USL president Jake Edwards talks league growth, why club owners are community organizers and Marshawn Lynch

This game of ours can sometimes feel so distant. 

Since the pandemic affected our lives, the true values of soccer, the things that really make us feel like fans, can be hard to come by. Attending a stadium, for example, or supporting your local community through your neighborhood club are all great privileges that seem very alien right now, and if things couldn’t seem more dire, the Super League chatter reminded us once again that sometimes, it’s the powerful who make the decisions. 

But there was light at the end of the tunnel, as fans made their voices heard. From Stamford Bridge to Old Trafford, people rallied and protested (and continue to) because they wanted to remind football’s patriarchy that football still belongs to them. In the end, clubs owe their fate to the community and it’s the club’s responsibility to value that relationship. Yes, it’s a business, but it needs to be a business with a social conscience. It’s why the Bundesliga remains a guiding light in many ways. 

Over here in the U.S, it’s important to remember that this connection a club has with a local community also exists, deeper than MLS, and it’s this very reason why this piece is dedicated to United Soccer League as the USL Championship – America’s second-tier – kicks off this weekend. 

USL may not be familiar to non-U.S. soccer fans but it’s an important part of American soccer culture. With 31 clubs – and more on the way including Queenboro FC and plans to build clubs in Rhode Island and Des Moines – this is a foundation of hyper-local, community-based soccer. This season, kicking off this weekend, will see a record 19 matches on national television, including a first-ever for League One. 

Overall, USL has invested one billion dollars in stadium projects across the country.  

This is a league who pays very close attention to not just the game, but its people and its community. 

“That’s the point of these clubs,” says president Jake Edwards, speaking to CBS Sports and ¡Qué Golazo! “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 and it’s about a vehicle that enables the community members to express pride, civic pride and passion…and they do it through the world’s game. Our most successful clubs are the ones who are most connected to the community…so what we try to build is a league where local clubs matter. I talk to the owners a lot and I say, ‘you’re not just a football club, you’re a community organization.”

You can watch the whole interview with Edwards on the ¡Qué Golazo! Youtube channel and for more previews, recaps, interviews and coverage from around the world of soccer make sure to follow ¡Qué Golazo! the daily CBS Soccer podcast and never miss an episode.

Edwards, who is originally from Manchester, England but moved to the U.S. as a child and then returned to Britain to begin his professional career, knows too well the life of a player in lower leagues in both America and England. He knows that the most fundamental aspect of survival with these clubs is the bond between club and community, especially when times are tough, and it didn’t get tougher than the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It was incredibly challenging,” he says. “Really, as soon as it happened, the gears were in motion about getting back on the field. It was never a consideration of not coming back, but rather how do we come back.”

So they did. Even as fans couldn’t be there, clubs made it their best to make it accessible to everybody. Whether it was broadcasting or socially distanced events, the effort to still engage remained. As a result, positives did come out of it including a 500% increase in viewership. This helped the aforementioned extension of televised games and contracts with local affiliates and ESPN. 

The league of course has its issues, including last year’s incident when Phoenix Rising player Junior Flemmings used  an anti-gay slur toward the San Diego Loyal’s Collin Martin. A month earlier, LA Galaxy II defender Omar Ontiveros used a racial slur against the Loyal’s Elijah Martin. Ontiveros was released by the LA Galaxy II and the club forfeited the point it had earned. The league is working closer with the players union and began a partnership with The Institute for Sport and Social Justice as they look to help the entire organization and club staff with sensitivity training and education. 

The final last year, between Tampa Bay Rowdies and Phoenix Rising, was also canceled due to players testing positive for COVID-19. Both teams will meet next month. Phoenix also has a new stadium this season and will feature two matches on national television for the first time in history. 

Essentially, this is a new season for USL and a new opportunity to keep improving and keep growing. Clubs are doing more to connect and listen to their fans. There is a bigger sense of local support and as more people get vaccinated, the hope is to really get back to a place where this sport can really build something truly special from an American grassroots level. 

Edwards is excited at the prospect of an even stronger foundation, and he knows the interest and effort to grow is shared all over. More and more people are entering the ownership frame, including new and returning owners such as Tim Howard (Memphis), Landon Donovan (San Diego), DaMarcus Beasley (Fort Wayne), Charlie Davies (New Hampshire) and Michael Parkhurst (Providence). Even “Beast Mode” is taking part as former Oakland Raider and Oakland native Marshawn Lynch has joined the ownership group of Oakland Roots, who joins the league this season from third-division NISA (National Independent Soccer Association) and open against Phoenix Rising. 

“He’s flirted with soccer over the years,” says Edwards. “He has a relationship with the founders of the organization and I think he saw that the organization is purpose driven. Football second. It’s about the community first…so he wants to make sure that positive work can continue and he can contribute in some meaningful way. Hopefully we don’t see him jump around in a golf cart during the game!” 

Regardless, what’s encouraging is the return of USL and most importantly, it is being met with genuine support. 

“These new owners, celebrity owners, are coming in because they’re driven by the fact that these local clubs can make these communities better places to live, can have a positive impact and drive some change…through the sport.” 

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