never win the
(unless the system changes)
What’s holding the United States back from becoming a soccer superpower like the rest of the world?
A few years ago, frustrated at seeing the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) struggle to qualify for the World Cup, I remember thinking to myself, “what can we, as fans, do to make sure the USMNT wins a World Cup in our lifetime?”
My experiences as the founder and chairman of Stockade FC (a semi-pro team in the Hudson Valley) and the co-founder of Street FC (“SoulCycle, but for pickup soccer”) have given me front-row seats to the shortcomings of our nation’s approach to the beautiful game.
First and foremost, here in the US, Major League Soccer (MLS) operates as a closed system. Teams pay exorbitant fees to join a top-flight league that never threatens relegation, while clubs in lower-level leagues are denied the opportunity for promotion, regardless of their performance on the field. This starkly contrasts with the open, merit-based systems seen in Europe and almost everywhere else in the world, which drives competition, growth, and investment (not to mention excitement and drama for fans worldwide).
The lack of a merit-based promotion and relegation system in the US stifles the hyper-competitive environment that is crucial for developing both top-tier talent and compelling narratives.
The lack of a merit-based promotion and relegation system in the US stifles the hyper-competitive environment that is crucial for developing both top-tier talent and compelling narratives. This has led to a US soccer ecosystem that hinders investment in both club infrastructure and youth development at the lower levels, which is vital for nurturing homegrown talent and growing fans of the game.
Why does this matter? In the absence of a hyper-competitive domestic league, we are failing to produce world-class players and attract the best talent from abroad while they’re still in their prime. It’s an open secret that top American players flee to European leagues as soon as they hit their teens, while the best players in the world look to wind down their careers in the MLS. The closed nature of our leagues has created a comfortable, risk-averse culture that is the antithesis to the spirit of the game worldwide.
Creating a European-style, open-league system in the US that benefits owners, fans, and players alike, would be challenging, but not impossible. We would need a vision, a plan, and a timeline from United States Soccer Federation (USSF) leadership. Unfortunately, there seems to be a reluctance to formally lay out such a plan, as it would disrupt the status quo (specifically, MLS owners who invested millions in their clubs, but who never “signed up” for relegation). In short, MLS investments have taken priority over creating a cohesive US soccer ecosystem with healthy lower-level leagues.
Meanwhile, in Europe, football folklore is fueled by the possibility of any club from any league achieving a meteoric rise through the ranks. These stories captivate fans and embody the very essence of sport—hope, ambition, and the reward for hard work. Unfortunately, the structure of the US Soccer ecosystem denies this opportunity and prevents these Cinderella-esque stories that all sports fans love (see: NCAA March Madness).
The current US system offers little incentive for soccer entrepreneurs to invest in the lower levels of domestic soccer.
The current US system offers little incentive for soccer entrepreneurs to invest in the lower levels of domestic soccer. With no “pot of gold” for club owners to chase in the US (such as revenue sharing from sponsorships and broadcast rights that come with promotion), the financial prospects on investments in lower-level clubs are bleak compared to the potential return on investments in foreign clubs, where even an obscure lower-level club can rise through the ranks and multiply in value. This is why you see the Ryan Reynolds of the world investing in lower-level soccer infrastructure abroad (in open systems), but not here in the US (our closed system).
I founded Stockade FC after asking myself the question “what can we do to help the USMNT win a World Cup in our lifetime?” My answer: “Support local soccer.” For me, this meant putting my entrepreneurial skills to work in creating a club from scratch in the Hudson Valley of New York and creating a blueprint for other clubs inspired to do the same. This has certainly made an impact – creating clubs, players, fans, inspiring youth, etc. – but not enough to move the needle on a national scale.
completely different perspective? We’d love to know:
For US Soccer to evolve, there are a dozen changes that need to be made – from creating an open system of promotion and relegation to making youth soccer more affordable, to making soccer more accessible in cities by converting basketball courts into dual-sport courts (spoiler: put a goal under that net!), to elevating the US Open Cup to the same level as the NCAA basketball tournament.
What’s next for soccer in the US? As much as I would love to see the change start from the bottom up (with the lower-level leagues self-organizing), I really think the most impactful change will come from a well-articulated vision of how to turn our closed system into an open system from the new leadership at US Soccer. The timing is right – the USSF has a new CEO and the World Cup will be hosted across 11 American cities in 2026. There is a palpable buzz around soccer in the US (thanks to everyone from Lionel Messi to Ted Lasso), but only if we channel this energy into transformative action can we hope to create a domestic soccer ecosystem as dynamic and exciting as those that thrill fans across the globe.
Can insurgent leagues capture market share from the NFL?
This topic kept coming up in our various events: the NFL is God. And God is immune to all the forces that are challenging the other incumbent leagues like the NBA and MLB. What makes the NFL so powerful? Is it a better TV experience? Is it a better sport? The rest of the world would argue against that. (And they probably want the word football back).
The NFL is built on initial scarcity. It started with two games broadcasted one day a week in the autumn. Then came Sunday Night Football, then Monday Night Football. Then Thursday Night Football followed that. Now we have Sunday Ticket and the Red Zone channel. All of that football turned into fantasy football leagues, online gambling. And all of that engagement is padded with endless expert analysis that fills in the gaps in between all the snaps. Is this ecosystem too strong to be disrupted?
This question unlocked a lot of thinking.
What does a league need to thrive? How can an old sport evolve and find new audiences? Can a team of insurgent leagues take down the mighty NFL?