Hello faithful readers! I've decided to write my first piece on how American soccer works. This might wind up getting split into multiple articles depending on just how much time I feel it will take to properly describe how our system works. There will be a lot to digest, but I hope to break down in a way that will make it easy to understand. That way, what I'm doing with this blog will make a whole lot more to sense everyone.
I want to preface this article real quick. In order to help properly explain what's going on in our neck of the soccer woods, I'm going to be using a lot of examples both within and without the good old US of A, and lots of acronyms. This will be your handy guide for those acronyms.
Football Association = FA
Barclays Premier League = BPL
United States Soccer Federation = USSF
Major League Soccer = MLS
North American Soccer League = NASL
United Soccer League = USL
National Premier Soccer League = NPSL
Premier Development League = PDL
Now, lets get to the nitty gritty. In soccer around the globe, leagues are structured in a way that resembles a pyramid. The smaller and more local the league, the lower it is in the pyramid. The leagues at the top typically feature teams from across the entire country, forming true national leagues. I want to say right at the start that our pyramid, run by the USSF, is very different from everyone else in a few major ways.
1 - Our pyramid only officially recognizes 3 leagues. MLS, which is Division 1 and top of the pyramid. NASL, which is Division 2, sitting squarely in the middle. And USL, which is Division 3 at the bottom. Other leagues, such as the NPSL and PDL, are considered by fans to be un-official Division 4 leagues, forming the true base of the pyramid. The FA, on the other hand, recognizes 9 different levels of soccer, going from regional leagues all the way to the BPL.
2 - Most leagues around the world have promotion and relegation. What does this mean? It means that a team sitting at to bottom of the pyramid in Britain can actually, by winning it's league each year, get promoted to the next highest league, all the way up to the BPL itself. On the reverse side of that coin, a team in the BPL, by finishing last in it's league each year, could go all the way down to the bottom. In America there is no such system in place outside of city leagues. There are some regional leagues trying to get big enough to do this, but none are there quite yet. There are several reasons the USSF does not have promotion/relegation in place, but I'm going to avoid that discussion for the time being.
3 - No playoffs. That's right. If you're the best team over the course of the season, you are the champion. End of story.
Now, there is a lot I could say about how our current pyramid is being run and handled, but I don't want to bore you with more information then you can handle in one article. Suffice to say, the big difference between the USSF pyramid and the FA pyramid is that our's is a 'closed' pyramid, and theirs is an 'open' one. Ours is structured more like baseball, and we operate more like other American leagues when it comes to 'reward and punishment.'
Baseball is the only other sport in the US that has more then two recognized leagues. Currently, baseball has MLB, AAA, AA, and A ball, with a few independant leagues as well. They also have a closed system, which is how a team that sucks year after year like Miami can continue to play poorly and get great draft picks. Just like baseball and football, American soccer, rather than rewarding champions and punishing losers, does the opposite. Win the Super Bowl, you pick last in the draft. Finish dead last, get the first pick and find yourself a new franchise QB! In American leagues, it actually pays to lose. That's why really bad teams get accused of 'tanking' or losing on purpose so they can get a better spot in the draft. Everyone denies they do it, but everyone really does. In other leagues, you play till the end even if you're terrible so you don't get kicked out of the big leagues.
Another thing that's different about our pyramid is the amount of amateur teams that we have in our country. In England, most of the divisions in their pyramid are professional. Maybe not full blown professional, players may need two jobs, but they are getting paid. In our pyramid, professionalism stops at the USL. Below that, everyone is amateur or semi-pro, paying some but not all of their players. Why? Because of good ole' college sports. In order to get players quickly and easily, teams stay amateur so they can get college players, and those players can stay in game shape over the summer without losing college eligibility by getting paid. Here are couple of pictures for comparison.
Right away you can see a massive difference. There are far more levels to the British Soccer Pyramid, especially on the pro level, then there are in the American Soccer Pyramid.
To be clear, having teams focusing on college eligible players is not always a bad thing. This system has allowed cities that might never have gotten teams, like Fargo and Little Rock, to field teams at a low cost by remaining amateur. After all, owning and running a team is not cheap. But this has also damaged the game in certain ways. Americans don't typically support anything other then the teams in the best league. It's true even at the college level. It's hard to get people to care about their local amateur soccer team, even if it plays across the street. A lot of that has to do with the loss of our sense of community, but again, I won't go there just yet.
Fortunately, things are changing. Across the country, in places you wouldn't expect, people are supporting their local amateur teams in droves. The Des Moines Menace has averaged more then 3,000 fans a game for years. Chattanooga FC had a crowd of 18,000+ show up for the championship final. Detroit City FC had turn people away from their games and are moving to a bigger stadium next season. And that brings us to the point of this blog.
I want to help draw attention to what's going on at the bottom of the pyramid. To the teams, leagues and owners that are trying to build something better. To the supporters groups trying to get teams off the ground that they own themselves. When these teams start to rise up and get the support they need, things will continue to get better, soccer will get bigger, and some kid in Memphis who may not have had a chance to play soccer as an adult might be given a path to score the game winning goal for the USA in a World Cup Final.