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USL 2019 Preview: Championship aims to grow, capture audience

Jun 6, 2018; Nashville, TN, USA; Nashville SC defender Bradley Bourgeois (22) beats a drum to celebrate with fans after a win against the Colorado Rapids at Vanderbilt Stadium. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

Imagine, for a moment, a soccer league in the United States with 36 teams across the map. And those squads have rosters filled with various players, including budding talent, veteran marquee stars and journeymen. And the clubs have unique names with flashy kits.

Sounds pretty cool, right?

Newsflash: that league exists. It’s the United Soccer League Championship and it kicks off this weekend.

The second-tier USL rebranded and split into three tiers this offseason and the Championship is the highest level. There are seven expansion teams in the league this year and rosters loaded with talent.

Of those expansion teams, four are on track to sellout their stadiums in their respective home openers, according to Jake Edwards, the president of the USL.

“We’re excited about that. We’ve been tracking that closely. There’s really some positive signs for the first weekend and a lot of work has gone into that,” Edwards told Pro Soccer USA during an exclusive interview Friday. “Really, I’m most excited about the level of competition and the fans that are going to be coming into stadiums this year.”

Louisville three-peat?

Like any professional sports league, the USL has storylines. The big one this year for the USL Championship: Can Louisville City win it all again, for the third year in a row?

The Boys in Purple finished second in the Eastern Conference last year with a record of 19-6-9 and scored 71 goals along the way. In the playoffs, Louisville bulldozed its way to its second title, outscoring opponents 12-2 over five postseason contests.

“Louisville is doing all the right things. It’s building a good soccer culture in the community and within the club, it’s investing heavily into its new stadium and it’s been able to keep the nucleus of the team over the last few seasons, and it’s had a great coaching staff and great ownership,” Edwards said. “I think it’s the model club for us in many ways. The ambition on and off the field is great and we certainly want all of clubs to be as ambitious.”

While Louisville’s goal remains the same in 2019, it will try to win its third title without many key players from last season. Golden Boot winner Cameron Lancaster signed with Nashville SC on an MLS deal, midfielder Ilija Ilić signed with Indy Eleven and goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh followed former coach James O’Conner to Orlando City in MLS.

The club did retain the services of USL Best XI defender Paco Craig, midfielder Niall McCabe, midfielder Oscar Jimenez and forward Luke Spencer, who scored the game-winner in the championship last season.

Life without Drogba

Phoenix Rising FC, the team Louisville beat in the championship game in 2018, will also look a bit different. At the age of 40, international star Didier Drogba finally called it quits from soccer. The striker from the Ivory Coast had a decorated career that featured hundreds of goals. Drogba played in three World Cups and won trophies with Chelsea, but he finished his career in the USL with Phoenix, scoring 17 goals and assisting on five more across two seasons.

May 31, 2017; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; Phoenix Rising FC forward/owner Didier Drogba (right) in the owners box against the San Francisco Deltas in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup at the Phoenix Rising Soccer Complex. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

“He had a big impact on USL,” Edwards said of Drogba. “He was a big supporter of the USL. He championed the league and the quality of the league both domestically and around the world, and he brings the spotlight to everything he does in his life, but certainly to his performances — and some of the great goals, he scored over the last two seasons. He added a great deal of value to that club on many different fronts, but most importantly as a leader and an inspiration to some of his teammates.”

Edwards pointed out that last year’s USL final was televised live in France and several other countries, and Drogba’s appeal had a lot to do with that. He added that the USL will continue to be a landing spot for players of Drogba’s caliber.

“It’s important and it’s a positive to have some marquee players, whatever stage of their career,” Edwards said. “And you will see some clubs bringing one or two of these players over in the future, I think.”

Wynalda’s Lights

Elsewhere on the west coast, another club is attracting attention, but not because of a marquee star. As an expansion club in 2018, Las Vegas Lights FC grabbed headlines with head-turning kits and promotions. Some of their games featured llamas, others featured mascots on motorcycles. Former teenage star Freddy Adu even played in 14 games for them last year.

“The owner (Brett Lashbrook) is doing good things,” Edwards said. “He’s got a great fanbase. He’s growing his fanbase in a very tough market with a lot of things going on. He’s doing everything he can to build that club up and make it stand out.”

April 2, 2016; San Jose Clash former player Eric Wynalda waves to crowd before ceremonial first kick for game between the San Jose Earthquakes and the D.C. United at Avaya Stadium. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

But for all the flash, the Lights underachieved, finishing 15th in the western conference with an 8-19-7 record. To right the ship, ownership hired former U.S. men’s national team forward Eric Wynalda as its head coach and technical director.

During the preseason, Wynalda’s Lights won seven of their eight games and outscored opponents 31-9.

“Eric is coming with a new vision. He’s got a whole new team on the field, and I think they would admit they underperformed last year on the field,” Edwards said. “I know that’s important to them, to become a winning club. It was a statement of intent from the owner to bring in someone of the experience, pedigree and name in the game of Eric Wynalda. He’s worked hard to put a good team together and they’ve had some great results in the preseason. So, we’re expecting good things.”

Improvements in youth development

Another area where Edwards hopes to see the league improve is developing talent and, eventually, selling those talented players for profit.

Earlier this year, an academy product of North Carolina FC, Manny Perez, signed a deal with Celtic FC of the Scottish Premier League. Edwards hopes to see more of that and thinks the USL has the talent to garner six- and seven-figure transfer fees.

“I spend a lot of time with counterpart leagues and chief executives with clubs overseas, and you better believe there is a massive respect for the quality and young talent in the U.S.,” Edwards said. “They know there are great, young players here. There’s a lot of teams overseas that are looking at the USL clubs and the talent coming through our clubs.”

Edwards pointed to the fact that the USL has more than 60 players who have featured for their senior national teams, and many others who have played at the U-20 levels.

“We have the talent pool that we can move on and monetize,” Edwards said. “We’ve got to incentivize and talk to our owners about why you need to make that investment into youth infrastructure, into facilities and coaching, and to bring those really good young players through and create pathways.”

Eyeballs from ESPN

Those scouts from overseas and soccer fans worldwide will be able to keep up with the USL this season from afar because the league inked a deal with ESPN for a 26-contest Game of the Week package. Eight of those games will be on linear television and the others will be on ESPN3. All other USL games will be on ESPN+, the network’s paid streaming service.

Between USL Championship and the lower-division USL League One, ESPN will air more than 800 USL games in 2019, Edwards said.

(Courtesy USL)

“It’s a great partnership we’ve got with ESPN,” Edwards said. “It’s a testament to the quality of production and the track record of production quality that we’ve delivered over the past two seasons with the Championship. It’s been a great benefit for our league and our clubs to be aligned with a brand as strong as ESPN.”

If you’re flipping through ESPN and land on a USL game, you’ll probably notice right away — some of the colorful kits will pop off the screen. One that’s hard to miss is Forward Madison FC, a USL League One expansion side that has implemented powder blue and bubblegum pink.

“There’s a pink flamingo kit doing the rounds up in Madison that I’m a little bit partial to. It’s brilliant,” Edwards said. “We’ve got some fantastic kits in our league. I like them all – San Antonio, Vegas, El Paso. I think it’s a testament to the individuality to our clubs, that they’re really expressing themselves and expressing what their community means to them, whether that’s through the name or the kits.

“It’s all about standing out, being unique and being reflective of your community. I think that’s really important. I love it.”

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