Travel concerns are commonly cited as a roadblock to instituting promotion and relegation in North American soccer.
It takes deep pockets to fly a team from Boston to San Jose or New York to Vancouver, and cross-continental flights take their toll on athletes.
Russia dispels the notion that America’s vastness precludes a proper soccer pyramid. The world’s largest country is almost twice the size of the United States, and the distance between the Baltic seaport of Kaliningrad and Vladivostok in the Far East (4,577 miles) is equivalent to a round trip from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles.
Geography presents a challenge to the U.S. Soccer Federation, but not one that is insurmountable.
Russia’s Soccer Pyramid
Russia’s 16-team Premier League employs a balanced home-and-away schedule with the two lowest-ranked teams being relegated to the second-tier National Football League.
Five of the National Football League’s 19 teams are demoted to Russia’s Professional Football League consisting of 72 clubs allocated across five geographic zones. Five sectional champions from this third level are in turn promoted with the bottom clubs moving a further step down the ladder.
This season’s Premier League in Russia features a handful of teams that have recently risen through the ranks. Volga Nizhny Novgorod left the third tier in 2008, following the path taken by Rubin Kazan, Tom Tomsk, Amkar Perm, Kuban Krasnodar, Terek Grozny and F.C. Ural since 1997.
Comparing Major League Soccer to Russia’s Premier League
One-quarter of Russia’s top division clubs are based in Moscow – CSKA, Dynamo, Lokomotiv and Spartak. Every other team with the exception of Tom Tomsk is located within 1,000 miles of the capital, according to the dateandtime.info website.
Major League Soccer is far less concentrated with franchises stretching from Los Angeles to Vancouver on the Pacific coast and from Montreal to Washington in the east. Orlando City’s imminent arrival in 2015 extends the league’s geographic footprint down the Atlantic coast.
Assuming that the 19 current MLS clubs faced an equivalent home-and-away schedule this year instead of regionalized conferences, every MLS team would face a longer average journey to away games than 15 of their 16 Russian counterparts. Tom Tomsk is the exception. The West Siberia-based club has a longer average journey than every MLS side.
Russia’s geographic spread has shrunken since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The former Soviet Top League included teams from Almaty, Dushanbe and Tashkent during the 1980s that have since been lost to the national leagues of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan respectively.
The Russian Premier League is almost exclusively based in the country’s European cities to the west of the Ural Mountains this season – Tom Tomsk again being the exception.
This does not negate any comparison between the soccer pyramids of Russia and North America. It is simply a quirk of the current standings.
Comparing MLS to Russia’s Second Tier
Russia’s second-tier National Football League also uses a balanced home-and-away schedule for its 19 teams stretching from Kaliningrad and Saint Petersburg on the western fringes to Khabarovsk and Vladivostok in the Far East.
The two Far Eastern teams along with two from the Siberian cities of Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk undertake longer average journeys than any North American team, even if MLS adopted a home-and-away schedule.
Vladivostok’s Luch-Energiya and Khabarovsk’s SKA-Energiya face an average journey to an away game that is more than double that of the Vancouver Whitecaps, the most traveled team in MLS. Both teams have to travel over 3,200 miles to arrive at 15 of the 18 away venues.
Ranking each of the 38 teams from both leagues by the average journey faced produces a more equitable mix with eight Russian teams in the top 20.
Following Russia, And The Rest Of The World
Major League Soccer last used a balanced home-and-away schedule during the 2011 season when there were 18 franchises.
The U.S. Soccer Federation could reintroduce this model for its top tier. Double-header road trips could reduce travel burdens. For example, the New York Red Bulls could visit the Seattle Sounders in midweek after a weekend game at the Portland Timbers, as was the case during the 2011 season.
Three teams could be relegated into a regionalized second tier consisting of three 10-team divisions with the top and bottom sides moving up and down the ladder respectively.
There is some scope for outliers in a regional model. Indy Eleven, for example, is included in the West Division on The Soccer Observer’s diagram below given the current weighting of teams toward the east. That balance could be further affected if three eastern sides are relegated from the top tier. Geographic zoning requires some flexibility and a possible switch of division for certain teams depending on the 30 participants.
Double-header road trips can again be used to reduce the burden on those outlying teams facing longer average journeys.
Minimum standards could be imposed by the USSF as a safeguard against promoting teams beyond their resources. A place in the Premier League could require a 15,000-seat stadium with a First Division berth requiring a 7,500-seat venue (with a grace period after implementing the pyramid to allow for upgrades).
Evidence of sufficient funds could also be required by the USSF to prevent teams from being unable to fulfill their schedule.
Creating local rivalries has been a central tenet of MLS commissioner Don Garber’s drive to expand his league’s footprint. The example pyramid shown, taking the top 18 MLS teams from last season as the Premier League participants, would see the New York Cosmos and New York City F.C. fighting it out for promotion in an Atlantic section while Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville would be battling it out in the South.
Charleston Battery and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, two forward-thinking United Soccer Leagues franchises with impressive soccer-specific stadiums, would be incentivized to reach the top level on sporting merit. That would galvanize soccer fans in both cities, as well as across the country, to actively support their local teams.
Changing The American Pyramid
Pronouncements from Major League Soccer on the implementation of a proper soccer pyramid are increasingly hard to come by. Commissioner Garber commented during a social media question-and-answer session last year that it was “impossible to imagine it could work” in North American soccer’s current state.
Simple, meritocratic sporting pyramids are the staple of recreational bowling and racketball leagues as well as soccer associations across the globe.
Suggesting that America, the world’s most tub-thumping can-do nation that sent a man to the moon in 1969, cannot incorporate one in 2014 is poppycock.
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