More divisions, less unity? Sorting out the US soccer pyramid

PORTLAND, OR - JULY 09: President of the United States Soccer Federation Sunil Gulati, watches the match between the United States and Belize during the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup on July 9, 2013 at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
PORTLAND, OR - JULY 09: President of the United States Soccer Federation Sunil Gulati, watches the match between the United States and Belize during the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup on July 9, 2013 at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images) /

US soccer pyramid is more like a mosaic today

The past two weeks have seen at least two major developments in the ever-changing profile of the US soccer pyramid. First, there was the introduction of a new Division III league into the men’s side of that pyramid. NISA is due to debut in 2019. Now comes news that one of the two existing Division II men’s leagues, the NASL, may be recategorized by the US Soccer Federation as Division III for 2018. Just a few months ago, USL, the other current Division II men’s league, had begun to lay the foundations for its own Division III to begin play in 2019

Presently in the US, and more broadly in North America, there are two Division II men’s leagues. There is also one organization which brings together the several existing amateur leagues for men and for women. Probably the most familiar amongst that latter group are NPSL and the WPSL respectively. The MLS and the NWSL are, again respectively, hypothetically at the tip of the US/North American pyramid. All in all it is a bit of a mess. The “pyramid” sometimes looks a good deal more like a patchwork mosaic.

Why is the pyramid crumbling?

The pyramid is not so much crumbling as it is tilting on the shifting sands upon which it was built. The history of soccer in the US and Canada sowed the seeds of the current opportunities a long time ago.

Soccer has always been a bit of crapshoot in North America. Canadians are as jingoistic about ice hockey as sports fans in the USA are about (North American) football and baseball. By the time professional soccer as a modern game made inroads into the US and Canada those nations’ spectating publics had some entrenched ideas about sports and sports leagues.

Among the strongest of those were the ideas of teams, representing cities, each with a unique mascot, playing a regular season that leads to a playoff. A “world championship” trophy awarded to the winners.

All of those preconceptions violated the practice of pro soccer in the two global regions where it is the most successful: South America and Europe. Yet that formula has generally always been followed whenever soccer leagues have been formed in the US and Canada.

Buyer’s remorse

So it was with the original NASL and, later, the MLS. Perhaps surprisingly MLS, the latest tip of the men’s pyramid, has a history nearly as long as that of England’s Premier League. Launched in the early 1990’s the PL is mainly a marketing device. It has been unbelievably successful in that way almost ever since. The PL package is distributed on English language cable television worldwide. The “new” league form is so profitable and so well-received that many top-flight domestic leagues have since sought to emulate it.

MLS is a little like the PL in that it too is a single entity. The major difference is that the familiar PL clubs existed before the league itself did. MLS clubs are franchises. They are granted licenses for the express purpose of participating in the league.

Another difference is that MLS—and USL as well—retains the familiar North American formula of regular season followed by playoffs. For an increasingly sophisticated and devoted fan base, however, that is proving to be less than satisfactory. The current generation of fans were raised watching the PL and UEFA’s Champions League. Their expectations are far different from previous generations. The “world championship” playoff is gone. In its place is the expectation and desire for a system of relegation and promotion.

No stated end, no discernible end state

The relegation/promotion system has a couple of distinct advantages over other forms. First, it makes each game on the schedule important. Each match directly impacts the championship standings. It becomes more important for supporters to see as many matches as they are able. It also brings more clubs into the picture with regard to having an opportunity to play in the higher flights. Those are the good things about rel/pro. It does have its downsides as well.

In any event it has never been part of the foundation of the game in North America. That omission is now responsible for the US soccer pyramid’s fractured state. The original structure was never designed to support the type and level of fan interest that it is being asked to. A renovation is in order.

The question of what final form the thing ought to take has to be answered before any bricks get mortared into place. Apparently the US Soccer Foundation either doesn’t want to answer that question—publicly anyway—or they are unable to do so. Fans can only guess as to why the second of those might be the case. If they drag their feet too long, though, someone else will answer it whether that is the federation’s desire or not.

Next: Will USSF Sanction NASL as Div II for 2018?

In that event, we may all find the US soccer pyramid is not so much crumbling as flopped over on its point.