TAMPA, Fla. – Ahead of the start of the 2021 USL Championship season this weekend, USL President Jake Edwards joined CBS Sports’ Luis Miguel Echegaray on the Que Golazo! Podcast, where Edwards praised the initiative and commitment of both the club owners and players during the return to play in the 2020 Championship season, and the importance of clubs being strong community organizations as well as strong professional soccer teams.
Here are some of the highlights of the conversation as the Championship enters its 11th season, but there was plenty more up for discussion including the success of the Championship despite the lack of promotion and relegation in the United States currently, the potential promotion and relegation could come to the USL Championship and League One, and the impact former players from the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Teams are now having as part of league ownership groups.
On clubs being positive forces in their communities
Jake Edwards: That’s the point of these clubs. Whether they’re five years old, 10 years old, 20 years old or five months old, it’s about a connection to the local community, it’s about being a vehicle that enables community members to express civic pride and passion from that experience they have, being from that community, and they do it through the world’s game. Our most successful clubs are the most connected to their community. … They’re all different, and they all have a different relationship, but what we’re trying to build is a league where local clubs matter.
You’re not just a football club, you’re a community organization, you’re part of the community. It’s easy to love you during the good times, but during the tough times – like COVID – when you can’t engage with your supporters and you’re under financial stress, having that relationship with your community, that gets you through those times, and it’s got us through those times, and it’s put our clubs in good stead to welcome fans back and move forward. When you talk about some of the owners that are coming into the league now, they’re doing this because they’re driven by the fact that these local clubs can make these communities better places to live, work, and play, and they can have a positive impact and drive some change, and we can do that through the sport. I think that’s what’s really driving the growth of the USL, that relationship between the clubs and their communities.
On Oakland Roots SC adding Marshawn Lynch to its ownership group
JE: Obviously, he’s seen an exodus of sports organizations from that community, and that has a really devastating impact. I think he’s flirted with soccer over the years and has a relationship with some of the founders of that organization, and I think once he really saw not what was going on on the field but saw it was an organization that was purpose-driven, football second, it’s about the community first – they’re so interwoven into the culture of that community, all of the charitable organizations, the music scene, the fashion scene – that obviously struck a strong chord with him and he wanted to make sure that positive work can continue and he can contribute in some meaningful way.
On dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic
JE: It was such a challenge for all the sports leagues, many different industries, and we were no different. As soon as it happened, the gears were in motion on how to get back on the field that season, it was never a consideration that we wouldn’t come back, it was how would we come back, and then as we went through that process it was how can you come back safely for the players, and how can you come back into your own buildings. So, even if fans can’t be there, you’re still there in the community and there’s football happening in that community.
I have to give a lot of credit to the owners for leaning into a difficult situation and losing a ton of money, but that relationship to the community and understanding you’re not just a live events business, so if people can’t come you shouldn’t operate, that wasn’t the ethos. The ethos is you’re a community organization, it’s damaging if you don’t return, so we had to return, so credit to the owners for doing that. Credit to the players, too. In a world in March, April, May, it was quite scary – we didn’t know what we know now – so for the players to come back was huge credit to them, and the flexibility of the fans to transition from supporting in the stadium to supporting on the broadcasts, we saw several positives that came out of a very difficult year.
Where 2020 has left the USL Championship and League One as leagues
JE: If I look at last year, the totality of the challenges, we actually come through as a much stronger league, as a much stronger organization, and a more tight-knit community in terms of our owners, in terms of our players, in terms of organizations like the Black Players Alliance that formed out of all the social unrest and strife of last year and a commitment to address some of these issues moving forward. In my mind, it was a very difficult year, lots of silver linings, I think some good things came out of it ultimately.
On USL Championship and League One clubs becoming relevant in their communities
JE: The USL is becoming more and more relevant. It’s becoming more relevant in communities that just don’t have access to domestic football. You can watch international football on TV, but don’t minimize the value of having access to a team in your own community. As a young kid, that stays with you for life, that knowledge that I could play professionally one day, or I could work in the industry one day, or I will have some relationship with this club, that’s what we’re building. We have a very tight-knit relationship with our clubs and the communities, and that’s something we need to keep working on and evolving.
Yes, we’ve got great owners coming in the league now that want to invest heavily in the clubs, in the stadium infrastructure, in the academy infrastructure, training complexes, better quality on the field, that is critical as well to the growth of these clubs and making them look and feel bigger in their communities, so we’re seeing that, and we’re seeing the rise of supporter culture and larger numbers of fans wanting to have involvement with their club, so I think we’re on a good trajectory.
On why communities should embrace their local professional soccer clubs
JE: It’s grassroots, it’s trying to be honest, it’s high-level, entertaining football to go and watch, it’s accessible. It’s not super-corporate or super-expensive, or world stars playing on the field, it’s more accessible, you can have a relationship with the players and the club, and that’s important.