The Unruly Soccer Pyramids of America

Every nation has a soccer pyramid, but the USA’s wasn’t built properly and it shows
by Mike Firpo   |   Friday, February 10, 2012

American Soccer Pyramids

To the best of my understanding, the diagram above is the current men’s soccer pyramid in the United States. I think. I note the apprehension because it is one of the most nebulous semblances of a sporting structure one can imagine. If the Byzantine Empire were still kicking, they’d likely want to get in on this one:

“Georgius, is this true that we have three organizations running Byzantium’s youth soccer?”
“Why yes, yes it is Sire. We are very proud of that. They all do the same things in the same places, just by different people. Our crowning achievement.”
“Splendid! Have the person who devised that plan organize the entire soccer pyramid for the empire. After that send him to Constantinople, the Ottomans are invading in 200 years and I want to make sure we have three armies instead of one.”

The pyramid is used to show how the structure strengthens as it rises, with the MLS and US National Teams at the apex, as most of the world does it. In the USA though, that pyramid is just for illustrative purposes only.

The good news: there are tons of players so the cream, mostly, does rise to the top.
The bad news: there are too many governing bodies, too many leagues, too many tournaments, too many good players in weak clubs, too many camps, too much cost to families, too many bad coaches, too many clubs and too many rules. Many of these bodies do the same thing, in the same cities … some with the same kids!

It’s certainly confusing to wrap your head around. No doubt the confusion will turn to frustration when compounded with one of the following paraphrased statements from the people who run one of the fiefdoms of American soccer:

From guys at the top, the pros:

“We’d like to work with the WPS, however MLS has fundamentally different demographics, business models and ownership to work”.
“The NASL and USL will never work together, our organizations have radically different philosophies in how we work and the rift is too wide and the wounds too bitter to make it happen”.

From the people who run the grassroots game, for kids:

“Our playing and coaching philosophies are too different, the AYSO and US Youth Soccer will always remain separate”.

When there are such clear cut battle lines drawn in the sand between different sections of the American soccer pyramids (men’s, women’s indoor & beach), it’s any wonder the entire pyramid even functions properly on its own. Especially since there has been such little real collaboration between these bodies, nor a promotion and relegation setup, so it truly can have very separate sections of the pyramid acting independent of all the other sections. College soccer would be a great example of that.

A soccer pyramid in most nations around the world is fairly simple, but not always the same. Every nation is a little different, but most are hierarchal with the FIFA designated Football Association (FA) or Federation in charge of not just the national teams at the top and either direct or indirect control over the top national league, but it usually includes the lower leagues below it, all the various levels of regional/state/city amateur and youth clubs below that. In essence, all of football is under their control.

Most of that is based on the English system and its pyramid that it gave to the world along with the sport itself. Their pyramid is gigantic, with 24 levels, 140 leagues, 480 divisions and about 7000 clubs within them in a true pyramidal structure that is wide at the bottom and narrower as you get closer to the apex. But due to its wise geographic basis in most of the base and excellent organization all around, the system works.

For a relative small “nation” (it’s the biggest, but still only a part of the UK), England has punched above its weight internationally. Much of that can be attributed to the long-history and entrenchment of the game into society, but also to their national pyramidal structure for the game and the vertical use of promotion and relegation of players and clubs. Simply put, if you’re a good enough player or squad of players you will keep rising up the levels of the gigantic but well organized English soccer pyramid. The better you are or become the higher you can advance, as a player to a top club and national team and as a club to a top league and further afield. Soccer meritocracy and efficiency in action, due to a truly perfect sporting structure made up of scouting, competition and reward.

This is why it is emulated the world over, and generally works. But in The States we have yet to get it so neatly organized.

The Upside Down, Disjointed or Disfigured Pyramids of the US

American soccer has to be given credit nationwide. Since the NASL youth soccer boom occurred there are now loads and loads of clubs, leagues, players and competitions for youth, amateurs and pros. Even the lack of fields and facilities nationwide, a major issue in the 90s and still in some places, even seems to be dissipating as soccer becomes more culturally accepted and community resources are spent on it. You can’t deny the numbers, which are very positive and good for American soccer.

The issue however is that the soccer pyramid which the US Soccer Federation oversees as the national governing body was never given a proper infrastructure and framework to which the foundation should be formed, so it bore too many limbs and now is terribly deformed. To the point that it’s not even clear if there is one pyramid and it’s just seemingly more nebulous than most around the world – OR – that its several pyramids, sometimes working together, overlapping all over the place and not sharing the proper information, resources and infrastructure … with itself.

Most professional soccer clubs nationwide don’t have true youth development pyramids. And even if they do, they just might be considered one of many clubs in their locale and subsequently don’t represent their communities comprehensively. They don’t (and can’t as it works today) have all of the players available to them locally to scout, to include in their system and to coach into better players. Instead they basically have their own small pyramid; isolated from much of the area’s other players who play on other clubs and in other leagues.

Encouragingly, some MLS and lower league clubs in the NASL, USL and NPSL are developing academies and boosting their own pyramids, so the future does look brighter. The problem is they don’t all work together, even when they exist in the same markets instead of collaboration with neighboring clubs they tend to resort to competition with them, and not the healthy variety but the kind that is detrimental to the growth of the American game.

Even the highest rung, the MLS clubs define their own club’s soccer pyramids very differently from each other. Here is a look at the way 3 clubs structure their own developmental pyramids:

MLS Club Soccer Pyramids - Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas & Columbus Crew

Arcane & Bureaucratic

Another big issue is that there are just WAY too many organizations, leagues, clubs in various governing bodies, for-profit camps, etc. I have rarely come across any one individual in American soccer that knows, let alone understands, all of these various bodies, how they function, how they collaborate and how the entire puzzle works. No one can, because there’s just too much of all of it. And with that, too many conflicting interests protecting their own fiefdom’s sovereignty, and with so many varying bodies comes much unnecessary bureaucracy.

Here’s a perfect example of why this pyramid is dysfunctional in its present form and detrimental to growing soccer to its full potential in the USA:

Recently, a prospective minor league soccer owner told me he wanted to start his own club near where he resided and he needed advice on which league to join. So I gave him information on both the USL-run PDL and their peer amateur organization the NPSL. It was clear that one league made much more sense for him and his specific situation. The issue, that league didn’t have any clubs nearby, meaning travel costs would be prohibitive. The other league though had nearby clubs for his to play, but the structure just wasn’t right. And because both leagues don’t work together, except the rare fleeting chance in US Open Cup play, he would have to settle on one bad situation or another for his fledgling club. Not a good situation for the game locally or nationally and his club might be doomed for failure before it even began. Why? Because if both leagues formed that entire level of the pyramid, and they played in that regional division, his club would make local rivals, save overhead and have a chance of at least breaking even. A good example of why parts of this pyramid need to be merged and be in-sync with the other parts.

Youth Soccer in Triplicate

We’ve all heard the differentiation between US Youth Soccer (USYS) and the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), the latter believing that it is best for all kids to play regardless of skill. Their different philosophy in how kids should be coached soccer, is nearly always given as the reason for their separation. So we’re told there is merit, miniscule if any, in having two separate major youth soccer bodies.

SAY AGM 2012

But we don’t have two youth bodies, there are three in the USA. And I have no clue what differentiates Soccer Association for Youth (SAY Soccer), the smallest of the 3, from the other two and why it is necessary other than creating more bureaucracy. But hey why question that; just be happy that their 2012 AGM will be held at the swanky Belterra Resort & Casino. Just what we need, youth soccer funds going to gambling and relaxing soccer volunteers. That’ll win us a World Cup or get urban youth into the game! Geez, you’d think during tough economic times and cost cutting, that a more utilitarian convention might be the way to go. 

Here’s a brain twister. According to the SAY Soccer, it is also possible and “perfectly legal under US Soccer Federation By-Laws” to have a youth club be a member of multiple youth governing bodies. Oh brother.

AYSO, SAY & US Youth Soccer - USA Territory Maps

If that doesn’t rattle your noggin in search of logic, go try finding out which club you belong to in the maps of the 3 youth bodies on the left. Than which league it’s in, which youth soccer organization that’s in and then which part of that … oh forget it. It’s insane. This deformed pyramid just gives more adults self-aggrandized titles and takes away from the system being able to fund the most talented players at the top freely, which it should. Conventions, offices, technical directors, swag, parties, per diems, technology, vehicles, all manner of staff, expense accounts, travel … all done in triplicate, in triplicate, in triplicate.

With 3 major governing bodies for youth soccer at the base level of the American pyramid imagine the confusion if a major consumer retail organization like Procter & Gamble gets a call from US Youth Soccer in the morning from their marketing person saying “… we’re the top national youth soccer organization in the nation.” Later that day they get identical calls from AYSO and SAY, allaying the same claim, pitching their merits, covetous soccer participation demographics and wanting some money for the privilege to work with them. Amazingly, they would all be accurate.

How confusing and limiting for youth soccer and American soccer as a whole. The redundancy, the confusion, the nebulousness – it defies logic and hampers the development of soccer in the United States. It will continue to do so, until all three are one unified organization with more resources, more efficiency, likely better and more professional staff and the ability to make more impactful and comprehensive changes while giving the divergent competitive and recreational sides to youth soccer their abilities to survive, thrive and not cannibalize the others in the process.

Do we really need 3 youth soccer bodies? 5 elite youth soccer bodies above them? USASA and US Club Soccer running the amateurs, along with the PDL and NPSL leagues? And more importantly, does it work?

From a nation with so many players, so much wealth, boatloads of coaches, organizations, clubs and opportunities - to yield only 3 current top players in Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard - I would say no it has not. The system is not necessarily too big (the numbers are good) but the organization, something Americans usually do well, is lacking. The main culprit would have to be the USSF and their lack of leadership and ability to unite the various fiefdoms of the pyramid. That is not an easy thing to do, but it is needed. The overhaul of the mainly volunteer US Soccer Federation might also have to be done in the same mammoth undertaking, but again it may be necessary.

Hope for a Builder

Imagine if they did work together, that the levels of the pyramid were run singularly and the resulting lessening of redundancy and bureaucracy. Those increased resources would also be led by more capable people than today. There would be vast potential in harnessing all that soccer knowledge, numbers, markets, professional know-how, passion, regional rivalries, integrated scouting, cost savings and efficiency increases.

The United States is a populous nation, with lots of good infrastructure, space and wealth. More importantly, we have lots of people playing soccer. If we made those changes, it could be the longterm game-changer for the sport in the USA.

The one man who oversees the entire pyramid, is Jürgen Klinsmann, the US Men’s National Team head coach. For metaphor’s sake, let’s call him the Pharaoh. Pharaoh Jürgen likes to say that the American pyramid is upside down, mostly due to the pay-to-play aspects of the game that perverts much. That is a major flaw in the system of course, but I’d go further to say the pyramid’s biggest problem is it was never built with any set of blueprints originally, and later there was no set of logical guidelines to maintain it. So today you have a gigantic mess of smaller piles of bricks, instead of one awe-inspiring pyramid.

I have faith in this Pharaoh though. He did a major rehaul of a broken system in Germany when it mattered, against many naysayers and when all national outlook seemed glib. He just might be the soccer pyramid builder the USA needs.

And if he is, I’d be the first to say etch his face and name on the sphinx guarding it, because we will then have a pyramid that will work well and last the test of time.


Binghamton Univ.
Club Domestic:
NY Cosmos, RSL
Club Foreign:
Palermo, Napoli, FCB
Creator of Soccer Newsday. President of World Football Travel. Founder of NY Cosmos Campaign. Manager of North American Soccer Industry group on LinkedIn. Helped a few fans see the global game. Proposed on-field at MLS Cup 04. Longtime devotee of Soccer.