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Leagues: USL

USL’s Justin Papadakis on pro/rel, women’s league & calendar changes

USL Justin Papadakis

Editor’s note: Amidst a period of extensive growth for USL, we sat down to interview USL’s Justin Papadakis, the COO and Chief Real Estate Officer for the league, to talk expansion, stadiums, competition, promotion and relegation, and more as the league looks towards the future. After announcing new expansion teams recently and the success of USL in the US Open Cup, we had plenty to discuss.

USL on the rise: A quick catch-up

The United Soccer League (USL) has experienced perhaps the most dramatic evolution of any soccer entity in the United States over the past decade and a half. The league has its origins way back in the mid-1980s, but after several decades of finding its way in the often tumultuous world of lower division soccer in North America, the organization hit its stride in the 2010s.

After the friction of the 2008/09 mutiny and eventual exodus of teams to the North American Soccer League, USL circled the wagons in 2011, merged its second and third division leagues into one D3 league, and carried on. After early challenges that saw the league at it’s lowest with just 11 pro clubs in 2012, there has been an incredible amount of growth in the league. The USL Championship re-gained it’s second division status in 2017, and by year’s end saw what was effectively the demise of the NASL. After bringing several of that league’s surviving clubs into the fold, as well as addition more expansion sides each year, the Championship now counts its membership at 27 clubs, with 5 more announced and on the way.

Meanwhile USL launched League One, a third division pro league, in 2019, which now features 11 clubs of its own with another 3 announced. The amateur women’s W League re-launched in 2022 with 44 sides, and the new USL Super League is set to debut in Fall 2023 as the first women’s pro division 2 league in the USA.

USL Expansion and Growth

World Soccer Talk (WST): Is there a “final” or ideal number of teams USL is targeting for the Championship and League One?

Justin Papadakis (JP): It’s a great question. So where I think we’ll settle at is around 35 teams in each of our leagues [Championship, League One and Women’s Super League]. And we are well on our way to achieving that by 2026.

WST: How does the league feel about situations like say, New Mexico, where a ballpark or other non-soccer venue is converted for use and the club is able to have success there?

JP: Our long term plan is for all of our clubs to be in soccer specific venues. New Mexico and El Paso – both are very active and looking at soccer specific venues. And I think, specifically around New Mexico, they are far along and I think they’ve showed the power that soccer can bring to a community and you can see it week in a week out there with 12-15,000 supporters coming to each match. And so it’s gonna be really, really exciting to see how the the game atmosphere is translated once they get into a soccer specific venue.

WST: The situation out in Orange County with the LA Galaxy apparently attempting to make a deal with the City of Irvine to gain exclusive use of Championship Stadium for their B team, effectively trying to kick out Orange County SC, really highlights the importance of clubs owning and/or controlling their own venues. Do you think this is a sort of wake up call for other clubs who may face competition for their venues down the line?

JP: Well, I’ll take a step back and say first that USL is by far the largest builder of soccer stadiums by number of any league in the world. And we’ve put stadium development at the forefront of our overall strategy. And we’re executing on that at a very high level. The situation in Orange County – I think what that shows is that communities are recognizing the difference between community-driven clubs and player development-driven clubs. What Orange County SC represents is Orange County, and the people of Orange County are really excited to have a club that has represented them around around the country.

LA is a fantastic city but it’s not Orange County. Orange County has its own identity.

And I think [OCSC] have helped put Orange County on the soccer map, with being a reigning champion, for example. And again, for us it’s really exciting to see the community come out and say “we want our community driven clubs and and we want them to represent us on the soccer map nationally.” And I think that you’re seeing that across the country, which is why the USL, and all three of our professional properties, are gaining so much traction and why we’re having billions of dollars of stadium development. Communities want their own identity and they want a club that represents them and their values.

[Note: on the evening of the day this interview was conducted, the Irvine City Council unanimously voted for a memorandum of understanding allowing Orange County SC to continue playing their home games at Championship Stadium in 2023 – but not before sharing their annoyance, according to accounts of some fans in attendance, with the amount of vitriol they received via email and social media from OCSC fans and other soccer fans around the country]

As the events that have unfolded in Orange County showed, things are heating up in the men’s division 2/3 space across the country with USL, MLS NEXT Pro, and NISA all sharing the marketplace. We broached the subject on the differences between the 3 leagues, and the jockeying for position that’s unfolding before us:

WST: There is no doubt there is now serious competition heating up for markets, venues, and even existing clubs between USL and MLSNP. What is the league’s strategy for competing with MLS NEXT Pro, and also NISA, who share the lower division pro landscape? Or to put it another way, why should a club join USL over those two leagues?

JP: I would push back a little bit on on the premise. At USL Championship and League One, what we’re focused on every day is building clubs that will be worth a hundred million dollars in the next five years. Building commercial, community driven clubs. MLS NEXT Pro, as of today, is not that, right? So I think that when we think about the soccer landscape, there are gonna be five commercially driven club leagues with MLS, USL Championship, USL League One, [USL] Super League and NWSL. Those are the leagues that have ambitions to be the top level of soccer in their markets, to build first class stadiums and to really build brands that are relevant within their communities.

So, that’s what we think about every day. And, that’s why you will see this absolutely massive growth – billions of dollars, as I mentioned, of stadium development currently underway today, and 2+billion that will be announced probably by the end of the year. So again, that’s how we think about the soccer landscape. And we don’t even think about it as a competitive dynamic. What’s good for soccer is to have clubs that have passionate fanbases. And whether that’s in New Mexico or Orange County, or new clubs like Lexington, having those clubs where owners are investing tens and hundreds of millions of dollars to grow the game of soccer, that should be supported by everyone. And importantly across men’s and women’s, boys and girls. Today we are the only league that is dedicating massive resources on both sides, boys and girls, men and women. And that’s something that we’re really proud of. And we feel it’s a really big driver of why owners and investors, and fans and players, are attracted to the USL brand of soccer. And which is underscored by the amount of growth that we’re having, which is unrivaled across the MLS, MLS NEXT Pro and NWSL combined.

WST: A few years ago, League One expanded into Chattanooga with the Red Wolves, where you had Chattanooga FC in NPSL, doing very well for an amateur team. And then they were about to go pro themselves in NISA. A lot of people questioned the move, fracturing a smaller market with a competing club. How does the league view those situations? What’s the overall feel when going head to head with other pro soccer outfits in the same market?

JP: It’s a good outcome when investors want to invest money to develop soccer fan bases around the country. Fans deserve first class stadiums, players deserve first class stadiums and training facilities and women and girls deserve to have more than 10 or 11 professional teams to aspire to play for in the United States. That is not okay. And there are thousands of women who have the talent to play at the highest level. Girls deserve to play in academy leagues and training centers that will enable them to pursue a professional career. And also it’s very important that, those girls and women, whether they play professionally on the field, or want to be professional off the field and stay on the business side of sports, have it have a league that is in an ecosystem that will provide thousands of jobs for them to pursue the advancement of women’s soccer.

So when we look at how to go to a market, we look and say, is there an opportunity to provide a first class venue? A first class training facility? Can we approach the fan base and offer them something different and something that they can really rally around. Every market has kind of different dynamics. I think we’ve been very successful, at bringing soccer to markets that have an absolute passion for the game. And we will continue to do that on both the men’s and women’s side.

WST: In 2009, the Seattle Sounders moved from USL to MLS. Now a little over a decade later, nearly a third of the teams in MLS have come from the lower divisions. And in that time we’ve seen a clear increase in overall fan and investor interest in lower division teams. Part of that increase is almost certainly due to the dream (however realistic that may or may not be for a given club) of someday moving up the pyramid. Do you think USL might lose a little bit of that, for lack of a better term, “dream” as a selling point, because of MLS now operating a lower division league of their own, possibly pulling investors that have the endgame of getting into MLS?

JP: Your characterization of it as lower division soccer – I think that that’s an old framework that isn’t gonna be as relevant going forward. What we’re building in Rhode Island [120 million dollar stadium project] is comparable to many of the MLS stadiums. The attendances that we’re gonna draw are very equivalent to many of the MLS attendances. Our product on the field, as evidenced by the Open Cup, is very equivalent to MLS. The difference will be very, very close, if any, for the Super League [in comparison to NWSL]. So again, we don’t look at the kind of historical framework as lower division soccer.

As it relates to MLS NEXT Pro, we don’t think you can build a club when you don’t sell tickets to your games. It’s a different perspective. Again, we’re trying to build a league where all the clubs are worth a hundred million dollars. We think we have a very clear pathway to achieve that. We do want clubs with ambition. And as an investor, from a return standpoint, we think that we have the track record on a historic basis, and on a go forward basis, that investors can get the highest return, based on our trajectory over the next five years. And for clubs that have ambition, there is a clear set of leagues to go to. If your ambition is to build top quality stadiums, anchor districts to have great training facilities, to have passionate fan bases, that’s what the USL does.

And again, it’s very distinct from any league outside of the MLS, or the NWSL, but even for those leagues we’re approaching it different. And I think that we have a clear pathway to outperform from an investment standpoint, but that’s only part of the equation for investors coming into the USL. Their main focus is how do I bring and create a community asset to my community that’s going to represent the values of my community and represent our community across the national soccer landscape. That’s what they’re focused on, and that’s what we’re building every single day. And you’ll see multiple new clubs, even in the balance of 2022, that’ll be announced, that represent that very idea. That’s what’s so exciting to be a part of the USL family today.

MLS vs USL and The Next Great Soccer War

WST: Quick follow up on that. What about a club like Rochester, who was in USL on hiatus, and then came back with a rebrand moving over to MLS NEXT Pro? So far they are the only non-reserve team that’s been announced in that league, but they are also the first example of someone choosing to leave the USL ecosystem and go over to that side.

JP: Well, what I’d say is the qualifications to come into the USL are very high. We need and require our clubs to have significant ambition – which includes stadiums that provide a first class fan experience. And so there will be clubs that decide to go to [MLS] NEXT Pro and NISA. And, again, we think that it’s great that owners/investors want to invest in soccer in their communities. The ones that we choose to be part of the USL ecosystem will have to really demonstrate for us that they can operate at a level commiserate with where we as a league are going. And where we are going is, as I mentioned, clubs that have significant ambition to be a hundred million dollar clubs in five years, to build first class stadiums, to build first class training facilities, that have, and want to have, men’s and women’s professional teams within their club. That’s a very important factor for us. And so those are all the criteria that we look at and determining which clubs that we will admit into the USL. And again, you’ll see examples of those types of clubs in the coming weeks and months.

WST: After the Ottawa Fury situation, we know Canada is off the table, but is there a chance we ever see another international club, or clubs, back in USL, possibly in the Caribbean?

JP: Well I think what’s really exciting about the United States is that we have so many population centers that have the population, the corporate base, the population growth, that can sustain and have successful professional men’s and women teams. Right now we are in active discussions – to mix sports metaphors – at the one yard line on many deals and at the 25 and 50 yard line on other deals, with over 40 groups, across the country. And so we have a very, very full pipeline right now of deals that we will be wrapping up and executing to achieve the 35/35/35 across Championship/League One/Super League, that will be executed and open or under construction, by 2026. And so the Caribbean would be a secondary focus for us, if any, after we’ve, completed our expansion here in the United States.

WST: When launching a new club or rebranding an existing one, how involved is the league in club branding? Do they have a say or is it entirely up to the club?

JP: Well, I think the people who really determine a club brand and identity are the fans and supporters within the community. What the club and league try to provide is guidance on it. Ultimately the league has to approve it. But, this is something, with the number of clubs that we’re launching, we spend a lot of time thinking about. Not the brand itself, but how to engage our communities, to help them articulate to our clubs, what they want that brand identity to be. So that’s where we, as a league spend, most of our time is – whether they’re community listening sessions, or other types of community town hall events, so that fans can express what they want, and then our job at the league team and working with our design partners is really to take all the comments and direction that we get from our community members and distill that into a brand.

And that’s definitely one of the most exciting parts about the job is to see all of those hours and hours and hours of community sessions being distilled down to a mark. That’s something that we, we really look forward to. And I think that when you look at Lexington and Santa Barbara, you can see that I think we’re having just awesome brands come into the league. And that’s helping this amazing ascent of USL to really be community driven clubs.

WST: The news about Jacksonville and the Tim Tebow group coming into the Championship is exciting. Were there any conversations with the Armada group to try and bring them into the fold rather than start up an entirely new club near the city?

JP: We’ve had a very long and successful partnership with FESA (Florida Elite Soccer Academy). Our partnership with them extends from League Two to W League to Academy to Super Y. So we’ve had great and long track records with Sean (Bubb, Executive Director) and the team at FESA.

And so when we were looking at Jacksonville, it was really a no brainer for us to wanna build on top of the FESA pyramid. And so that’s what we’ve been very focused on, assembling and curating individuals like Steve [Livingstone] and Tony [Allegretti], and now, Ricky Caplin and Tim Tebow. What they have in common is first and foremost, they love Jacksonville. They love Northeast Florida. And the other thing is they really believe in is what FESA has done to build soccer in Jacksonville. And so that was, that was the kind of origins and the foundational pieces when we looked at the market.

There are other soccer clubs in the market, youth soccer clubs, the Armada being one of them. But I think FESA is one of the top youth soccer clubs in the country. I think it has some of the top leadership and with the addition of Steve and Ricky and Tim, we really felt that they really represent the values and vision for what we think will be one of the top soccer clubs in the country in Jacksonville. So, I know that there’s interest in the kind of the soccer dynamics within a market. But for us, this was a very clear no brainer decision to build on top of the FESA pyramid.

USL and the women’s pro game

When USL’s planned Super League kicks off next fall, it will be the first time ever there will be more than one fully professional women’s soccer league operating in the United States at the same time. Next we took a look at how that effort is shaping up and how it will elevate the women’s game in the US:

WST: You mentioned the target is for the women’s Super League to have 35 teams by 2026. How close are we to seeing some of those teams announced?

JP: Very close. The excitement from investors, from commercial partners, from media partners, and most importantly, from girls and women across the country who have aspirations to work professionally on the field and off the field in women’s soccer, is absolutely off the charts. And so what we feel is that reception has really given us a mandate to deliver, working alongside the NWSL, and to build a women’s and girl’s soccer ecosystem here in the United States that is the best in the world. We have the best girls and women’s soccer players here in the United States. And what we’ve failed on is delivering them the ecosystem that is commiserate with their talents. And so we wake up every morning thinking about how to correct that.

Those girls and women will see some really exciting news over the next couple weeks and months. And they should know that we have a lot of incredible people led by Amanda Vandervort, president of our Super League, who feel a tremendous responsibility to bring the women’s soccer ecosystem equal to the talents of the of players we have in the United States.

On the real estate side, on the stadium development side, that is the foundational component. And so my team and I are hard at work, and I always kind of joke that in conversations with our city partners, we have to remind them that we also have a men’s league, because they are in many cases more excited about women’s soccer than they are men’s soccer. And I think that that is so exciting, the fact that in a short period of time, that that has become the case. And we see it as part of many, many, people who are working on building women’s soccer in the United States. We get to play a part of creating hundreds, if not over a thousand women’s playing jobs over the next five years, and many times that on the business, operations and coaching side.

It’s just an honor to be a part of building that, on top of all the work that many women, first and foremost are amazing women’s national team players, have done so much to advance the game on the field and, really even more so, to advance the work off the field. And again it’s an honor to be a part of building that ecosystem for the players of tomorrow.

WST: Two of USL’s organizations already operate women’s teams in the NWSL. Are there any plans for a formal relationship between the two top divisions of the women’s pro game?

JP: So again, I think just like with MLS on the men’s side, we don’t see this as a kind of competitive dynamic. We see it as how do we grow, in this case, women’s soccer across the country. And so I think the NWSL, with their member clubs and players, done a fantastic job, and our vision for the Super League is to compliment that and grow women’s soccer. Period, Full stop. Player’s choice, is very important. But most importantly, again at a fundamental level, there’s only 230-250 women’s professional playing jobs here in the United States. That’s not okay. We want to quadruple that probably over the next five years. And so that’s what we’re working on.

It’s part of the ecosystem, which NWSL is obviously a major part of, but we think we can approach it differently. One major differentiation is that we have the full pathway. We launched our W League this prior summer, with 44 clubs or so. And I think we’re on track to almost double that for season two. We’ve made major investments in our girls academy league and that is gonna double or triple from year one as well. And so when we look at the full landscape of our expansion and we say, you know, with Lexington and Santa Barbara and Spokane, that we can come in and provide a full player pathway on both the men’s and women’s side, that’s exciting, that’s great for soccer in the United States, and it’s particularly great for women’s soccer.

WST: NWSL has 5 teams that share ownership with a domestic men’s club, but none of them share the same team name. When it comes to the Super League, is it possible we’ll see women’s sides playing under the same exact branding as their men’s counterparts?

JP: That’s a really fantastic question, and it’s something that we have conversations with each of our clubs about. I don’t think there’s a right way or wrong way to do it. I don’t think it’s apples to apples as in Europe, because you have clubs like Arsenal and Chelsea and PSG where it doesn’t make a lot of business sense to not use those brands. I think that’s just how game has grown in Europe and around the world.

I think we can approach it a little bit differently. There’s supporter dynamics, there’s commercial dynamics, about having two brands. One thing that we’ve been very focused on is in conversations with our commercial partners is that the Super League and their Championship or League One equivalent men’s team should be viewed equally. And it helps us when you have two brands really express that. And so, you know, what the men are getting for their jersey partners, we are saying the women deserve the same, or in some cases, maybe more. We want to work with commercial partners who feel the same way. We’ve been very pleasantly surprised that the vast, vast majority of our partners feel the same way. And that is going to lead to a continued growth of the women’s game, because it will have a sustainable financial foundation and corporate partners which are a key element of that.

You will see some clubs in the Super League have the same brand as their men’s team. It’s just really a preference, but I think you’ll see a significantly higher percentage of teams having two brands rather than one brand, primarily so that the women’s team can optimize their commercial partners as, as they should.

USL and evolving the competition structure

Finally, the discussion rolled into some of the juicier on-field topics, like pro/rel, the calendar, Champions League and the U.S. Open Cup:

WST: How close is USL to realistically being able to implement promotion and relegation within its divisions – and could such a mechanism ever be open to League Two organizations?

JP: It’s a great question and an exciting topic, that we have a lot of active conversations going on with our ownership groups. To take a step back, we look at it and say, what is the USL brand of soccer and how is it different from other professional soccer in the United States. And what we have uniquely on the men’s side are two commercial leagues that again, have stadiums and have fan bases, and are really operating at a high level. So that gives us the opportunity to enact some reforms like promotion/relegation, to enhance the fan experience. We look at our brand soccer, we look at how do we increase the consequences of each game.

And because we want to add excitement and passion for our supporters, to really engage with our brands, promotion and relegation is one mechanism that I think has a lot of potential to do that. So we looked at what are things that we’re gonna need to put in place to present it to our owners, who would make the ultimate decision on that? What we looked at, starting a couple years ago – and Jake Edwards, our president at USL has been thinking a lot about this – we need to create great regional rivalries, we need to ensure that the [difference in quality and standards] on the field and off the field between Championship and League One is very small.

So unlike in Europe where clubs are kind of financially devastated [when relegated], that wouldn’t be the case here because we can arrange revenue shares and media shares so that doesn’t happen. Just as one example, Lexington and Louisville, the difference between those two clubs is going to be very small, off the field. And we’ll see on the field, but I’m sure, with the significant focus that Lexington’s putting on their academy and training facility infrastructure, that they are very focused on producing high quality players on the field. And that’s what we’re seeing across the country in our expansion clubs in Championship and in League One.

And so I think we are executing on at least be able to have the option to present to our owners, and they are excited about the concept. So I think, stay tuned on it.

In regards to your question about League Two teams, there are some structural reasons why a League Two team can’t always flip the switch and all of a sudden in the course of a couple months become a professional team.

You need stadiums, you need capital, you need infrastructure. The fact that you won your season and then three months later, you know, you went from a $200,000 budget to a $7 million budget and have to build a stadium, isn’t a practical situation. That said there are clubs, many of which actually, that we have put on a pathway to becoming a professional club, that started out in League Two. And so when you look at, uh, you know, we have some real examples, like [South Georgia] Tormenta, and you’ll see some new examples in the coming month or so of another club that started in League Two and that’s making the transition up to League One. And so we have many clubs around League Two that we are working with on, principally their stadium infrastructure. But you can see from their support, from their communities that they can definitely support a professional team and we are working with them every day, if they have that ambition, to help them achieve it. And again, this is one of the exciting aspects of US Soccer that is uniquely brought by the USL.

WST: You mentioned 2026 with the World Cup being a big target year. Could that perhaps be when we might expect to see promotion and relegation as a possibility in the Championship and League One?

JP: Yeah, that’s a good question. And I think from a strategic standpoint, just conveniently our five year plan synced up with the World Cup coming here in 2026. And so we are on track for our major strategic objectives – stadiums, club valuations, women’s soccer, academy systems – to be in place by 2026. And I would put that in a similar bucket of strategic objectives that are in the 2026 five year plan.

WST: Promotion and relegation within USL’s own divisions is one thing. But let’s say theoretically FIFA/CONCACAF/US Soccer decides one day, they’re going to stick to the letter of the laws of the game and enforce promotion/relegation top to bottom in the USA. Would USL welcome that, even if it meant permanently locking USL as an organization in at the Division 2/3 levels?

JP: What I’d say is what’s unique about USL is that we have the ability, and the structure, to have multiple leagues, importantly that have a common strategic framework – that being high quality commercial clubs. Community-driven clubs. And so when you have that common element through all of your teams, that gives the ability to do things like promotion/relegation where we don’t have two sets of clubs. We don’t have commercial clubs and practice clubs.

Distinct from MLS, 99% of their teams aren’t commercial clubs in [MLS] NEXT Pro. Right. So they are developmental teams for their first team. So you kind of have an apples and oranges where all of our clubs are commercially driven, community centric clubs. So when we have that homogeneous dynamic that enables us to look at the competitive landscape and see – and again, Jake [Edwards] and his team are doing a lot of work on this is – what can we do to take advantage of this structure that we’ve built in the USL, on the men’s side, on the women’s side. And that’s something that we’re thinking a lot about.

Promising updates there for fans in the US hopeful that one day we’ll see merit-based movement of clubs somewhere within our pyramid. But for those perhaps looking to see men’s soccer played on the European calendar, that may be a good deal further off.

Welcome to Wrexham: And why pro/rel is or isn’t a non-starter in the US

WST: On a similar topic in terms of aligning more with the global standard of the game, we’ve seen USL announce that the women’s Super League will run Fall-Spring – how close are we, if at all, to a calendar shift on the men’s side?

JP: So I think women’s professional soccer has some different dynamics than men’s soccer. And we felt that that was an opportunity on the women’s side that made a lot of sense. The actual difference in calendar is not that substantially different. You’re starting and stopping at different times, but the women’s game has some dynamics that we think make it, being able to have June, July off for the players, we felt that was a competitive advantage. Additionally, we felt that, when we think about the games of consequence, the ability in the spring for a club to have their women’s side marching towards a final and then in the fall to have the same opportunity on their men’s side, that was compelling for us.

And so right now, I think what we’re focused on is really learning from the women’s side in terms of the calendar. And then on the men’s side what we’re really focused on is potential changes like promotion/relegation. So that’s our areas of focus, and what we see as differentiations from other existing leagues in the United States.

WST: Following up on that – with any proposed switch to the Fall-Spring calendar in the US, it almost always comes with a long winter break to accommodate the northern teams. But for teams in the south, in places like Florida, Texas, Arizona, etc., such a break wastes much of the ideal weather for playing soccer in those areas. Has any thought been given to splitting the league(s) into distinct northern and southern divisions that play on opposite calendars, optimal for their regions and weather? Would that be something that is too radical of a change to even be possible? Or would that be something that down the line could be implemented?

JP: It’s not something that our kind of strategic planning group is thinking about right now. We do really see and place a lot of value on being one league, one fully national league. I don’t know if that, even though you’re optimizing for talent and for weather, I think that would be more than offset by the competitive difference. So that’s not what we’re thinking about right now, but it shows the unique challenge that the United States has, having a very large geography with very disparate climates.

WST: You could make a convincing argument that the USL Championship is the third strongest league top-to-bottom in CONCACAF. In the past we’ve seen USL clubs based outside the US that have qualified and advanced far into the Concacaf Champions League (CCL) tournament. Yet today its clubs are some of the only ones in the world that have no league-based access to any sort of continental competition (due to our closed pyramid). Was the league disappointed that the expanded CONCACAF club ecosystem launching next year didn’t include even a single spot for USL, and would the league ever consider petitioning FIFA for entry into the CCL?

JP: So, when you look at the size of our markets, the size of our stadiums, the quality of our clubs off the field and on the field, not having those spots just doesn’t make sense on paper. That’s something that I think our clubs deserve, and it would be in the interest of CONCACAF to support the dozens of new clubs that are contributing to the growth of soccer in the confederation.

You have these unique dynamics within FIFA, you know, one country, one vote, one league per country with slots. It has Barbados and the United States as equivalent in terms of the leagues. And we feel that Barbados deserves some spots. But we feel that we are building clubs that should have the ability and do have the ability, as evidenced by the Open Cup, to match up with MLS, Liga MX, and certainly the Canadian Premier League, on the field and off the field. We’re hopeful that with all the strides that we’re making, our friends at CONCACAF and FIFA see the growth, they recognize what we’re building, and are going to do what they can to help these amazing clubs that we have in USL have a pathway towards some spots in the future.

WST: Touching on the US Open Cup – if we understand the new procedures correctly, lower division US teams will get a slightly larger opportunity to qualify for CCL through the Open Cup starting in 2023, as the runner-up will get in should the winner qualify via some other means (MLS teams will have 8 other potential spots they could qualify for via league play and Leagues Cup). But if the runner up has also otherwise qualified, the spot then goes to the next-best MLS team that didn’t qualify some other way. Considering we do not have an open pyramid, in such a scenario isn’t it a bit disrespectful to the USOC to take the competition’s slot away, and wouldn’t it be more fair to award that spot to the highest placing lower division team in the Open Cup as opposed to giving it to the seventh- or eighth-best MLS team?

JP: I agree. It does seem unfair. And again we work closely with our friends at the Federation, CONCACAF and FIFA, sharing with them what we’re building here at the USL, and we think we’re building clubs that deserve to compete on the world stage. And so we’re optimistic that that tremendous amount of work that our clubs are doing on and off the field to grow the game of soccer within their communities will be recognized by CONCACAF and FIFA.

WST: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Good luck with everything – all the growth, new leagues, new teams. We’re looking forward to seeing what comes out of it.

JP: Be on the lookout. We’ve got an exciting fall for you.


There are certainly exciting times ahead for soccer fans across the US as the USL continues to grow and bring professional soccer to new communities. And they promise to be compelling times as well on the business side, as the overall landscape of pro soccer evolves and the dynamic between USL, NISA and MLS NEXT Pro develops.

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  1. jason

    September 23, 2022 at 8:04 pm

    I think the USL deserves a spot in the Concacaf Champions League myself. At the very least the USL champion should take part in the qualifying playoff round with the Carribian and Central American Clubs.

  2. El Jefe

    September 23, 2022 at 7:49 pm

    Unfortunately, I think the tanking economy/ inflation is going to put a stop to all this. The City near me was supposed to get a USL team next year up and running with a nice stadium, but they scrapped all of that due to the enormous cost to build now.

  3. Roberto

    September 23, 2022 at 7:05 pm

    There was some misinformation in this story. I like the idea of soccer teams in many U.S. towns, that builds soccer in the country. I am also a fan of the Open Cup.
    Where my questions arise is the off repeated (in WST articles) parity between the leagues, based on the recent Open Cup results. Too many MLS teams did not take this competition seriously, therefore they lost. Sacramento’s cup run was impressive but was based on their plan not to lose, rather in playing to win. A low block combined with some good counter-attacking brought them wins, along win a penalty shoot-out. When they finally played a team that scored first and opened the game up, they were blown out. The top five USL teams did not advance, so where is this parity?
    The other erroneous statement above was about attendance. Two USL teams have numbers just above 10,000. the rest are in the 4-8000 range. Only one MLS team is below 10,000 due to their poor record.

    • Turfit

      September 24, 2022 at 1:22 pm

      The 3 lowest attended teams in MLS is:
      Colorado Rapids average 14,304
      San Jose Earthquakes average 13,300
      Inter Miami CF average 12,210

      The 3 highest attended teams in USL is:
      New Mexico average 10,474
      Lousiville average 10,391
      Sacramento average 9,689

      I think what is most concerning is that Inter Miami is at the bottom of MLS when you consider how hard they worked to get this team in Miami and it being one of the newest teams. Plus with all the soccer media that is based out of Miami.

      But also, can a USL team survive if they average 2,500–3,500 fans???

  4. dave

    September 23, 2022 at 5:28 pm

    Fantastic interview! Some very good questions and interesting responses. WST often has good material; it feels like you all hit it out of the park today
    Most of this information was new to me. I read some answers multiple times and am excited to learn more. I hope you continue to write articles on this topic, perhaps noting suggested USL games or stories to follow on the men’s and women’s side. I am especially interested to sample some Super League games if they launch successfully and secure a streaming partner

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