The geographic reality of league play in the United States

And I swear I won’t turn it into a lecture about why it’s painfully obvious that the United States is nowhere near ready for Pro-Rel. Or I’ll try not to.

The BBC was sending #thoughtsandprayers to Sunderland fans over the weekend because they were either following their team from a distance, or traveling 330 miles to Portsmouth to see the Black Cats in the flesh. See?

That’s a far trip! It’s also… one of the shorter trips an American team would have to make. That’s not to say the English fans are spoiled are soft, but rather to point out a reality of soccer in a country as large as ours. That’s not even a first-division game (or second! It’s a League One game!), for the record.

Take the top flight only in our country. Want to know how many roadtrips that short exist for Atlanta United? Colorado Rapids? Minnesota United? Montreal Impact? Orlando City? Real Salt Lake? San Jose Earthquakes? Sporting Kansas City? Toronto FC? Zero. Every single game they play necessitates travel farther than that 330-mile journey. LA Galaxy added its first shorter trip just this season when a local derby against LAFC was established (of course, they’d previously had one against Chivas USA), and both the Chicago Fire and Columbus Crew will have one for the first time this season when FC Cincinnati is a little closer to each than either is to the other.

This ludicrously painful trip, one of the greatest distances two teams in the English Football League system could have to travel (let’s get Plymouth Argyle and Newcastle in the same league, folks) is closer than the travel for every game for nearly half of MLS, and until the expansion of the past three years, more than half of the league. It’s not quite as bad in a league like USL – some shorter trips, and no cross-continental play with discrete geographic conferences – but the concept remains the same: most regular-season games are worse than the worst-case scenario in the most prominent footballing country (at least in terms of league play) in the world.

The size of our country is a challenge for the domestic league (one of my solutions? Forget stopping at 28 or even 30 teams, heck, forget stopping at 40 teams in MLS expansion. Build up a very good density of top-flight teams. The maturation of USL into a very professional product helps a bit; I still think it’d be more beneficial to have “major league” spread to basically every top-50 metro in the country, plus some that are smaller but in key geographic areas), and both a challenge and an opportunity for U.S. Soccer writ large.

Let’s spin it local here. These are the distances for every road game that Nashville SC will play this season.

Opponent Distance
Louisville City FC 176 mi.
Birmingham Legion 191 mi.
Memphis 901 FC 212 mi.
Atlanta United 2 248 mi.
Indy Eleven 289 mi.
St. Louis FC 309 mi.
Charlotte Independence 409 mi.
North Carolina FC 533 mi.
Charleston Battery 551 mi.
Pittsburgh Riverhounds 560 mi.
Swope Park Rangers 591 mi.
Loudoun United 666 mi. 🤘
Tampa Bay Rowdies 704 mi.
Bethlehem Steel 804 mi.
New York Red Bulls II 881 mi.
Hartford Athletic 1,007 mi.
Ottawa Fury 1,034 mi.

Like I said at the top, I don’t intend to turn this into a contest – though that’s somewhat natural, I’m more about being descriptive here – but a London club could travel less from its home ground the entire season (Arsenal: about 2336 miles in aggregate this year, per Google Maps’ shortest recommended drive door-to-door from Emirates to each home ground in the Premier League) than a single game for the farthest matchup in the Western Conference (2,369 miles between Seattle Sounders 2 and Rio Grande Valley Toros). The greatest driving distance between two MLS teams – Vancouver to Orlando – is 3,208 miles, and includes international travel (as does the trip between the two opposite corners, the 2,863-mile journey from Carson, California to Montreal). That’s simply a reality that doesn’t exist in Europe.

Of course, there are cultural differences that mitigate some of that: Western Hemisphere dwellers are more used to longer travel or air travel (and less used to reliance on public transit) simply as a result of some of those geographic differences. There’s also less of an away supporter culture, at least at the higher levels of soccer, which is an unfortunate consequence of all of the above.

In the end, the realities of Manifest Destiny’s consequences (you know, those consequences Lewis and Clark kept in mind when they were thinking about professional sports leagues in the region they were exploring) must be kept in mind when determining and molding the structure of our soccer leagues, from MLS on down.

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