and Rochester, Charleston, you’re talking about clubs that have over 20 years operating, and have been doing well and doing it sustainably for all of those years. So we have those clubs that I’m very proud to say have been with the league this whole time, and continue to deliver professional soccer to those communities. It’s very important that we have long-term sustainable clubs. As new clubs come in now, it’s not always a case of having deeper pockets. Really it’s a case of raising the bar and setting expectations higher every year. So when a new team comes in, their goals are different — now its folks are coming in and they want to get dramatically different value out of a jersey sponsor, for example, or have very different expectations on crowd numbers.”
I think these clubs will be the lifeblood of the league and I hope Edwards and company never take their focus off these. They make both the league and the overall landscape of soccer in the United States so much richer. I’ll also argue the USL lower leagues create an integral part of the game’s biosphere here. The MLS-USL partnership signals that both leagues understand that.
The next questions covered future league formats and expanded television coverage for the league. I’d love to talk about them, but this post is already too long. I highly encourage you to read the entire interview at themaneland.com.
My takeaways from The Maneland interview are all positive. I don’t know Edwards and have never talked to him about his vision for the league, but from this interview I get the impression the league is in stable hands that want to both facilitate and manage its growth to be something both successful and good for the game in the United States.