USL President Jake Edwards reflected on the past season in the Championship and League One, and the challenges both leagues had to overcome to make 2020 a successful one as the league maintained its momentum on SiriusXM FC on Friday afternoon.
United Soccer League President Jake Edwards joined SiriusXM FC’s Counter Attack with Brian Dunseth and Tony Meola on Friday afternoon for a wide-ranging conversation on the Championship and League One’s 2020 season, and how both leagues had overcome the challenges the year presented and what the USL’s leadership learned that it can carry forward into the 2021 season and beyond.
“This was an incredibly challenging year for our league – as it was for everyone else and continues to be so,” said Edwards. “It was a major test to get back on the field and everyone came together to work that out. In and amongst all the challenges we’ve faced on the field and off the field this year, we’ve navigated some pretty uncharted waters, a lot of positive things also happened. We had a tough end to the season as you know, but on the business side we brought on some big new commercial partners into the league, the big announcement this morning with PUMA joining the league as a new partner.
“We had a lot of expansion announced for the future, we opened a fantastic new stadium in Louisville, and despite not being able to play in front of our supporters in many circumstances we saw about a 500% growth on average viewership across ESPN of the games. Most importantly, our players – who were tremendous in having to play in difficult circumstances and having to make sure they looked after themselves – produced some fantastic performances this year, and I believe this was one of our most competitive years yet.”
Edwards went on to address numerous other topics in depth.
On the overall momentum of the USL and lessons learned from the past year
I think the USL is a unique league because we are still a young league. This was to be our 10th anniversary season, and all of the celebration that that would have entailed, and it worked out quite differently, but we’re in a tremendous growth mode.
The speed of the growth has been exciting, but it’s a challenge in and of itself when you’re growing like this. I think we’re humble enough to know that we’re not a finished article, we certainly make mistakes, we are not a perfect league and we always have to look at ourselves and see where we can improve. I think in a year like this – where we’ve had to navigate some very complicated things and deal with things that we did not foresee – it puts a lot of strain on everybody as well and is also a good time to reflect on your shortcomings and your weaknesses and improve upon those or make changes, and that’s certainly what we’re going to be doing in the offseason and certainly looking ahead to what will be another tough year next year to make sure we can be best prepared.
Louisville City FC's Brian Ownby and the Tampa Bay Rowdies' Forrest Lasso vie for a header during the Eastern Conference Final of the 2020 USL Championship Playoffs at Lynn Family Stadium. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
On teaming with the USL Black Players Alliance on new initiatives
We took the position that it wasn’t our place or in our interest to have corporate statements, we didn’t want to come up with initiatives that were self-serving to make us feel better, we wanted to listen and understand and support, and that’s what we did. I’m so proud of our players and our players that formed the Black Players Alliance – we’ve had about 100 or so black athletes that came together to form that organization – to stand up and say let’s look at ourselves and see what we can do better and be a better reflection of society and use our sport in our communities for positive change.
Brandon Miller, Hugh Roberts and the executive team that have come together there have done a fantastic job to engage with us and allowed us to work with them on a number of important initiatives. It was really about listening and supporting the players, whether that was in-game activism, whether that was the wearing of armbands, whether that was voter registration partnerships that we formed together.
On the processes that led to disciplinary action for in-game incidents during the season
I believe there needs to be a process and a structure to manage these situations when they come up, and you know they’re going to come up, how do you deal with them? You start the season with a process in place that all of the teams understand and all of the players understand and whatever those rules and policies are, you have to be flexible and nimble, but you also have to be respectful in the middle of a competition as to what you’ve all signed up for and agreed to and not moving the goalposts during a season. You can’t diminish the importance of that, that you’ve got to follow the guidelines you’ve set in place.
You equally have to go through the process of a full and robust investigation and at that time it’s a challenging environment to do it in when it’s happening in the moment and a team walks off, it’s a powerful reaction and a powerful statement, and then it’s all around the world instantly on social media and on the news, but you do have to go through the investigation process to get to the outcome you’ve all agreed upon, and that’s what we did.
On what changes could be implemented in the 2021 season and beyond
We believe that you have to understand what’s gone on and you have to find a solution that helps people get to a better place. You have to help people understand what they’ve done and you have to help people train and not make that mistake again, and more than that, that they become a champion of the right way to behave in the future. If you end people’s opportunity to do that, you miss out on something great. I think you’ve got to train and help and educate. You’ve got young men out there that will screw up and we need to help them make the right decision and be more aware of what they’re doing. A lot of work went on behind the scenes between the two players (in Phoenix and San Diego), between the clubs to come together and find programs and solutions to find a positive outcome.
It was an extremely challenging moment, it’s something we’ve got to work to get out of our game and the challenge for us was in the moment when you’ve got an agreed process in place to stick with that, but also recognize that the policies that we have are not being adhered to, and so now there’s a commitment in the offseason to re-evaluate how we process this, what’s the discipline, is it enough or not? Clearly it needs to be addressed. How do we manage those players moving forward, how do we manage the clubs, how responsible are the clubs to be held to account for this? Certainly, we are committed to reevaluating and having much stricter measures put in place in the offseason.
Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC is set to open its new 8,000-seat downtown stadium in the 2021 Championship season. | Image courtesy Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC
On future expansion in the Championship and League One and new venues arriving
League One is set for some great expansion, and as you mention DaMarcus Beasley and his group coming in there for Fort Wayne, it’s very exciting and we’re thrilled to have him coming on board in ’23 to League One. We will be planning to make between two-to-three more announcements for League One before they kick off next season for teams that will be coming in down the road for ’22 and ’23, so a significant amount of expansion for League One, we’re very bullish on that.
For the Championship, Queensboro FC is coming in for the ’22 season, exciting ownership group, big plans and a great community there in Queens, a very diverse and exciting community, and Oakland Roots, a real purpose-driven club, a club of the community making great waves there locally with what they’re doing in Oakland, I think they’re going to be a tremendous addition to the Championship for next season. We’re excited with the new additions, again we’ve got some exciting new stadiums coming online, we opened Louisville this year, next year we’ll open Colorado Springs – their lovely new downtown stadium – next year and more to follow. More growth next year for both Championship and League One.
To listen to a full replay of the interview, visit SiriusXM FC’s website for archived episodes.