The levels of the American soccer pyramid are confusing, mostly because they are make-believe. Every level of the world’s real soccer pyramids are clearly numbered, linked with flights of stairs, and constantly shuffle teams up and down depending on the results of a clear and meritocratic process. At any point, any given club knows exactly on which floor it currently stands and what their presence on that floor means. If they improve they can go up, and if the get worse they might go down.
The American pyramid is different. It too has levels, but going between them is like getting on an elevator with lots of strange buttons with no numbers next to them, and the only certainty is that if you slip a fat enough envelope inside the vest pocket of the elevator operator, he’ll take you to the top floor, no questions asked. So yes, in America we have a “pyramid” with “levels,” but the whole system is more metaphorical than real—a chintzy facade studiously painted up to look like the structure of Europe’s leagues, but without any of the real deal’s foundational elements.
The powers that be love these hollow impressions of serious European soccer, knowing full well that there is a sizable chunk of the American public—some naive out of a genuine lack of sophistication, others compelled by a jingoistic bent to defend this country’s facially embarrassing attempts to adopt a Madrid-by-way-of-Manchester accent for cash—who will eat it up. This is how we arrive at the United Soccer League’s latest effort at playacting like a Brit and sounding like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.
The USL has existed for a while now and has been, at various times, the second, third, or second and third divisions in our pretend pyramid. Technically, the USL is made up of multiple separate leagues: the USL, formerly known as the USL Pro, which, after the collapse of the NASL, is the U.S.’s sole officially sanctioned second division; the USL D3, a league that hasn’t yet begun play but will aim to serve as the country’s currently vacant third division; and the Premier Development League, which, as the name implies, is mostly made up of small regional teams and reserve teams of clubs higher up the food chain.
Just yesterday, the USL announced its plan to rebrand and restructure itself. The league’s top division will be henceforth known as the USL Championship, the USL D3 will be called the USL League One, and the PDL will become the USL League Two. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this naming structure has been ripped directly from the English Football League, which governs the second, third, and fourth divisions of the British pyramid. England’s second division is called the EFL Championship, the third division League One, and the fourth division League Two. In some ways, this bit of Euro cosplay is even weirder than the sort we’ve grown accustomed to.
This insistence on copying the names of the English pyramid’s levels is bizarre enough in its own right, but in itself isn’t worth much more than a groan. What’s more galling is how they’ve named these three divisions after England’s without adopting the single defining feature of the Championship and League One and League Two and all the rest, which is promotion and relegation. The Championship is called the Championship because it is the highest division of the EFL, heir to the oldest such collection of leagues in the world. League One is called League One because it is the first league below the Championship, and both takes teams not good enough to survive the Championship’s grueling competition and sends up new candidates to test their mettle in the big(ger) league. League Two is called League Two because it has the same relationship with League One as League One has with the Championship.
The naming of England’s pyramid is what it is because it all means something. Promotion and relegation is what gives meaning to the words “championship” and “one” and “two.” The words don’t just have some inherent soccerness that can be copied and imported to make an ersatz American division seem more authentic. In contrast to the English leagues, which by design separate the best from the worst, there is no real difference between these putative USL leagues. Every team in the USL League Two could very well be better than all the teams in the USL League One and nobody would ever know, because the only difference between leagues is the one U.S. Soccer tells you exists. Naming a suite of leagues after their rough counterparts in England isn’t just craven and insulting, it is fundamentally wrong.
To be fair, the USL has made noise about possibly implementing promotion and relegation before. When the USL announced the creation of what the USL D3, league president Jake Edwards said, “I think it would be very interesting to look at pro-rel between those two divisions.” And the FAQ posted on the leagues’ website has this:
DOES THE NEW STRUCTURE MEAN THERE WILL BE PROMOTION AND RELEGATION BETWEEN THE LEAGUES?
Currently the United Soccer League is focused on establishing a successful new third division in USL League One to help fill out the professional U.S. soccer structure, which is a necessary precursor to any implementation of a promotion and relegation system. That said, the new structure does lend itself well to some form of promotion and relegation in the future.
Hopefully the USL is serious about this and isn’t just using the words “promotion and relegation” as yet more exotic buzzwords said to drum up cheap interest. Because the day someone finally does bring promotion and relegation stateside will be the day a piece of Europe-copying really is worth getting excited for.