Saturday, April 9, 2011

The American Soccer Pyramid

When the Major League Soccer season opened, FRB discussed its new playoff system. Now as the lower leagues begin play for the year, let's look at the rest of the American soccer "pyramid."
"Pyramid" is in quotes, because in the United States two key elements are missing: promotion and relegation. So leagues technically occupy a position in a hierarchy, but there is no way for the teams in them to rise or fall, at least not automatically.
M.L.S., at the top of the pyramid, has 18 teams who play each other home-and-home for a 34-game season. Ten teams make the playoffs, as discussed in that earlier post.

Level 2 is the new North American Soccer League, which takes its name, though little else, from the defunct league of the 1970's. It has eight teams, but it will lose one of them next year when the Montreal Impact moves to M.L.S. Each team plays all the others four times each, for a 28-game season. Six teams make the playoffs, with the top two getting byes. The quarterfinals are one game, and the semifinals and final are home-and-home total goals series.

Although the N.A.S.L. is nominally Level 2, its financing is said to be somewhat uncertain, so oddly enough the third-level league, U.S.L. Pro, seems to have a more secure future. Also newly organized this year, it consists of 15 team in three divisions: American, mostly in the South, National, mostly in the Northeast, and International, which has three teams from Puerto Rico, one from Antigua, and, bizarrely, the Los Angeles Blues.

The regular season scheduling is somewhat confusing. National and American division teams play two games against each of the other National and American teams, for 18 games, plus 6 bonus games, mostly against  International division teams.  As an example, for its bonus games, FC New York, in the National division, plays two of the Puerto Rican teams twice, another Puerto Rican team once, and a third game against Pittsburgh from its own division. For whatever reason, it doesn't play aginst the other two "International" teams, Los Angeles and Antigua.
The International teams play four times against each of the other teams in that division, for 16 games, plus 8 bonus games. These bonus games are even more oddly scheduled. As an example. let's take a look at the Antigua Barracuda (who play at the delightfully named Sticky Wicket Stadium). They play three teams from the American division once each, one team from the American division twice, and one team from the National three times (maybe there's a natural rivalry between Antigua and Rochester).
There is conflicting information about how the playoffs will work, but it appears that the top three teams from National and American and the top two from International will qualify. All rounds are single-game knockout, with home field advantage to the team with the best record.

Moving to level 4, we have the Premier Development League, whose rosters are made up mostly of college players on summer break. There are 9 regional divisions, each with between 5 and 9 teams. Teams play a 16-game schedule: In the nine-team divisions, that's a double round-robin home-and-home; in smaller divisions, teams may play some opponents three or four times each. There are no games against teams in other divisions, to cut travel costs.
Last year, the top two teams from each division advanced to a single-elimination knockout national playoffs. There were only eight divisions last year, so it worked out to a clean 16-team tournament. This year, the same system would put 18 teams in the playoffs. Hopefully someone has thought of a way to solve this, but there doesn't appear to be an announcement yet.

Next up is the National Premier Soccer League, which is also recognized as a level 4 league, but in most fans' minds ranks lower. Players are utterly amateur by this level, and few have ambitions of rising up the pyramid. The league consists this year of six divisions, up from five last year, of five to eight teams. Unlike the leagues above it, the N.P.S.L. has its playoff final four at a neutral site, Madison, Alabama, in late July.

Below these leagues is the United States Adult Soccer Association, a huge organization that includes 55 state associations, hundreds of teams and thousands of players.

Although teams are not upwardly (or downwardly) mobile in the American system, they do meet on level terms in one competition, the U.S. Open Cup. This year's Cup will begin with 32 teams: 11 from the U.S.L. Pro,  9 from the P.D.L., 4 from the N.P.S.L., and 8 from the U.S.A.S.A. (The N.A.S.L. will not participate this year.) After two rounds, the eight survivors are joined by 8 M.L.S. teams in the round of 16.  It's not as rigidly structured as a pyramid, but it's enjoyable democratic chaos nonetheless.

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