Re-Aligning the American Pyramid: Dan Creel

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The biggest problem within the U.S. soccer league system (aka the “pyramid”) is the lack of an open, entry-level professional level. The U.S. Soccer Federation currently only sanctions three levels of professional soccer leagues. And, the Federation’s professional league standards set a very high financial test for men’s and women’s clubs who want to join a Division III league.

Obviously, these standards directly lock out smaller professional clubs and leagues from sanctioned play. But, more importantly, it stifles grassroots, community-based pro soccer from gaining traction, ultimately hobbling the growth of U.S. soccer in general. If a club or league wants to operate professionally at a lower level, their only options are to play as an unsanctioned organization or to be sanctioned by the U.S. Adult Soccer Association.

The structural and organizational difficulties for lower level soccer organizations under these constraints are unmistakable. If Division III is unavailable or undesired, clubs and leagues must join an amateur organization and play as “semi-pro” at best. The gulf between USASA and Division III is so wide that it makes it practically impossible for organizations to survive in the liminal space between them. The current structure creates a Catch-22 where lower level professional soccer is unviable. How can lower level pro soccer grow without the space to do so?

The U.S. soccer league system needs a Division IV professional level. It should be an “open” division with no or nominal financial barriers. And, it should go without saying, that there should be a Division IV for both women’s and men’s leagues. These Division IV leagues should have regional geographic reach at best. With the size of the country, travel costs are a huge issue that is always important to recognize. It is necessary to understand that a professional league does not need to be national in scope to still be important and valued.

All Division IV clubs should enter the U.S. Open Cup First Round and not need to enter via the qualification rounds. As professional concerns, they should practically not need to “prove” themselves both from a competitive and financial standpoint as much as amateur clubs should. The USOC is a great way to develop lower level soccer. It gives a showcase to clubs who would get zero media coverage otherwise and provides an additional aspirational goal for lower level clubs. Adding prize money based on each round a club takes part would make the tournament more desirable and help the bottom line of every club who enters.

If the USSF is uncomfortable managing such an operation or believe such an endeavor is beyond their scope then it should authorize another organization to have the jurisdiction over such levels lower than Division III. Currently, the authority over such leagues and clubs is managed by the USASA. The USASA regulates amateur soccer in the US and is the only amateur soccer organization sanctioned by the USSF.

Because the mission of the USASA is overseeing amateur soccer, the lower level professional game isn’t and shouldn’t be a priority for them. And, it shows. For the average U.S. soccer fan, the lower levels of soccer are a confused mixture of leagues and clubs. In fact, it is difficult to know what is going on even for the more proactive, engaged fans.

There are a massive number of soccer players and fans in this country but the connection between them and local clubs is severely broken. It takes an effort to connect an individual to a club in their community and attendance shows that. A huge part of the problem of such a needlessly complicated system is that soccer fans don’t know what is going on in league soccer in their communities. And, if clubs aren’t being supported then it makes it difficult for their officials to justify keeping them going. The current state of structural benign neglect doesn’t just allow the cycle to continue, it lays the foundation for it.

Lower level professional soccer needs a support system. Grassroots clubs are passionate about soccer but need financial and organizational resources to survive. Without such a stable environment lower level clubs and leagues usually find it impossible to continue during difficult times. This is the norm for soccer in the U.S. rather than an aberration. We need to lay a foundation that cultivates and empowers lower level organizations.

It is understandable why the USSF might be squeamish about not having such a tight financial control over professional soccer leagues and clubs. An ongoing lesson in U.S. soccer is that the history of the professional game is littered with fly-by-night organizations. But, holding the reins too tight makes things ultimately run poorly. Soccer needs to loosen the reins to allow clubs and leagues some relief from the self-imposed restrictions, which will allow lower level soccer communities to relax and begin to invest more and grow the professional game.

- Dan Creel