Professional US soccer leagues look fairly similar to their counterparts in other American sports, and always have for the most part.

You have a league with teams located in (mostly) large towns dotted across the entire continent. And once you get enough teams, it’s broken into regional divisions for scheduling purposes. MLS, USL, NISA, and most of the domestic soccer leagues that have come before, have all operated this way.

Soccer fans in the US sometimes like to compare our league(s) to the setup in Europe. The top leagues and clubs in the world are in Europe, and we’re keen to use them as a measuring stick to gauge our own progress as a soccer nation. Whatever the reasoning for making the comparison, the exercise usually ends like this: “…but you can’t really compare soccer in the US to other countries. The US itself is as big as Europe!”

Arguments like “we can’t play a Fall-Spring calendar because the weather is too varied” or “promotion and relegation can’t work here because the country is so spread out” use our massive geography as a justification for the US operating soccer differently then most of the world.

But what if we looked at the issue from a different angle? Perhaps it’s not that our country is too big and there is simply nothing we can do about it. But maybe it’s our leagues are too big – from a geographic standpoint anyway. Does the United States need to have nationwide leagues that span an entire continent? Simply because the NFL, MLB, and other sports operate that way, does it mean soccer has to follow suit? Think about how ridiculous a single, 30 team league would be for all of Europe. So why isn’t it equally as silly that we do that here?

What if we took the regional division concept and went a step further? Breaking the United States into completely separate regional leagues, as if it were actually multiple countries. Forget everything you’re accustomed to in American sports, and open your mind to a new possibility.

Divide and Conquer

Imagine for a moment that the USA, at least for soccer purposes, was split into five different countries. Not unlike the United Kingdom’s England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own national teams and league systems. With a geographic area so vast, the US could actually be split into even smaller areas, even some individual states, but let’s stick with five to keep it simple.

MLS and USL each actually have enough teams to split within themselves, but for fun, let’s divvy up all 89 professional men’s clubs in the US into five new leagues. This number includes all announced (or presumed) expansion teams in MLS, USL and NISA, as well as teams officially “on hiatus”. It also includes Canada’s three MLS entrants. To make it a round 90 total teams, I’m putting a team in Boise, Idaho.

So, we end up with five regional leagues, each with 18 clubs. Whenever you divide teams up geographically, there are always winners and losers. This happens with divisions in American sports all the time. And with large areas of the country without many teams, it can get especially tricky. But as more clubs come to life, you can adjust the regional rosters to work as best as possible for everyone. So, apologies to the Pacific Northwest teams and Tulsa, but I did the best I could to keep everyone close and preserve rivalries.

So here’s a re-imagined American soccer landscape:

Breaking up the leagues to achieve inclusivity

Go ahead and click the above image to get a much clearer picture of how regional leagues could work.

Each league has 18 teams, and could play a balanced 34-game schedule. An annual USA Champions League style competition could be contested to determine a national champion, with the top 2 or 3 teams from each league qualifying.

So, which teams would be members of the inclusive regional leagues — where we could see local, regional teams actually playing against each other? Drumroll, please. Here’s how we imagine it looking:

Southeast League
  • Atlanta United
  • Birmingham Legion
  • Charleston Battery
  • Chattanooga FC
  • Chattanooga Red Wolves
  • Club de Lyon
  • Greenville Triumph
  • Inter Miami
  • Jacksonville, FL*
  • One Knoxville
  • Memphis 901 FC
  • Miami FC
  • Nashville SC
  • Orlando City
  • New Orleans, LA*
  • Tampa Bay Rowdies
  • Savannah Clovers
  • South Georgia Tormenta
Northeast League
  • Charlotte FC
  • Charlotte Independence
  • City Union (Rochester/Syracuse)
  • D.C. United
  • Hartford Athletic
  • Loudoun United
  • Maryland Bobcats
  • CF Montréal
  • New England Revolution
  • New York Cosmos
  • North Carolina FC
  • Red Bull New York
  • Philadelphia Union
  • Queensboro FC*
  • Rhode Island FC*
  • Richmond Kickers
  • Toronto FC
Rust Belt League
  • Chicago Fire
  • FC Cincinnati
  • Columbus Crew
  • Detroit City
  • Des Moines, IA*
  • Forward Madison
  • Gold Star FC Detroit
  • Indy Eleven
  • Lexington SC
  • Louisville City
  • Michigan Stars
  • Milwaukee, WI*
  • Minnesota United
  • Pittsburgh Riverhounds
  • Sporting Kansas City
  • St. Louis City
  • FC Tulsa
  • Union Omaha
Pacific-Gulf League
  • Austin FC
  • Boise, ID***
  • Colorado Rapids
  • Colorado Springs Switchbacks
  • FC Dallas
  • El Paso Locomotive
  • Fort Worth, TX** (formerly Austin Bold)
  • Houston Dynamo
  • New Mexico United
  • Northern Colorado Hailstorm
  • Oklahoma City Energy**
  • Portland Timbers
  • Real Salt Lake
  • Rio Grande Valley Toros
  • San Antonio FC
  • Seattle Sounders
  • Spokane, WA*
  • Vancouver Whitecaps
West Coast League
  • Albion San Diego
  • Calabasas FC*
  • California United**
  • Central Valley Fuego
  • Las Vegas Lights
  • LAFC
  • Los Angeles Force
  • Los Angeles Galaxy
  • Monterey Bay FC
  • Oakland Roots
  • Orange County SC
  • Phoenix Rising
  • Sacramento Republic
  • San Diego Loyal
  • San Diego MLS*
  • SJ Earthquakes
  • Santa Barbara Sky*
  • Valley United**

* Announced expansion team
** Team officially on hiatus
*** Imagined team (Boise)

If you look at the breakdown of the leagues above, that’s not too bad right? Only the Pacific-Gulf region has an undesirable geographic breakdown. But as noted earlier, as more teams come to life, the leagues could be reshuffled (or more added).

All five leagues contain quality teams (from a good mix of current D1/2/3 leagues in each), a nice balance of markets, and at least one local derby. I don’t think any of these five leagues would be any less interesting than any of the nationwide competitions we have now. And they would surely produce some entertaining soccer.

It really speaks to how far behind we are in the sport compared to the rest of the world when you run the numbers. Some countries the size of single US states have as many, or more, professional clubs as all of our leagues combined.

So why regionalize?

There are a few key benefits to compartmentalizing the soccer system.

Reduced Club Travel

For most clubs around the world, traveling across the continent is an occasional reward for doing well and qualifying for a big tournament. For American clubs, it’s an incessant component of week-to-week league play. The shortest road trip for an American team might be the longest for a club in Germany, Spain, or England. It may seem like a small inconvenience for players to have to sit on a five hour plane ride. But it can effect training schedules, player fitness, performance, and mental health, and is costly. Keeping road matches within a 1-2 hour plane flight, or even better, a charter bus trip, is ideal.

easier away days

Shortening the distance between league games is good for fans, too. The best atmospheres are always when away fans are in the building. So keeping an entire league within somewhat reasonable driving distance is ideal to encourage more supporters to hit the road.

Build regional rivalries

With our current system of unconnected leagues, there are clubs based in the same area, or even city, who rarely play each other, if ever. Some of the best rivalries in the sports are contested by teams in the same local area. Regionalizing would bring close clubs even closer, and foster more intense rivalries in the sport.

encourage the birth of new clubs

With smaller, regional league systems, it could lead to more pro clubs being founded. When faced with the prospects of having to join a nationwide league, potential investors and/or communities may not even try. On another note, even if they wanted to start a team and had the resources, they could be rejected for being too small a market. But with a more regionalized system, it’s more practical for more places to have teams.

Schedule Flexibility

If you don’t have teams in your league who play thousands of miles away, you don’t have to worry about playing in a wildly different climate. So there is the opportunity to set the league schedules when it makes the most sense for that region. For example, a Southeast League or West Coast League could play from Fall-Spring – something the Northeast League could never do.

Balanced Schedules

Once you get past around 20 teams in a league, you really can’t play a fair, balanced schedule. Playing every other team once at home and once away is too many games. MLS and USL already are well past the FIFA-recommended 18-20 team league size, and play unbalanced regular seasons. This, at least partially, de-legitimizes the final results, qualification for playoffs, and in the end, the league champions. Keeping things regional makes it possible to keep league sizes, and schedules, manageable.

Why not?

With anything, there are pros and cons.

Until there is a critical mass of teams more evenly spread throughout the entire continent, there would be hiccups in divvying the teams up. Somebody will inevitably draw the short straw, stuck in a larger region and separated from some closer teams to keep total number of teams in the regions within reason.

One of the other negatives of regionalizing the league structure would be that you would lose out on potential marquee club matchups. Then again, traditional TV for domestic soccer is largely a thing of the past. So trying to please network executives with LA versus New York games on TV five times a season isn’t as much of a priority. Plus, it’s not like people have been tuning in in droves for those matchups historically anyway.

However, if you look abroad, you have big matchups within leagues, and then even bigger matchups when two clubs from different leagues meet up for a bigger tournament. Seeing those clashes only in an American Champions League or in CONCACAF play would make them extra special.

And of course there is the overall lack of teams and gulf in quality between them. To make the five leagues above, we had to combine every independent division one, two and three club in the USA. But doing that would leave the levels directly below devoid of anything but amateur teams, which isn’t exactly a desirable scenario. Realistically you’d need a TON more professional clubs to even attempt anything half as drastic as the above.

Naturally, reshuffling teams from totally separate league entities is a wild pipe dream. But it could still be a useful strategy within those existing leagues.

Dividing the divisions

Splitting the existing MLS and USL into effectively independent competitions within themselves could very well be the future of pro soccer in the US. It would come with all the same pros (and cons) as an overall restructuring. Splintering off when they reach too many teams would allow both organizations to continue expanding (and collecting fees) almost indefinitely. You could cut MLS in two (assuming team number 30 in San Diego) and have 15-team divisions that play 28-game regular seasons, and expand into each from there. Once those divisions get too big, you could split again into three, four, and so on.

This is all assuming the league structure remains the same as it is today. But even in the unlikely event the United States someday adopts promotion and relegation, regionalizing still makes sense. There is no practical reason any single league needs to be spread across the whole country. “That’s how other American sports leagues do it” or “Every other country’s first division covers their whole country” simply aren’t good enough justifications.

Soccer isn’t like other American sports, and the US isn’t every other soccer nation. We can, and should, do things a bit differently from other sports and other nations. But in some cases, we’re not doing the right things differently.