United States soccer league system

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The professional soccer clubs of the United States and Canada, year 2013.

The United States soccer league system, sometimes called the American soccer pyramid, is a series of professional and amateur leagues based, in whole or in part, in the United States. For practical and historical reasons, some teams from Antigua and Barbuda, Bermuda, Canada and Puerto Rico (considered a separate country by FIFA) also compete in these leagues, although they are not eligible for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, which is open only to teams affiliated with US Soccer, and cannot represent the United States in the CONCACAF Champions League; only USSF-affiliated teams can represent the U.S. in the continental tournament.

The United States is unusual in that its leagues are not linked by a system of promotion and relegation, just as none of Major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada are; however, its soccer leagues are still organized into tiers based on standards set by the USSF.


Unlike many countries' soccer league systems, in the United States, no professional league uses merit-based promotion and relegation to allow teams to move between divisions. The country's governing body for the sport, the United States Soccer Federation (also known as the USSF or US Soccer), oversees the system and is responsible for sanctioning professional leagues, and the leagues themselves are responsible for admitting and administering individual teams. Amateur soccer in the United States is regulated by the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA), the only amateur soccer organization sanctioned by the USSF.

Limited forms of promotion and relegation have existed in the past; for example, the United Soccer Leagues previously ran multiple sanctioned leagues, between which teams could voluntarily move, although this was largely unused. Several franchises had been voluntarily relegated from the First Division to the Second, and occasionally from the professional ranks to the PDL, usually to reduce operating costs or to re-structure the organization of the franchise in question. Similarly, some franchises have been given the opportunity to move up to a higher level having found success in the lower divisions—most recently USL2 champions Cleveland City Stars moving to USL1 in 2009—but this was not a regular occurrence. Automatic relegation between the two leagues, as exists in many other national league systems, was considered by the USL, but was never implemented.[1]

Some amateur leagues sanctioned by the USASA also use promotion and relegation systems within multiple levels of their leagues. However, there has never been a merit-based promotion system offered to the USASA's "national" leagues, the NPSL and the PDL.

College soccer in the United States is sanctioned by bodies outside the direct control of the USSF, the most important of which is the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Men's league system[edit]

In the United States, professional men's outdoor soccer leagues are ranked by the United States Soccer Federation into one of three divisions: Division I, Division II, and Division III.[2] Amateur soccer organizations are also recognized by the USSF, but individual amateur leagues are not.[3] Currently the only adult amateur soccer organization recognized by U.S. Soccer is the USASA, although several other leagues operate independently under the USASA umbrella.

Since 1996, Major League Soccer has been the only USSF Division I men's outdoor soccer league in the United States. The only currently recognized Division II men's outdoor soccer league is the North American Soccer League, a league that was formed in 2009, but did not debut until 2011 following the controversial 2010 season which saw neither the USL First Division nor the NASL receive Division II sanctioning from the USSF, resulting in the temporary USSF Division 2 Pro League. The only sanctioned Division III league is USL Pro, which is the result of the United Soccer Leagues' merger of the former USL First Division and USL Second Division.

The USSF does not officially recognize distinctions between amateur soccer leagues in the United States. However, the USASA sanctions affiliated, but separately run, national leagues that are recognized in practical terms as playing at a higher level than the USASA state association leagues; for example, they receive automatic berths to the US Open Cup.

The USL Premier Development League takes place during the summer months, and the player pool is drawn mainly from NCAA college soccer players seeking to continue playing high level soccer during their summer break, while still maintaining their college eligibility. The National Premier Soccer League is similar to the USL Premier Development League and also attracts top amateur talent from around the United States. NPSL does not have any age limits or restrictions, thus incorporating both college players and former professional players alike.

Some or all of these leagues and organizations are also recognized by the Canadian Soccer Association or another governing body; however, the list below reflects the USSF designation.



Sanctioned by USSF as Professional Leagues

USSF Division I

Major League Soccer (MLS)
16 US clubs and 3 Canadian clubs

Eastern Conference
Western Conference

USSF Division II

North American Soccer League (NASL)
8 US clubs and 2 Canadian clubs

USSF Division III

United Soccer Leagues Professional Division (USL Pro)
14 US clubs

Sanctioned through Organization Members of USSF*


United Soccer Leagues
Premier Development League

(PDL) 56 clubs (in 4 conferences)
(plus 8 Canadian clubs)

Central Conference
Eastern Conference
Southern Conference
Western Conference

Affiliated through United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA)

National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) 78 clubs (in 4 regions)

Northeast Region
South Region
Midwest Region
West Region

Pacific Coast Soccer League (PCSL)
8 Canadian clubs[4]

Premier Division
Reserve Division


US Club Soccer (USCS)
39 leagues in 4 regions

East Region
Midwest Region
South Region
West Region

United States Adult Soccer Association state leagues
55 state associations in 4 regions
See List of USASA affiliated leagues for complete list

Region I
Region II
Region III
Region IV

 * The tiers or levels here are approximate and not specifically so designated by USSF.

Men's national soccer cups[edit]

Women's league system[edit]

The Women's United Soccer Association suspended operations in 2003 and was replaced in 2009 with Women's Professional Soccer. WPS closed after the 2011 season due to a dispute with owners, and the WPSL Elite League was the de-facto top tier of women's soccer in 2012. In November 2012 the National Women's Soccer League, sponsored by the United States Soccer Federation, the Canadian Soccer Association and the Mexican Football Federation was announced. [5] The league started play in April, 2013.



Division 1**

9 Teams


19 US clubs and 6 Canadian clubs (in 4 conferences)

Women's Premier Soccer League
74 clubs (in 10 conferences)


United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA)
55 state associations in 4 regions
See List of USASA affiliated leagues for complete list
Region I
Region II
Region III
Region IV

 * The tiers or levels here are approximate and not specifically so designated by USSF.

 ** US Soccer has been heavily involved in the creation and operation of the NWSL; however, it did not initially refer to the new league as a sanctioned Division 1 league[6] US Soccer has now officially labeled NWSL as a Division 1 Professional league, and has added the league to its Professional Council.[7]

Indoor soccer[edit]

Though not officially organized by USSF, this is the generally accepted organization for indoor soccer in the United States by the United States Indoor Soccer Association.[8]




Major Indoor Soccer League
7 clubs

Professional Arena Soccer League
17 US clubs and 3 Mexican clubs


Premier Arena Soccer League
39 US clubs and 1 Mexican club

 * The tiers or levels here are approximate and not specifically so designated by USSF.


  1. ^ "Q & A with USL Vice President Tim Holt". United Soccer Leagues. 2006-04-21. Retrieved 2007-07-15. 
  2. ^ USSF Policy 202(H)(1) (PDF)
  3. ^ USSF Bylaws 109(13) to 109(17) (PDF)
  4. ^ Pacific Coast Soccer League club list
  5. ^ "Equalizer Soccer – Eight teams to start new women’s pro soccer league in 2013". Equalizersoccer.com. 2012-11-21. Retrieved 2013-10-01. 
  6. ^ See NWSL Announces Allocation of 55 National Team Players to Eight Clubs where US Soccer confirms it will subsidize salary for US National Team players.
  7. ^ "Professional Council". United States Soccer Federation. Retrieved November 7, 2013. 
  8. ^ United States Indoor Soccer Association

External links[edit]