Does Soccer in America need more than one pyramid?

Thank you Craig Gembecki (Follow him on Twitter here) for reaching out and asking to have his multi-pyramid regionally divided national league system idea hosted on the blog…

As usual… let us know what you think in the comments and use #ProRelForUSA on social media when discussing the subject!

Craig Gembecki
April 3, 2017

Does Soccer in America Need More than One Pyramid?

It’s been a relatively great couple of weeks for the #ProRelForUSA contingent. First, Australia’s
lower league clubs clapped back on the A-League as they look to break away from a FIFA
sanctioned monopoly across the globe. And then we hear that the USL in America is
considering a path for a lower division pro/rel system. On the surface, both are great because
they are forcing people who would otherwise avoid the topic at all costs to discuss it openly. For
me though, and I can’t help but be a contrarian, I’ve noticed a blind spot in the conversation as it
pertains to America: geography. Until that becomes the centerpiece of any pro/rel conversation,
I think we’re leading ourselves down a path that we cannot sustain.


We live in a massive country with four (continental) time zones and approaching 350M people. I think sometimes people can take this for granted until they take a minute to zoom all the way out on a
map to compare our country, just the contiguous part, with say Europe, excluding Russia.
Soccer works in Europe for many reasons, with league pyramids established in just about every
country. We should remember, of course, that countries in Europe are comparable in size to
states in America. Think of the differences in logistics alone of a schedule of games that
geographically spans an area like say, Texas, rather than from Boston to Los Angeles. Charter
flights become charter buses in many cases. Overnight stays in hotels might become day trips.
France is about the size of Texas, by the way. Germany roughly the size of New Mexico.
Domestic travel in America takes up a lot of time and resources. For a sport like soccer, which is
organized to accommodate small professional teams with bare bones budgets, things like
logistics are a massive deal.

I had an epiphany recently that North America is too big for just one soccer league pyramid.
Between America and Canada, 28 division 1 soccer teams is not proportionate to the
population, geography or demand for the sport to be played at high levels. The USSF and MLS
may think they have some control over the sport in this country, but they really have none. It’s
not a sport that is meant to be organized under an umbrella this large. It needs a more fluid mix
of philosophies and contrasting styles. We are trying to build one style for the biggest country in
the world and barely treading water.

Now this is where I might start to lose you. I thought for the longest time that North America just
needs its own well-defined pyramid like European Associations have. A single pyramid looks
and feels like the ideal goal, but does it make the most sense? Or would perhaps two or even
three independent pyramids set up geographically make more sense for an area this large?
Here is what is rattling around in my head:

Logistically it’s simple. Instead of playing coast to coast, it breaks up the country geographically
which then gets broken down even further the lower you go. Even half of North America makes
for a shit ton of travel, but it also makes it easier to plan and schedule than twice the area
allows. Competitively is where I believe it would actually create a much bigger payoff, however.
If it wasn’t too far out of the question (it is) I’d even go for 3 pyramids over 2 for this one major
reason: to create and cultivate different styles of play within North America. Borders within our
borders. Yes, Canada if they so choose could benefit from this as well. In Europe, the English
play a fast, physical brand of soccer while the Spanish tend to play a slower and more technical
way. Germany certainly has its style, France another and so on. There is a federation
overseeing each one of those countries and those federations can dictate the style of play they
wish to achieve and then scout for and develop players to fit their styles and methods. From the
top down, it is easier for those federations to set an agenda, monitor coaching, and scout
players because their countries are so much smaller. On top of the national team benefits, it
means scouts know where to look for certain types of players. America is too big a beast to
tame.

So this is where the USSF needs to let go of its doomed relationship with MLS and start thinking
outside of the box. I’m a big believer in disruption. The USSF and MLS have lacked the
courage to disrupt both the American sports market and some traditional soccer norms. Instead
of disruption, they chose safety. Imagine if they thought more like, and this is all just part of a
daydream, so let your mind wander with me:

Northeast F.A.

We might have a Northeast League Pyramid, call it the Northeast F.A. They might bring a well
appointed German in to oversee all things soccer in the Northeast corridor, who might then
bring in many coaches who understand his vision for soccer. In the Northeast, theoretically, we
would be developing a more German style of play in the northeast. This is all just my
imagination.

Southern F.A.

In the Southeast and Texas area, we would have another pyramid, maybe called the Southern
F.A. They might just decide to keep it local and go All-American with their style and hires. I
couldn’t blame them for that, and I’d be happy to see it. Those leagues are where we would
build on our own style and be able to focus on it further by regionalizing the scouting network to
a more manageable area.

Western F.A.

And in the west we might have the Western F.A. who would undoubtedly bring in a Spaniard to
oversee their association. In the west, once more technical coaches that understand the
spanish philosophy were brought in, we would begin to see a distinct style of play in their
leagues.

Now look, I know you think that all sounds crazy, and it is. But the way I see it, there are a ton
of benefits to come from it.

1. National Team Scouting: Imagine if the USA national team coaches and scouts were
able to operate more like a club as they construct their rosters. If they were in need of 2
or 3 really technical players, they could at least focus their search in the west (in my
imaginary triple pyramid scenario). Or if they needed a big, strong center back they
would be able to focus more in the south. Instead of such a vast network of coaches
and scouts, everything would be contained in a few regional networks.

2. Different Leagues, Different Styles: I think that this sort of divide and conquer
approach would benefit the sport in America because it would give the viewer more
options. This would ultimately lead to Americans putting their loyalty behind one league
over the other(s). Each league/pyramid would have its glamorous cities and its blue
collar cities.

3. Better Inter-league Matches: In theory, it could improve North America cups like the
CONCACAF Champions League because you would have more leagues fighting for the
cup. This creates league rivalries on top of just team rivalries. And back to the styles
point, more playing styles in the cup competitions.

4. Buy Local: With the leagues broken up regionally, the sponsorships might also be. This
might not mean the big national sponsors that MLS has always been after, which aren’t
really benefitting it. But it would mean a much more community driven, grassroots
approach to the business of the game as well. The clear negative to this is that it
destroys any national bargaining power that comes from a coast to coast league. That is
definitely a cause for concern, but I believe soccer here is kidding itself to think its
current model is working all that well.

5. All the benefits of #prorelforusa x 3: We know that opening soccer up is going to
drive a ton of investment into the sport. I think that shrinking the borders of each league
or pyramid would help drive even more investment due to more manageable logistics
alone. Smaller investors wouldn’t need to be as worried about the stresses that come
with promotion like travel, funding, etc, because those costs should in theory be more
reasonable. Each league could set its own rules such as not requiring overbuilt
(half-empty) stadiums to be built as a prerequisite for joining a league. I could see a lot
more impressive and less expensive 5-10k seat stadiums being built, as opposed to the
20k+ stadiums built on the back of taxpayers now.

I see massive changes on the horizon for soccer in the states, changes that might actually help
the sport start to seap into our culture a little more. I hope that when these changes start to
happen, that any and all crazy ideas will be entertained because I fear tunnel vision could lead
us down a path we couldn’t return from.