BigShot Q&A: USL President – Tim Holt

In the first of an on-going Q&A series, columnist Herb Scribner interviews USL President Tim Holt
by Herb Scribner   |   Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tim Holt - President of the United Soccer Leagues (USL)

This is the first in what will be a series of Soccer Newsday exclusive interviews with some of North American soccer’s leaders, pioneers, headliners and game builders. Today we chat with Tim Holt, the levelheaded brains behind the United Soccer Leagues (USL).

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Tim Holt is currently the president of the United Soccer Leagues, which forms a large part of the minor leagues of American soccer and its soccer pyramid. He joined the USL in 1999 and now, nearly 13 years later, leads the USL with day-to-day management of its business operations. He also served the USSF’s board of directors for a number of years as well. Click here for his full biography.

SN: I know you’ve been in the USL since 1999, but what would you say was the USL’s biggest moment since its inception in 1985? With what, what would you say has been the best moment since you personally joined the league?

Tim Holt: For me, every time a player who developed in USL pulls on a men’s or women’s national team jersey that is the “biggest moment.” After all, this is the common goal of USL and its teams – to provide a defined pathway for elite player development from youth to adult amateur to pro. Representing your country is one of the ultimate achievements in this sport and we take great pride when we played some small role in a player’s path to the top.

In terms of significant developments, the launch of the Super Y-League in 1999 was as meaningful as any as it not only redefined USL, but also reshaped the entire youth player development landscape in this country. The SYL was the first national youth soccer league for elite clubs/players and was highly controversial at the time because a “pro league” was getting into the realm of operating a youth soccer competition. With over 500 elite youth teams across the nation, the SYL remains the foundation of the USL soccer development pyramid and paved the way for other similar initiatives such as the USSF Development Academy to occur. The quality and professionalism of our Olympic Development Program and North American Finals continue to differentiate the SYL from other regional/national youth competitions.    

The other “biggest moment” has been the rise of the Premier Development League (PDL) as the destination league for the top professional prospects in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. The league has doubled in size to over 70 teams during the course of the past decade due to the affordable model for soccer franchise ownership that the PDL offers. The structure of the league also allows collegiate student-athletes to play meaningful matches in a professionally-operated environment during the summer months. As a result, the top collegians play in the PDL as evidenced by more than 60 percent of all players selected in the MLS SuperDraft in each of the past 7 years having competed in the league. Further, numerous USL PRO and MLS teams own/operate PDL teams as part of their player development systems.    

The most “underrated” situation has to be the stable influence that the W-League has had on North American women’s soccer. The W-League and its teams have remained true to its mission as being the best women’s development league in North America since 1995. Elite players from around the world have been able to rely on this league as one where there are uniformly enforced standards and top-level competition. W-League teams are already actively signing many of the world’s top women players again in 2012 with WPS competition suspended.  

With all of the great achievements of the past, we are convinced that the most important USL moments are still yet to come and we are focused on ensuring that our organization further increases in relevance over time.

SN: What do you make of the recent USL and minor-league movements for the USSF? Between the NASL, USSF D-2 Pro League, and the way that the leagues under MLS work, there have been a lot of changes and shifts. It could even be considered a chaotic mess. Would you agree with that sentiment?

Tim Holt: I can accept where it may be confusing, but disagree that professional soccer under MLS remains “chaotic.” Perhaps a better way to phrase it would be dynamic, as frankly are all levels of American soccer including competitive youth. We live in a capitalistic society where different individuals or entities have different visions for how businesses (including sports leagues) can be successful.

From a USL standpoint, we are focused solely on building USL PRO as a league which supports MLS by offering an economically viable model for lower division men’s professional soccer in the United States. As the league expands over the next several years, it will be done by adding only those teams fully capable of meeting and sustaining USL/USSF standards, and which are located in markets that further promote regional league play. Although the league will maintain a national profile, the regional competition model will serve to build rivalries and reduce the impact of extensive travel on the quality of the product.

We have 11 very committed teams for the 2012 USL PRO season with a combined 118 seasons of USL professional soccer under their belts. These teams share our belief in the model and that it is best long-term approach to ensure stability and growth in professional soccer below MLS.    

To complement USL PRO, we recently acquired the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) which we own and operate. With a similar model to USL PRO, we are confident that the MISL will grow substantially over the next few years and that professional indoor soccer will rise in visibility to a level not seen since the 1980s.

SN: A big topic that always comes up with discussion of the USL is that many are in favor of a USL-MLS relegation system. It’s a topic that’s been pushed aside for a lot of the time. Is that something that you’ve been interested in? Do you see there ever being a day when the USL/MLS/other US leagues will join together much like the EPL/Championship/League 1, etc? Or are the two leagues meant to remain individual?

Tim Holt: If promotion/relegation becomes a feature of American professional soccer, I anticipate that will be some distance down the road. In some basic ways, the American franchise model (including single-entity) is incongruent with a merit-based system between different tiers within a professional sport, especially when the different tiers are organized and operated by different entities. From purely a sporting standpoint, it would be wonderful to see a way promotion/relegation could be implemented as it is one of the truly special aspects of soccer around the world.  

SN: The Montreal Impact are joining the MLS this year, which makes them yet another MLS team that had roots in the USL. How would you describe the team’s bump up to the MLS? Are you in favor of the move? How do you think they’ll be received by an MLS audience, opposed to the USL audience?

Tim Holt: I would describe the move of Montreal Impact, Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, and Vancouver Whitecaps to MLS as a qualified form of “promotion.” Each team participated in the USL professional division for an extended period of time and then moved on with the same brand and ownership to MLS. All four of these teams built very strong fan and sponsorship bases using the USL league platform. Each of these four markets and their ownership groups are genuinely “major league” and belong in MLS. USL takes great pride in its role in enabling these clubs to move up the ladder, just as so many players, coaches, referees, and executives have moved from USL to MLS over the years. It is further evidence that with the right ownership in the right market and a club that performs on and off the field, USL offers a proven pathway for clubs to MLS. As has been the case with the teams in the Pacific Northwest, I am quite sure Montreal will do exceptionally well in MLS in terms of support and performance.  

SN: Are there any current USL teams you feel could make strong MLS expansion franchises? Between Orlando and Rochester, there are very soccer-heavy markets still in the USL that could make decent MLS teams. Do you see any of these teams making that move up?

Tim Holt: There are several markets/clubs in USL PRO that have MLS potential over time, however it is our objective to build around our strongest clubs and give them every reason to want to remain in USL PRO long-term. With that said USL PRO harbors no ambitions of rivaling MLS so if a club performs at an exceptional level and has the opportunity to be a part of MLS, then this is good for the continued development of the sport. 

Orlando, Pittsburgh, Charlotte are all major league markets in other sports and without MLS teams, so it is natural they will be discussed as potential candidates along with Rochester which is a smaller market but one with great support and success. There is a particularly big upside in Orlando where Orlando City has blazed its way onto the professional sports landscape in a way that only the Magic are bigger.

SN: Would there ever be a chance, the USL and NASL could merge? What would it take for that to happen? What would you say to a prospective owner the main differences there are between the NASL and USL Pro? Would you ever recommend one of your D3/USL Pro clubs “promote” themselves to Division 2/NASL if they had the ambition?

Tim Holt: As stated previously, our attention is focused internally on continuing to build USL PRO as a league which supports MLS by offering a stable and economically viable model for lower division men’s professional soccer in the United States.  We want and will accept only those owners who capably meet league and federation standards and genuinely believe that the USL PRO model is the best to develop a successful soccer franchise over the medium to long term.   

We do not believe that any American professional soccer league aside from MLS functions at a higher level of league operations, team services, experience, visibility, and competition than USL PRO. 

SN: With the WPS on hiatus or worse and the WPSL announcing that the launching of an elite competition, does the W-League plan to make changes or expand in the future? Do you think it’s possible to have a women’s professional league in the United States? When the Women’s National Team does well at a Women’s World Cup or Olympics, does that help W-League clubs?

Tim Holt: USL continues to explore the viability of launching a professional division of the W-League, a process it initiated about 18 months ago.  This property has the working name of W-PRO.  More so than what other organizations may be doing, any decision for us to move forward on this front will ultimately be a function of whether there is indeed a league and team business model that can be successful.  We will continue to explore this with potential stakeholders and it is possible that we could launch something as early as the 2013 season.  There is no question in our minds that with our experience operating national soccer leagues that USL is one of the few organizations capable of making this work.  We are also the only national soccer organization with a full progression of playing opportunities for elite female players from Super Y-League to Super-20 and up through the W-League.

In the interim, the void left by the WPS suspension will have a positive impact on the quality of the players/teams in the W-League in the immediate term.  For instance, US Women’s National Team stars Hope Solo and Sydney Leroux have signed with Seattle Sounders Women.  There are others being lined up for announcement in the coming weeks.  Once again in 2012, the W-League will be the top level of women’s soccer in North America just as it has been the best women’s development league in North America since 1995. 

SN: MISL indoor soccer seems to be a huge success under the USL umbrella. What do you think is the reason it is doing so well this season? What are the expansion candidates for next season? How big can the MISL be? Will the MISL be apart of the USL longterm? Any chance we could see some MLS clubs play offseason indoor schedules in the MISL one day in arenas in their cities?

Tim Holt: This has been our first season operating the MISL and it has been an unqualified success.  There was a pre-existing core of teams like Milwaukee, Baltimore, and Missouri where indoor soccer is well-established, however we have added expansion teams in Rochester, Syracuse, Wichita, and Norfolk.  Rochester drew over 7,000 fans this weekend during a blizzard and Wichita has sold out several games, so that gives us a sense that properly operated and promoted (and in the right arenas) there is an appetite for MISL soccer in this country.  The league will further expand for the 2012-13 season and there is a level of national visibility about the MISL not seen in 15-20 years. We are convinced that the biggest growth will take place with existing arena sports teams/operations adding a MISL franchise to their portfolios and taking advantage of the economies of scale their existing infrastructure provides.  The MISL is a league property USL owns as well as operates, so we are committed to its growth and long-term success.  It fits in well with our system of leagues and allows us to provide a level of support/service to these teams that was challenging for MISL to do as a stand-alone entity.

SN: Do you think having a team from Antigua in the 3rd Division of American soccer confuses some fans? Does their presence help the growth of soccer in the United States?

Tim Holt: No, I don’t think having Antigua Barracuda as members of USL PRO is at all confusing to fans.  Their presence developmentally helps the growth of soccer in North America, particularly in the Caribbean – in no ways does it hinder the growth of soccer in the United States or take away opportunities for domestic players. Soccer fans fully understand and appreciate the international nature of the sport. USL has been a leader in incorporating teams from outside of the United States that do not have a comparable structure for professional soccer into its competitions.  First in Canada, then in Puerto Rico with the Islanders, then in Bermuda with the Hogges, and now in Antigua with the Barracuda.

All but a couple of the Antigua & Barbuda National Team players ply their trade for the USL PRO Antigua Barracuda.  Their success in World Cup Qualifying to date, which now includes a showdown with the United States in Tampa on June 8th is a direct result of their participation as a group in USL PRO.  Gordon Derrick, who plays a role at both the Federation level and with the Barracuda, was the driving force behind this initiative and it is clearly paying dividends.  Frankly, it is one of the great stories in North American soccer over the past 12 months and has the potential to be an international soccer story this year.  We are proud to have them part of USL PRO.   

SN: How do you think your USL clubs feel about the changes to the US Open Cup for this season? Do you think US Soccer can do a better job promoting and organizing it? What would you change with the USOC?

Tim Holt: USL PRO and PDL are thrilled about the vast majority of the modifications to the structure and format of the Open Cup Tournament.  All US-based USL PRO teams and a record-high 16 PDL teams will compete in 2012.  Not only has the expansion of the tournament allowed more opportunities for professional and other elite adult teams to participate, but a change to the hosting selection process will serve to level the playing field for lower division clubs.  Further, we applaud the increased involved and commitment of the MLS clubs – this makes the competition even more credible.

There is always more that can be done [to] promote the competition and increase the visibility but US Soccer is the reason that these positive changes have come to pass.  There is a dedicated focus of resources and attention to building this property within Soccer House and I think that the Open Cups best days are ahead of it.  As far as changes to the Open Cup, most of those we have been advocating over the past several years came to pass this year so we are very pleased headed into the 2012 competition and expect our USL PRO and PDL to once again perform well.

SN: Does the USL encourage its clubs to build and own Soccer Specific Stadiums (SSS)?

Tim Holt: The importance of professional soccer teams owning or controlling their own stadiums is no longer a matter of debate in this country.  It is vital for the long-term success of a club and stability of a league that such occur.  So yes, it is absolutely something USL strongly encourages and has done so for 15 years; however, this is a process that takes time.  We are fortunate to have a few major success stories such as Blackbaud Stadium (Charleston Battery) and Sahlen’s Stadium (Rochester Rhinos).  In addition, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds recently announced exciting plans for a custom-built soccer stadium in downtown Pittsburgh in which games could be played as early as this summer.  As MLS has demonstrated with so many teams now playing in their own appropriate-sized, soccer-first stadium, this can is a game-changer in terms of event atmosphere and overall economics.     

SN: You served on the US Soccer Federation between 2003-2006. How have you looked at the USSF as it’s changed throughout the years? Are there any faults that you’ve seen that you’d like to see changed moving forward?

Tim Holt: US Soccer continues to move in a very positive direction and has outstanding leadership. I was fortunate enough to have served on the Federation’s Board of Directors for several years and continue to serve on several committees. When you look at where soccer in the United States is organizationally and structurally in five-year increments, the progress is obvious through each stage. Further, our national teams are now well-supported wherever they go, American players are thriving in the world’s top leagues, there is a healthy/growing first division league, new soccer-specific stadiums are being built at all levels of professional soccer, and unprecedented broadcast coverage of the sport in the United States exists. Just as importantly, American soccer is vastly more respected internationally than ever before. But we still have a long way to go in order to be considered one of the “soccer super powers” and the biggest difference between the US and Brazil, Spain, England, Argentina, etc. is that soccer has yet to become engrained in our culture…and this cannot be changed overnight – it will literally take generations.   

Sunil Gulati, Dan Flynn and others have done a great job positioning the sport’s governing body US Soccer for future success but it is incumbent on all the soccer organizations and leagues across this massive nation to play a role in propelling this forward. 

SN: What do you think of the way soccer has shifted as a whole in America over the last decade? You’ve been in the game to see the rise of soccer throughout the country, so what do you make of all of it?

Tim Holt: From an “insider’s perspective,” the American soccer industry is almost unrecognizable from 15 years ago. The player participation numbers have been strong since the late 1970s, but the technical quality of the average competitive player has risen demonstrably. Further, the business of soccer has matured in so many ways at every level of the sport. There are so many additional opportunities for people to make a living in the sport which is a major sign of progress. Most importantly, the foundation for American soccer is now so strong that there is every reason to believe that the next decade will be just as active as the past one. USL looks forward to continuing to play a key role in that growth.  It is both and exciting and fun to be a part of it. 

SN: What would you like to see changed in American soccer? What year does the USA Men’s National Team win a world cup?

Tim Holt: We should be less focused on winning the World Cup and more focused on establishing ourselves where we are in the serious conversation as to who the favorites are to win the World Cup.  The goal is to reach the stage where we are consistently amongst the top 10 teams.  We look at countries like Holland and Portugal as premier tier soccer nations that are always candidates to win the World Cup, yet each has as many World Cups as the U.S. does.  The gap we have bridged from 1986 to present is remarkable and there is seldom any legitimate concern that we won’t qualify for a World Cup, but going from good to great is a substantially tougher task when you consider the list of countries ahead of us on the list that have the same objectives as we do.  We have the population, resources, and competitive mentality as a nation to achieve this but our competitors have an advantage of soccer’s elevated cultural importance.

Herb SCRIBNER

Nationality:
USA
College:
UMass Amherst
Club Domestic:
RSL
Club Foreign:
FC Barcelona
SN managing editor and award-winning journalist, Herb has always been known as "The Soccer Guy" wherever he goes. He's a leftback in most outdoor and indoor leagues. He also writes for Deseret News National.
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