The American Pyramid: The Problem with Our Geography

When we imagine a country’s soccer pyramid, the top few levels are leagues that are national in scope. Below that are the levels with leagues that are regional in scope and further down are the leagues that are local and community-based. In the U.S., we don’t have a pyramid, so much as an inverted four-sided die balancing on top of constantly churning mass.

The U.S. soccer system has never been in good shape. The lack of organization is apparent throughout history and currently, except for the very top, is not conducive to the growth of a stable, equitable club game especially at the lower levels. We need something akin to a theory of change where we strategize about the long-term goals of the sport and then map the pathway backward to define action steps on how to move forward.

One piece of that plan is the need to formally create levels below the current ones. As of right now, the USSF only sanctions the three national professional Divisions. Every other league and club is sanctioned via the amateur USASA. That creates a practical gulf for aspirational clubs with no room to easily grow from an amateur or semi-pro organization into a full professional one.

How many levels are needed between the amateur and pro game is up for debate. Some might see a hard break between the amateur and pro levels. Some might see a more transitional division where there is some mixture of pro, semi-pro, and amateur clubs. What is truly vital, though, is that there is at least one formally sanctioned level where clubs can grow from amateur/semi-pro to professional.

One important part of that “transitional” Division is that the leagues within it would not be national in scope. From competitive, financial and social bases, such amateur or semi-pro teams should play against local or nearby rivals and not have to travel far. Travel costs are a major factor for sports teams and expecting lower level clubs to travel vast distances will have a detrimental effect on those clubs. It is one thing if an individual club can’t compete due to resources. It is another if a league’s short-sightedness creates anti-competitive outcomes itself.

What such a Division of regional leagues would look like is an excellent question. How many of these leagues would be necessary? To begin to get a handle on this question, I took a look at the English system. For most U.S. soccer fans, the English football pyramid is the blueprint for which the American system should be based.

The National League is the fifth step in their pyramid and is lowest nationwide league in the English system. The National League is made up of mostly pro teams with some semi-pro teams, while the two leagues below, which make up tier six, are mostly semi-pro. So, in England, a top semi-pro team might be expected to travel the entire nation.

From the top of England to the bottom is roughly 300 miles. I took that as my starting point from what a similar semi-pro club in the U.S. should be expected to travel in a regional league if we used England as our blueprint. For the sake of argument, if the USSF creates a new “transitional” level it would currently be Division IV (below the fully pro, national Division III). The classic pyramid system has 16 leagues at level four.

As such, I took the largest 16 metropolitan areas in the U.S. and roughly mapped areas 300 miles across on top of them. In theory, these would be where the most soccer players and clubs would form, so it would roughly constitute the regions of these 16 Division IV leagues.

Regions 300 miles.png

Two things immediately jump out: how much of the U.S. is left out of these regional leagues; and how little travel is necessary for English clubs even at the top levels. Four of the metro areas are found grouped together in the northeast. That leads to their regions overlapping, hence the additional colors where they do.

We will be sorely disappointed if we try to restrict the future travel budgets of U.S. semi-pro clubs to an English standard. English clubs have an immense advantage due to the compact size of their country. U.S. clubs and leagues don’t have that luxury. A theory of change that relies on such a travel restriction would have the effect of leaving all clubs in an immense swath of the country on the outside.

I next took a look at the Germany, French and Spanish systems. Those countries are slightly bigger than England and the maximum distance a semi-pro team might travel when in the lowest nationwide league would be roughly 600 miles. I mapped those areas as on the prior map.

Now those 16 theoretical regional leagues with a travel restriction of 600 miles cover most of the contiguous 48 states. Adding only a few more leagues would cover the rest of that area.

From a travel standpoint, clubs in those regions would only have to travel 600 at most in the top division of that region. A similar exercise would happen as lower tiers are added within a region.

This is obviously a theoretical exercise. The number and placement of these “transitional” Division IV leagues would differ greatly from the simple breakdown I’ve outlined. But, whatever the makeup of such regional leagues, it should not be overlooked how important it would be that every year, clubs would know how much to expect in travel-based expenses.

Perhaps more significantly, a league would know, again from a travel distance standpoint, if they should, or more critically could, admit a new club. Currently, when a good club from a relatively far distance wants to join a league, the league allows it more often than not. And that honestly makes sense. Leagues and other clubs want good opponents to raise the level of the league. But, the travel distance of a relatively distant club puts a strain not only on that club, but also the other clubs who now have to spend more on their travel budget. It would be more advantageous if the system was one where a good club had a good league available that contained other clubs a reasonable distance away.

Those brown and tan areas on the maps are also important to note. Those are where regions overlap. That allows leagues for those regions to find the best place for those clubs to land. A club might go to one league or the other based on a combination of league needs, distance to other clubs, rivalries with other clubs, and community engagement.

It is important that the organizations in those regions and communities to have a say over the organization and management of their leagues and regions. And, since all of these regions would have interactions with their neighboring leagues and Division colleagues it is vital that partnerships be created between them.

I’ll be writing more about partnerships in Part II.

- Dan Creel