The Foundation of the Pyramid – by Dan Vaughn of Protagonist
Dan Vaughn of Protagonist interviews CEO Graham Walsh
In some ways, the UPSL is like physics. Everyone knows its exists, but most people don’t know how it functions or what role it plays in the national soccer scene. And just like physics, understanding or not doesn’t change the fact that the league is everywhere in this country, influencing every aspect of the player development pathway. The reality is that the league is rapidly growing and has been tightening up its operations over the last 5 years, becoming one of the best incubators of players, coaches, and lower league amateur soccer clubs. We sat down with UPSL CEO Graham Walsh to discuss the league and the changes he’s brought to the largest league in the country over the last 2+ years.
Protagonist: In February we witnessed a really enjoyable UPSL final in Mesa, AZ. Can you talk about that final and how important big events like that are for the UPSL?
Walsh: If you look at it from a player’s perspective, the idea of, going on a journey and landing in a national finals, you know that is is just exhilarating, exciting, and it just builds lasting memories. So, for me, the excitement of being able to stage a national finals and bring together teams from different parts of the country and crown a champion. That’s incredibly important, if you are trying to do a competition that stands a chance of getting some attention and is meaningful in the eyes of players and coaches. If you look at the game in general, in the United States, there’s going to be national champions, but there’s never going to be a lot of them. So if you can get to a finals and then if you can win a finals, it’s just such an incredible achievement. You know, I wish I was twenty years old again and I could compete in the UPSL and be on a great team and stand a chance to to go on that journey.
It is important, but difficult to stage for a variety of reasons. This is an enormous country and there’s still an awful lot that that we can do to try and improve upon events like that. But just having the ambition and willingness to give it a go and make it happen, is part of what we’re trying to achieve. One of the reasons I was attracted to the UPSL is, back in 2019, I attended a national finals. I wanted to see what was going on. It was actually held in in Weatherford, Texas and not at a soccer-specific field. It was an artificial turf field, but it had football lines on the field. But what I did see on that visit was four great teams playing very competitive football and I saw a tremendous amount of emotion. And when I saw what it meant to some of the kids, from the Florida Tropics, who won the national championship, I said, “Wow, this has got incredible potential.” That that was one of the reasons why I thought that this league had a lot of potential.
Protagonist: We’ve attended the last two UPSL National Finals and we’re always struck by the professionalism of the events. They’ve felt like great advertisements for the league and the changes you’re making.
Walsh: Well, if you’re going to stage something like that, you want to make it a great experience and you want to develop credibility. It’s absolutely essential that you try and make all the details fit together and function effectively. So, I think, as we came into the UPSL in the early part of 2020, there was plenty of things that we could improve upon. And we started trying to achieve that.
And look, there was a lot of administrative issues that we needed to iron out. These are sort of natural growing pains that a business or a soccer league can have. And simple things like ensuring that referees are paid, tightening up the rulebook, enforcing the rules, trying to educate teams to respect each other. These are all things that we were able to do. And just in doing so, we improve the quality of the product. So when it comes to a national finals, it’s very important to us that when the teams show up that they actually feel like this is something that’s important. It feels important. It feels like a national finals. When I got here, one of the points that I just thought up, I said, “look, we want to play the national anthem, but let’s get a great singer on the field and do this properly, so that the national anthem has a little bit more meaning to it.”
And so the details, as with many businesses, are what make the difference. And there’s so many little details even in running a soccer league and we try and identify what they are. And often, our teams will point out things that could be done better. We will continue to strive to improve this product.
Protagonist: When you took over the league in in 2020, the COVID pandemic was just kicking off. How have you dealt with that while also trying to tighten up the business side of the league?
Walsh: It was right at the beginning of 2020 that we took over. And as you mentioned, the first hurdle that we had was the pandemic and the challenges that came about with that. We made the decision to go ahead and play. I think looking back on that, it was a bold decision, but it was the right decision. There were some parts of the country where the restrictions were less than other parts of the country. There was a lot of people, particularly soccer coaches and players, who were just at home, just trying to do something. And so we created a set of COVID protocols to allow play, but, keep it safe. And I think that was an important decision that we made and really set the tone for what we were about. And that is trying to create opportunities for the players and coaches and clubs to do what they do: improve the performance and give them the exposure that these guys deserve.
Another area that I would talk about is the social media area. It’s very important that the players and the clubs get exposure on a national level. And we try to bring that to them. And I think that there’s been a lot of progress in that sense. The grassroots part of the game in many sports can often get overlooked in the United States, with the dominance of the major leagues. And given how the interactions of people in the community and the economy has been changing with the various social media platforms, the opportunity to get exposure has obviously changed in recent years. So we try and utilize those platforms and give these clubs and their players a push. We’ve encouraged the clubs to stream their games. And that’s important in the sense that it provides material that you can get out onto social media and allow scouts to see great plays and great goals and things like that. So that’s an important part of what we’ve done.
We’ve built a registration system that I believe is superior to the ones that are on the market. It will be fully integrated with the increased requirements of U.S. Soccer and FIFA. You know, there’s some burdens being placed on the amateur game and ultimately, these may be for the good so that players can be identified. And maybe one day, some of these clubs will actually be able to get some compensation for the development that they’re doing. So we are producing a registration system that I feel will have efficiencies that others do not have. We are building a new website which we’ll be releasing soon. That website is going to be showcasing the talent that’s on display at this level. We applied and gained independent membership of U.S. Soccer here with our new National Affiliate status. And I think that that’s another important step in terms of providing recognition and identity, not just for the league, but really more importantly for the clubs that are part of the league and all the players and the coaches that are working hard.
Protagonist: 2022 Spring season is off and rolling.
Walsh: Yes, the season has kicked off and the league is going from strength to strength. You know, our participation is already up 28% versus last year. We have in our Premier Division, 255 teams, who are competing for one national championship. I think that is the toughest soccer competition in the United States right now. And it’s going to be a hell of a journey. Whoever gets to those finals and wins that championship is a true national champion. The 32 team national bracket that we now have, I think it’s an exciting visual of exactly what this this competition is all about.
Protagonist: That national aspect of the competition really stands out. Do you see that as a selling point to new clubs?
Walsh: I do believe that what’s been happening with that, we’re attracting stronger clubs. And the growth is related to this desire to get involved, to compete, and to try and win. We also continue to attract pro clubs which see the value of exposing their young players to the UPSL. These players who are, 17, 18 years old, they’re at a level where they need to go against more developed players. Our average age is 22 and a half. If you think about the youth game, it is very effective up to about the age of 16. And then, of course, you know, the true pro game you’re talking about an average age that is probably around about 27 years. So what’s going on there in the middle and who’s filling out that role? We have an average age of 22 and a half and I think that’s representative of what the UPSL is. It’s part of the game. And it’s such an essential part, in the sense that, it’s still either a stepping stone for many players or it is a platform that allows great players who perhaps don’t have pro aspirations to still compete at a very high level. So we’ve got more pro clubs interested in exposing their young players to the league and actually L.A. Galaxy have applied to participate in the fall season. So if that comes off, I think that’ll be quite eye catching.
Protagonist: If you can take off your UPSL hat for a moment, what big issues face the American game right now?
Walsh: Well, there’s no doubt in my mind that the biggest challenge is a financial one. If you look at U.S. Soccer, big picture, you know, the national teams, are a big focus. And you can see the success there. In the professional game, the MLS is doing an incredible job, growing the fan base and supporting youth development. But there’s a whole lot more players out there. There’s a segment of the game which is somewhat hampered by bureaucracy and a complete lack of funding. I see many clubs in the UPSL who have got great servants of the game, great enthusiasm, great credentials. You’ve got ex-pros. You’ve got coaches with great coaching credentials. They’ve got the licenses, but they’re not financially backed in the ways that would allow them to meet their true potential and to develop players to their full capabilities. So that’s a challenge and the UPSL is trying to do what we can, in that regard. The affordability is, and always has been, an important part of the UPSL. Organizing these divisions on a regional basis is an important part of keeping the costs down. I do think that over time, the ability for these clubs to function and attract more funding is going to improve. It’s just going to take time. So by providing a platform and hopefully, you know, establishing a reliable platform, then we make a contribution because we give the clubs some credibility to speak to potential sponsors or for new interested parties to say, “Well, yeah, I’d love to have a club in the United States. I’d love to be developing players. What platform are we going to be playing on? How does it work? You know, why does it make sense?” I do think that that is incredibly important.
And we’re not the only solution. But as a year-round league and an affordable league, we’re definitely open to this new club formation. We also have this tremendous diversity in our league. I mean, this year already, we’ve got players whose origins come from 90 different countries. That, in and of itself, is an advertisement that anybody can get involved here. And I think that that is an important part of what we’re putting on. If you look overseas, the semi pro game is much more developed. It’s been, in some cases, running for over 100 years. Here in the United States, I think it’s still got miles to go. It’s still in the formative stages. You know, the community clubs in Europe, with their small stadiums and 500-1,000 fans at a game — I do think eventually, there’s going to be more and more of that in the United States, it’s just going to take time. And like I said, if we have a platform that is reliable enough that there’s investors who are willing to get involved and start providing the funding to allow these coaches to do their thing and to develop players — that’s only going to be good in the bigger picture for the game.
Protagonist: Some people really point out the lack of promotion/relegation in this country as a massive hurdle. The UPSL has certainly been proactive about making sure that the divisions begin to form. You’re starting to see some stratification and the pro/rel mechanisms are coming on line. Has that been a priority for the UPSL and, from your perspective, do you see that as being important in a developed league?
Walsh: Yeah. I mean, that’s a tough question in the United States. Obviously, there’s this elaborate pyramid in the United Kingdom and it works incredibly well. It’s a great incentive system, but it’s not a given elsewhere, obviously. I don’t think we’re going to see promotion and relegation in the professional game in the United States and some people don’t want to accept that. But there’s reasons why that is unlikely to happen. If you look at Mexico, which obviously has excellent professional clubs, the promotion and relegation between the top tier and the second tier was suspended fairly recently and isn’t functioning in lower levels. I don’t think that that is necessarily a big problem. I’d prefer if there was promotion and relegation in the professional game. But it’s not something necessarily for me to be commenting on.
With regards to just the UPSL, the promotion and relegation actually is important and it is in some parts of the country starting to work quite nicely. In order to have effective promotion/relegation, first of all, you need to have divisions which are fully populated. If you had a division of five teams, but you’ve got capacity for ten, then obviously, the promotion or relegation isn’t necessarily a particular conversation. It seems rather premature. So if I look at a couple of areas, for instance, if we go to Southern California, we have a very strong premier division there. And the idea of promotion and relegation therefore makes a lot of sense. We actually have three division 1’s that sit beneath our premier division in Southern California. The competition to win one of those promotion spots is very intense. And actually, last year, we promoted three teams from each of those Division One divisions. And then we also had an additional promotion spot, which six teams had their own mini playoff, to get promoted. So that was exciting. Here in Florida, we’ve got a very strong Division One. So we now have attracted a lot of strong youth clubs who are running their u-19 or u-20s in UPSL Division One. And it’s a very hot competition. And if you can win that, you very much deserve to step up into that Premier Division. But I’ve seen, from my observation of the games, you can see on the field that this is a Division One game and that this is a Premier Division game. The Premier Division games are faster, they’re more competitive. And just stepping into a Premier Division, you’ve got to be ready for that.
The quality has surprised me on the field. When I say that there’s hundreds of players in America who are really good and they’re not getting noticed and they deserve more recognition, I’m not just saying that to promote the league, I’m saying that because I can see it. It’s definitely the case that the quality is there. So, yeah, I do think that the promotion and relegation is important in the UPSL, but it’s still in the formative stages. We are building more Division Ones. We’ve got several more that have come into our infrastructure for this particular season and I do anticipate that that’s going to continue.
Protagonist: John Paul Motta, President of USASA, famously said he was trying to create more cooperation between the lower leagues. What are your perspectives on that idea?
Walsh: So yeah, there was a meeting that was arranged, theoretically to discuss some kind of cooperation. Unfortunately, there was no agenda for that meeting. There was no ideas brought up by the governing body. And so, from what I can gather, it was people just kind of staring at each other in a room, which is so unfortunate. We actually had two of our senior guys at the meeting.
Look, in theory, I think that cooperation could be helpful. And if I was going to name some sort of areas of cooperation, one would be that there could be some cross-understanding between the leagues on disciplinary matters. One of the one of the unfortunate situations that can happen is you can suspend players in your league and they just go play in another league. And that’s not ideal, particularly if you know that in a country this size there’s going to be one or two situations where there are people who have maybe a little bit of a danger to everybody else and they shouldn’t be allowed to just walk from one league to another. So disciplinary matters would be useful to get some cooperation.
I do feel one of the surprises that I had coming into the UPSL and observing that lower league soccer leagues, in many ways, are like cottage industries. Nobody’s got a lot of funding here. There’s a lot of volunteers and yet there seems to be, almost like a crazy rivalry. There’s a lot of social media criticism that flies around, and it all seems rather unnecessary and futile to me when everybody is trying to build something in the game and it’s a massive country. So there ought to be space for everybody. But sometimes there seems to be some unwarranted criticism that flies around and people try to undermine each other. We have a policy in the UPSL, not to get involved in these altercations on social media and stuff like that. I just feel like it’s best to stay out of it.
The idea that new startup leagues will just get on our website, grab a list of teams, and just start calling them and offering them something that they claim is going to be more shiny and exciting and what have you. And, hey, it’s a free market and that’s going to go on. I think that where U.S. Soccer maybe could have a voice with that is saying, “Look, if anyone’s going to advertise something, then, it ought to be accurate. It ought to be true.” The idea that a league can come along and say, “oh, well, you know, we’re going to incubate your club and turn you into a pro club.” To me, that’s just nonsense. If you want to start a pro club in the United States, U.S. Soccer Federation has very strict guidelines as to how that can happen. There’s a shortage of professional clubs in the United States and the idea that somebody is going to incubate you to that status is just a fantasy. So, I think that some of the advertising of new operations that goes on is a little bit disingenuous and unfortunate. But obviously, it’s a free market and eventually these things kind of pan out the way they’re supposed to pan out. Clubs will go in the direction that they want to go.
Protagonist: You have a background in finance, you believe in the free market. But it feels like in some ways that free market ends up resetting the base over and over again. And so we don’t see a lot of longevity when it comes to club life? Clubs pop up and die and pop up and die. Do you see it as a negative function of the market system? What is a better solution in your mind? Does it even need to be solved?
Walsh: So I would divide my answer into two components. So first of all, in order to have a more successful soccer infrastructure, there needs to be platforms — and UPSL is a platform — that are reliable, so that the clubs can focus on what it is that they do best: develop players, get teams on the field, play great games. They can focus on that and they don’t have to worry about the status of the platform.
As you have observed, there seems to be leagues popping up, giving it a try, doesn’t quite work out, close down, another league, starts up, things like that. And of course that will happen, but in order to serve those who are serious about investing in the game, there does need to be reliable platforms. I mean, even at the professional level, you’re seeing that there are some willing clubs and owners who want to have, let’s call it, an affordable division structure. But they’re having difficulty at the moment because there’s big question marks about whether the operators of the platform are able to make that successful.
So if we go down to the grassroots level, what’s in the way of a reliable platform? Well, there’s a couple of things. The resilience of those who are trying to do it. So, let’s look at NPSL which is proven to be resilient. They know what their product is. They serve a particular part of the market. And so, if you are an NPSL club, you know that you’ve got a season next season. There’s no questions about it. Fine. Fantastic. That works. UPSL, we’ve established ourselves as a platform where if you’re a club and you want to play UPSL, you play, and then the next season you can play in the UPSL again. So there’s a reliability to it. And hopefully you’ve got a sense of what you are going to expect. If we have clubs (and hopefully this gets better over time) that respect each other, then when you go to that game, you know what to expect and you can have an experience that you feel like you had a good experience. So the platform is important.
Now, unfortunately, U.S. Soccer, which is heavily focused on what U.S. soccer does, they don’t necessarily have the time to get immersed in grassroots adult soccer. So that’s why it’s important for a league like ours to, in a sense, take care of ourselves, to communicate with U.S. Soccer as best we can, to follow the guidelines that are set forth by U.S. Soccer, but to get the job done ourselves. Now, I would love to get more support from the authorities to help with the promotion of the grassroots game in different ways. And hopefully, over time, we’ll be able to achieve that. But you can see what I’m talking about in terms of the importance of the platform.
Now, on the other side and to answer your question more specifically, you were talking about the fact that clubs form and then they don’t survive. And why is that happening? The main reason why that is happening is back to the point I was making earlier and that is lack of funding. So is that a good thing or is that a bad thing? Well, I don’t have a problem with it. I actually think that the new money coming into the game, even if they only stick around for two or three years, is a good thing, because the grassroots game desperately needs funding. And so if somebody is willing to come along and give it a go and spend $100,000 over a few years because they love the game and they want to see if they can get a club going that they’re passionate about, they hire a coach, they get a facility — that’s a contribution to the game which I would much rather have, than not have. The churn isn’t a problem. You’re going to have clubs that are sticking around and there are clubs who are in UPSL right now and in other leagues, and they’ll still be around in 10, 20, 30 years time. And there are other clubs that will not be. But I just don’t see that as a problem. I don’t think it’s something that we should be worrying about it. Like I said, we’re quite a long way from the true establishment of these community clubs that have their own facility, a little stadium, get 500 fans every weekend. That’s still something that is in the future. The steps to getting there will involve the normal kind of churn that you see in other parts of the economy and you’re going to see that in the game of soccer as well.
Protagonist: So it’s part of the process, from your perspective. Any parting comments?
Walsh: You talk about things that we’re trying to do to build for the future. We just established the UPSL Foundation. At the moment, really this is just an idea in formation, but I hope to, through the foundation, that we’ll be able to support exactly that new club formation that you’re mentioning there. But do it in underserved communities, and try and get more young adults playing the game whose families can’t afford to pay monthly fees to play soccer.
Timing wise, it’s a work in progress. The entity has been formed. I’m having conversations as to how exactly we’re going to start executing a plan. But that is that is the goal. I’ve been able to see that there’s a need for this. And if we can make a contribution in some small way, then we’ll be adding some value, hopefully.