How Jake Edwards became a key figure in US soccer - with help of Saint and Greavsie

Bob Williams

When the World Cup was last staged in the United States, Jake Edwards was working as a volunteer at Giants Stadium, with one of the best seats in the house to see Ray Houghton's iconic goal secure an upset victory for the Republic of Ireland against Italy.

Now 23 years later, the Englishman is one of the leading figures in US soccer, playing a key role in growing the game across the Pond ahead of an imminent bid for the 2026 tournament, which is all but guaranteed to return to the States.

Edwards, 40, is the president of the United Soccer League, which kicked off last weekend emboldened by its recent sanction of division two status by the United States Soccer Federation.

In 2012 the USL had just 11 teams; this season 31 teams are taking part in a league that contains a host of MLS-aspirant clubs, superstar players such as Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips (possibly even Didier Drogba soon) and billionaire owners to boot.

Despite being born and raised in Manchester and playing the bulk of his 11-year career in England - including playing for Exeter against his beloved Manchester United in 2005 - the United States has long played a formative part in Edwards' life.

He moved across the Pond as a child due to his father's work in the airline industry and a chance meeting at the 1994 World Cup helped kickstart Edwards' professional career. 

"It was a really exciting time to be here," Edwards told The Telegraph. "The game was evolving - we had the World Cup, then MLS was launched.

"I got involved with the World Cup host committee who were running the Giants Stadium venue and part of my responsibilities were supporting the teams in the changing rooms to make sure they had what they needed.

"I was about 16 at the time. It was a great experience. I got to work two games and got to attend a couple more in the stadium. 

"My dad also worked at the World Cup and his responsibility was to look after the VIPs who arrived at Newark Airport.

"One day two guys showed up that no one knew who they were and what to do with them. They were walking around a bit lost and didn't really know where to go.

"But it was Ian St John and Jimmy Greaves who came over to do their Saint and Greavsie TV show and only my dad knew who they were. 

"So my dad looked after them and eventually I got invited to meet them.

"Ian St John's son was a player agent and had good relations with Tranmere Rovers, Manchester City and other clubs.

"When I was studying at university I would go back to England to train with certain clubs in the summer and the winter. I trained with Tranmere reserves a couple of times and that got me into a playing career in England."

Edwards began his playing career with Wrexham in 1998 after a college spell with  James Madison University in Virginia, where he met his wife to be (they recently celebrated the arrival of their third child).

And after he hung up his boots in 2000, Edwards furthered his education with an MBA from Warwick Business School before working for sports marketing agency Octagon.

He moved back to the States in 2012 where he was introduced to the USL. The league's rise since then has been hugely impressive.

Playing days: Jake Edwards (right) in action for Tamworth against Stoke City in December 2006 Credit: Getty Images

"We started with many challenges but a great opportunity in front of us," Edwards adds. "We had 11 clubs and 15 people in the league office - now coming into 2017 we have 31 clubs, world-class ownership which is as good as any second division around the world, we're launching soccer stadiums around the country and we have over 50 people in the league office running 17 different departments.

"We're very proud of the work we have done in the league office and with the clubs all over the US and Canada growing the game.

"The division two sanctioning was part of a strategic plan that we made four years ago looking forward to 2020. We focused on a number of key areas of growth of the league - ownership, broadcasting, digital, fan engagement - all these areas that we're involved in. 

"It was about stabilising the league, building the league, changing the ownership profile and then starting to focus on stadiums and facilities with the aim of professionalising everything. 

"There has been a massive growth in a short space of time - with more to come - and division two sanctioning was recognition of that growth and a validation of the hard work and financial commitment our owners have made."

Edwards says the USL has also seen tangible benefits to being awarded division two sanctioning.

"There will be in a short space of time an increase in the valuation of the clubs - a number of owners are in discussions with new investors coming on board with increased valuations based on last year," he says. 

"We have seen an increase in season ticket and sponsorship levels compared to last year. 

"We've seen a tremendous amount of interest in expansion markets for the USL and the price of that is going up quickly. 

"And we've seen a number of world class players coming into the league.

"We don't have promotion and relegation but in some of the conversations we have had with commercial and media partners, being division two does matter. 

"We have seen an increased value in some of the deals we are working on. In terms of attracting a higher calibre of coaches and players, being division two makes a difference."

The USL's division two status is provisional, however, and Edwards and the league's front office team are in constant talks with the USSF to ensure they meet the requirements for next year.

As part of its model of sustainability, the USL has two conferences - East and West - to help keep travel costs down for its clubs. But Edwards reveals that the league's structure could change as more teams join in the next few years.

"There will be further growth in 2018, 2019 and 2020 and we will be making those announcements this year. We will move likely from the East and West Conferences to potentially a Central Conference or a North and South division within each conference. That will take us up to mid to high 30s."

Last year two NASL clubs - Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury - decided to move to USL. When the NASL appeared on the brink of folding late last year, all of its clubs were asked to meet with the USL to present their cases, Edwards reveals.

"At the time the NASL had significant troubles and were contracting significantly, we were asked to meet with all those clubs with the Federation involved in the meetings," he says. "We spoke to all those clubs and they were asked to present the situation they were in see if we could help in any way."

The USL has certainly come a long way in a short space of time.

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