Read below for the full text of exclusive interview with Tim Holt, President of USL, on the changing landscape of soccer in North America. Interview was performed at the United States Soccer Federation Annual General Meeting in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, June 1, 2013.
BoS: What is the current role of college soccer as a part of developing players in the United States?
TH: I think college soccer has played and will continue to play an important role in the development of players for the professional game. Our society and culture is such that going to these universities is important to people. A lot of people, based on their playing ability, can get an amazing education without having to pay for it there. People that have professional aspirations and ability need to make decisions and have options at the age of 16, 17, and 18. Some of them choose to go directly into the pro game. Obviously, those that aren’t ready to go into the pro game or prefer to get their education first, go into the college game. So the college game will continue to play an important role. Because of the NCAA rules, and how restrictive they are with respect to actually getting meaningful games, there need to be programs that supplement the game experience on a high level. Otherwise, our players ages 17-21 are going to fall so far behind relative to the kids that move just to pro or other kids around the world. That’s where leagues like the PDL, W-League, Super-20, and other leagues like that play such an important role, because during that summer month when the players have the most flexibility – they’re not with their schools – they get 12, 14, 16 meaningful games in a professionalized training and competition environment. So the college soccer game isn’t – I don’t necessarily think it’s going to become less or more significant, but it will continue to play a role in the development of pro players and I think it’s an important role, but singularly it can’t develop players. It’s not as – it’s obviously not the same as we have it in the country in basketball or football, where it serves as a defacto minor league system. It just doesn’t work.
BoS: Are there plans to expand the USL PDL and provide more high-level opportunities for collegiate-age players?
TH: The challenge is – I think all the soccer organizations, PDL and even the pro leagues, would love a situation where there was more flexibility in latitude as it relates to what these student-athletes can do on outside teams. The fact of the matter is under the existing rules for student-athletes and their participation beyond the collegiate team – there’s a limit to what can go on. Until and unless that changes, I think it will be challenging to do a lot of radical – make a lot of radial changes to the existing structure that supports and supplements the college experience.
BoS: What is the role of high school soccer in developing players for the next level?
TH: Like you’ve correctly assessed, that when I grew up playing in high school for instance, twenty years ago, it was at least equally as important as club, and that whole thing has changed. College coaches need to be efficient about seeing the best players that they can and they’re playing in club environments, top leagues like developmental academies, Super Y League, ECNL. So it makes sense for them to see those players there. High school soccer also continues to play an important role but I don’t think it plays a role in developing future potential professional soccer players. It plays some role in developing part of future collegiate players, but not saying there aren’t good high school programs and there aren’t good high school coaches – there definitely are. There’s a reason for that, but it’s definitely shifted more towards social soccer then part of any professional development system and that’s just progress. I think that’s progress. There are other programs in place that fill that need better than high schools are able to – extracurricular scholastic stuff able to do that. Clubs specialize – so there in better position to do it.
BoS: Do you expect youth clubs to expand their organizations to include USL PDL and USL PRO teams or do you expect new clubs to begin as PRO teams and expand through youth teams?
TH: Organizations that are just youth soccer clubs don’t have anything beyond that, obviously are susceptible to losing their players at the older age groups or earlier because they don’t have the second part of that pathway. You can either accept that’s your reality or you can change that by developing later stages of that. I think the PDL and the W-League way – that’s exactly what the Rush has done with the W-League in Colorado. They have that. Other youth clubs have done that successfully by adding those pieces through PDL, W-League, or elsewhere. So no, I think that’s a viable track. I think that youth clubs adding PDL and W-League – less so [USL] PRO teams. I think that’s less of a natural – just operating a different type of business – typical youth club adding a pro component. These PDL and W-League, which are effectively under-23 components, makes a lot of sense. So we’re still seeing that. We’re seeing interest from these clubs to be able to do it and I think they need that to be able to compete with the pro clubs that are doing it. I don’t think – both of those situations are great – all of those situations are making sure players can’t fall through the cracks. Chicago Fire can’t take 100 players at an age group. They need to focus on that. Players develop at different times and different stages, so other clubs doing it different – it’s all necessary to throw the net wide enough to do that. There not any less relevant these youth clubs. It’s just different. They need to keep finding ways to add value to what they’re providing, especially at the older age groups.
BoS: What has changed in the USL since Major League Soccer’s announcement of New York City FC?
TH: Nothing has changed in the 2 to 3 weeks. To speak about Orlando City, I don’t think anything has changed with them. They’re still on a fast track to try to move to Major League Soccer. They’re focused on their stadium project. So once that happens, I think they feel good that things will fall into place for them as it relates to their objectives of moving into Major League Soccer. I don’t think the announcement with New York did anything to deter that, so no it hasn’t changed anything on that front and certainly our disposition and approach to how we handle things hasn’t changed one iota since then. I think having a second team in New York City is great for MLS. It’s great for pro soccer. It creates another opportunity for someone to have a relationship in USL PRO with them. A really progressive ownership group and organization is pretty exciting in a lot of ways. Nothing has changed whatsoever. We’ve talked about what our focus and objectives are of where we fit into pro soccer and how we want to run our league. Nothing that has been announced changed that and I don’t think anything is going to happen that does change that.
BoS: How do you foresee the USL PRO table expanding in the next few years?
TH: Good question. I think for next year, we expect to be at between 14 to 18 teams. As it is now, we have already announced Sacramento. So if you take 13 plus 1, we’re 14. We think we can be at as many as 18 teams. The following year, I think we’ll be between 16 and 20 teams. We think we’ll be plus 2 or plus each year for the next 3 years during what we expect to be a growth phase. That’s take us up to about 24 teams. The goal is to distribute that with our expansion coming largely in the west and the central to the point where we have those three regional conferences that play largely self-contained. You can call it the ‘PDL model.’ I would call it the ‘regional competition model’ without in any way saying it s a regional league. It’s very much a national league with national profile and footprint, but a regional competition model, which we think is the most economically sensible way of running a lower division pro league, and some things with the MLS agreement – partnership that we have – we think can accelerate our league expansion from what it otherwise would have been without that. We’re not holding reliant on that but I think it’s a nice enhancement. It creates some more opportunities for existing and future clubs. There’s some creative things we can do that we think it’s going to accelerate the league expansion process as early as next season.
BoS: Is there are additional details you can provide regarding the USL-MLS partnership?
TH: Not in specific terms, other than to say we continue to make a lot of progress. I expect before our season is over this year that we’ll have some pretty exciting and significant announcements about additional initiatives and and developments that will take effect in 2014. It’s as specific as I can be without telling you specifics.
BoS: Re-visiting an article posted by MLS in October 2012, what are your thoughts on a potential NASL-MLS partnership, as well?
TH: I didn’t realize there were any on going dialogues between NASL and MLS. I wouldn’t be comfortable speaking about that. We know we have a partnership with MLS. We’re focused on that. We think their focused on using USL PRO as the league that they’re going to develop their developmental teams and teams within existing markets and other markets. If that’s on going that’s news to me.
USL has become the largest organization of elite-level soccer leagues in North America by building on the vision, commitment, and passion of players, fans and investors. Now in its third decade of operation, USL continues to be a driving force in the growth of soccer in the United States, Canada and Caribbean. USL provides a clearly defined path for the progression of male and female soccer players beginning at the youth level (Super Y-League/Super-20 League/NGS), continuing through the amateur level (PDL/W-League) and up to the professional level, both outdoor and indoor (USL PRO/MISL). A platform for countless players to reach for their dreams each year, USL is devoted to developing the sport at the grassroots level in every community across the region.
About Tim Holt, USL President
Tim Holt became USL President in 2009, having joined USL in 1999 and originally serving as the A-League & Super Y-League Operations Director. Prior to be named President, he also served USL in the capacities of Director, Senior League Operations, Chief Operating Officer, and Executive Vice President. Holt’s numerous responsibilities as USL President include the daily management of USL business operations, developing and implementing the strategic plan for all USL leagues, the supervision of team compliance with league regulations and policies, franchisee relations, personnel management, and communicating with the leadership of other national soccer leagues and organizations. During his period of leadership with USL, the organization has become the largest system of elite soccer leagues in North America and Holt was instrumental in forging the current formal affiliation partnership between USL PRO and Major League Soccer.