“Americans don’t like soccer.” You’ve heard it, I’ve heard it. It’s not a lie, but it is certainly less true than it was 30 years ago.
In the last decade, the big leagues of Europe have identified the massive market potential in the United States and nearly every one of Europe’s elite teams participate in a pre-season tour of North America, breeding intrigue and maybe even a little more understanding with each year. Nowadays it’s quite common to walk into a shopping mall and see young kids wearing a De Bruyne or Messi shirt whereas at the turn of the century if you asked an American child who Dennis Bergkamp was they would look at you dumbfounded before shaking their head and going back to playing their Gameboy. We have our own football here in America…and then basketball…and baseball…and hockey—not to mention the subcultures of motorsports and winter sports that many Americans obsess over. But soccer has been slowly gaining momentum and will someday be as much of an attraction as the Cowboys vs. the Seahawks or the Lakers vs. the Thunder.
We’ve already seen signs of the game’s growth in many ways—just this week our nation’s best player, Christian Pulisic, signed for Chelsea. Americans are popping up on rosters of teams all across Europe and although we suffered a cataclysmic embarrassment by not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, if there’s any consolation, we get to host the tournament in 2026.
The shortcomings of American soccer can be put down to many things and indeed everybody who cares about soccer in America has an opinion on how to improve it. The most common path to playing professionally is going through the university system. From ages 18-22, players attend university and play for the school team where they train year-round but the season is normally only about 18 games. In these important years it shouldn’t be a controversial opinion to say that to develop, a player needs to play far more games. Not only that, but pairing soccer with the pressure of studies can make for an extremely difficult environment to focus and improve as a player.
What we are likely to never see in the United States is a league system that resembles leagues of the rest of the world with promotion and relegation. It’s a shame really—a team will finish dead last after a shambolic season and say to themselves: “Well, I guess we try harder next year!”
The playoff and single championship game system used in Major League Soccer allows for a team to finish a mediocre sixth in either the East or West conference and still have as good a chance as the two teams that finished first to win the entire league. But in 2018, a huge change was made. In almost every country in the world, there is a clear soccer pyramid system. Before 2018, the US soccer system was as complicated as the tax system but it’s undergone an enormous change for the better.
2019 will be the first year where all leagues will be under the same federation and will resemble a proper pyramid. At the top is the MLS; the highest level of US soccer. After that, the league structure is still somewhat confusing but the important thing is: it’s all under one roof. United Soccer League Championship is the sanctioned second-tier league consisting of 35 teams across the US and one (Ottawa) from Canada. The third league is called The USL League One. This is the last division that is considered a professional league and is made up of (thus far) nine American teams and one Canadian (Toronto FC II).
Below these three leagues it gets a little bit more complicated. There are two sanctioned Division 4 leagues: one under the USL umbrella (USL 2) and the National Premier Soccer League with 74 and 98 clubs, respectively. It gets a bit blurry after that—the USASA Elite Amateur Premier Leagues and the United Premier Soccer Leagues share the Division 5 status and have hundreds of teams all across the country.
It may not seem significant but the streamlining of the league systems is a massive step in the right direction. Someday we could see the implementation of a promotion/relegation system that might also seem insignificant, would help teach young players just how serious it is to win and stay away from a relegation zone. If you haven’t heard it before, soccer is a replication of life on a 120×80 yard field for 90 minutes. I suppose that could be said for any sport (with different field/court dimensions) but the nearly universally accepted system of promotion and relegation is one of the reasons soccer is the greatest game on earth. The ecstatic high of being promoted to a higher league and the dark and even scary prospect of falling into a relegation spot and having to play the next season in a lower league. It’s small details like these that will hopefully one day make the United States a contender for a World Cup winner’s medal.