United States soccer league system
The United States soccer league system is a series of professional and amateur soccer leagues based, in whole or in part, in the United States. Sometimes called the American soccer pyramid, teams and leagues in the United States are not linked by the system of promotion and relegation typical in soccer elsewhere. Instead, U.S. Soccer (USSF) officially defines leagues in levels, called divisions, with the top three sanctioned directly by the USSF.
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 U.S. 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.
No professional league in any of the major pro sports leagues in the US or Canada, including the professional soccer leagues, currently uses a system of promotion and relegation. The country's governing body for the sport, the United States Soccer Federation (also known as the USSF or U.S. Soccer), oversees the league system and is responsible for sanctioning professional leagues. 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.
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). See NCAA Division I women's soccer programs, NCAA Division I men's soccer programs, and NCAA Division II men's soccer programs for a list of college soccer programs in the United States.
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. Amateur soccer organizations are also recognized by the USSF, but individual amateur leagues are not. The only adult amateur soccer organization currently recognized by U.S. Soccer is the USASA, although several other leagues operate independently under the USASA umbrella.
|Major League Soccer||Division I||23||22,112||1993|
|United Soccer League||Division II||33||4,302||2010|
The standards for division I, II and III leagues are set by the USSF. 
Since 1996, Major League Soccer (MLS) has been the only sanctioned USSF Division I men's outdoor soccer league in the United States. MLS has grown from 10 teams in 1996 to 22 teams as of the 2017 season.
The United Soccer League (USL) is the only sanctioned Division II men's outdoor soccer league as of 2018. The USL, formed as a result of the merger of the former USL First Division and USL Second Division, was sanctioned as Division III league from 2011-2016. USL was also provisionally sanctioned as a Division II league for 2017, and received full Division II sanctioning in 2018 on a year-to-year basis. USL is divided into two conferences, East and West, to reduce travel costs for its teams and has minimal inter-conference games. The conference champions then meet in a single match to determine the league champion.
The previously Division II North American Soccer League (NASL) 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. NASL was sanctioned as a Division II league in 2011 until 2016 when it fielded 8 teams for the 2017 season, casusinf U.S. Soccer to only grant the league provisional sanctioning as it fell under the 12 team requirement. However, the USSF rejected the NASL's application to maintain provisional Division II status for the 2018 season as the NASL did not present a plan on how it would meet the Division II criteria. In response, the NASL filed "a federal antitrust suit against the U.S. Soccer Federation" in an attempt to force USSF to drop all Division designations. Due to the continuing litigation against U.S. Soccer, the NASL then had to postpone its season to August 2018 and lost four more teams in the process.
There are currently no sanctioned Division III leagues. Two leagues have indicated that they will seek Division III status. United Soccer Leagues, administrator of the USL and PDL leagues, announced that they would start a new league, tentatively called D3, and seek Division III certification and targeting 2019 as the first season for the new league. National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) led by former Chicago Fire general manager Peter Wilt plans on fielding 8-10 teams in 2018 and has stated that it will seek Division III certification.
In September 2015, it was reported that the USSF was proposing the addition of eligibility requirements for sanctioned Division I soccer leagues, including that they must have at least 16 teams, stadiums with a capacity of at least 15,000, and at least 75% of the teams must be in cities that have a population of at least 2 million.
Sanctioned by USSF as professional leagues
USSF Division I
Major League Soccer (MLS)
USSF Division II
Western Conference (USL)
Eastern Conference (USL)
USSF Division III
|USL Division III (USL D3)
(application not submitted[ii], but expected to start in 2019)
- USL is now divided into 2 conferences with minimal inter-conference league games, separate tables, and league champion determined between the two conference champions.
- Neither NISA nor United Soccer Leagues have submitted these leagues to U.S. Soccer for sanctioning as of October 2017. However, both have made public announcements that they intend to do so and begin play in the seasons indicated. See the linked league articles for further information.
Below is a list of the number of teams sanctioned by the USSF in the so-called "modern era" under the division sanctioning scheme described above.
|Pro Soccer Teams (includes teams outside US)|
|Year||Total Pro Teams[a]||Division I||Division II||Division III||Non-Sanctioned[b]|
|MLS||APSL/USISL SL||USISL PL||-|
|MLS||USSF D2 Pro[l]||USL-2||-|
- Only includes those sanctioned by USSF as Professional
- Teams with players receiving salary (professional teams) that played in leagues not sanctioned as Division I, II, or III by USSF.
- American Professional Soccer League changed their name to A-League and gained official Division II sanctioning this year.
- The USISL Professional League included 70 teams of which 36 were Amateur teams. Not included as the league did not yet have Division III sanctioning.
- USISL divided into 2 Division. USISL Select League had 21 teams and was shared status of Division II sanctioning together the A-League. The USISL Pro League had 27 teams and was status of Division III.
- A-League merged with USISL and teams from USISL Select League became part of the A-League. The merger avoided competing Division II leagues.
- USISL renamed Division III league to USISL D3 Pro.
- USISL D3 Pro was renamed USL D3 Pro as part of the re-branding of USISL to United Soccer Leagues.
- Started season called the USL Pro Select League but was changed to Pro Soccer League for legal reasons.
- The A-League was renamed USL First Division commonly called USL-1.
- MLS sponsored a Reserve League with players from MLS teams that are not on the active roster from 2005–2008 & 2011–2013.
- Due to the conflict resulting from the sale of United Soccer Leagues by Nike, USSF organized this league which had teams from the First Division of United Soccer Leagues and the newly formed North American Soccer League.
- NASL gained provisional Division II sanctioning this year.
- Was branded as USL Pro until 2015.
- Last year of MLS Reserve League - teams now expected to have a USL affiliate instead.
- USL had 30 teams and gained provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017. NASL and its 8 teams continued their provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.
- No league played at the Division III level in 2017.
- Does not include NASL and its 6 teams currently disputing the USSF decision to not grant provisional Division II sanctioning in 2018.
- No league played at the Division III level in 2018.
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, as of 2014 they receive automatic berths to the US Open Cup.
The 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 Premier Development League and also attracts top amateur talent from around the United States. However, unlike the PDL the NPSL does not have any age limits or restrictions, thus incorporating both college players and former professional players.
United Soccer Leagues
National Premier Soccer League (NPSL)
United Premier Soccer League
US Club Soccer (USCS)
Other Regional Leagues
UPSL (other Conferences/Divisions)
- Tier/Division numbers are omitted for these leagues as U.S. Soccer does not designate a Division number or directly sanction them. The leagues are generally ordered by quality of play from top to bottom. Currently there is no relegation/promotion among any of these leagues.
Men's national soccer cups
- Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup — open to all USSF-sanctioned amateur and professional leagues, though professional teams that are owned by, or whose playing staffs are managed by, higher-level outdoor professional teams are barred from entry
- USASA National Amateur Cup — amateur-only cup tournament
- Hank Steinbrecher Cup — contested between the league winners of NPSL, PDL, USASA Open Cup and USASA Amateur Cup
The Women's United Soccer Association started playing in 2001, but suspended operations in 2003. It 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. The league started play in April 2013.
There were two leagues that acted as an unofficial lower division. The United Soccer Leagues ran the W-League from 1995 to 2015. The Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL) was founded in 1998. Almost immediately following the demise of the W-League, United Women's Soccer was founded with orphan W-League teams and WPSL breakaways.
While there was never official distinction between the national amateur leagues, it was commonly assumed that the W-League was a higher quality than WPSL. Two W-League teams had effectively promoted into the first division - the Buffalo Flash becoming the Western New York Flash in 2011 and D.C. United Women becoming the Washington Spirit in 2013 - while no WPSL teams have ever done so. UWS, as W-League's spiritual successor, has strengthened this image of being the higher-quality amateur league by attracting four teams that had been associated with WPSL Elite.
USSF Division 1[w 1]
National Women's Soccer League
|[w 2]||Affiliated through United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA)|
United Women's Soccer
Women's Premier Soccer League
- U.S. 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. U.S. Soccer has now officially labeled NWSL as a Division 1 Professional league, and has added the league to its Professional Council.
- The tiers or levels here are approximate and not specifically so designated by USSF.
Women's national soccer cups
- USASA National Women's Open — open to WPSL and UWS teams
- USASA National Women's Amateur — open to all USASA-affiliated women's teams
Major Arena Soccer League
Premier Arena Soccer League
- Soccer in the United States
- List of soccer clubs in the United States
- Record attendances in United States club soccer
- Canadian soccer league system
- Galarcep, Ives (October 9, 2014). "Jurgen Klinsmann backs promotion-relegation system for American soccer". Sporting News. Retrieved January 27, 2015.
- "Q & A with USL Vice President Tim Holt". United Soccer Leagues. April 21, 2006. Retrieved July 15, 2007.
- USSF Policy 202(H)(1) (PDF)
- USSF Bylaws 109(13) to 109(17) (PDF)
- Pendleton, Mike (October 18, 2017). "USL Weekly Attendance Report: 2017 Year-End Recap". Indomitable City Soccer.
- Kenn, Larry. "USSF Professional Standards". Retrieved February 26, 2016.
- Straus, Brian (January 6, 2017). "U.S. Soccer grants provisional division two sanctioning to both NASL, USL". Sports Illustrated.
- "US Soccer grants USL 2nd-division status". Chicago Tribune. January 17, 2018.
- "Eight clubs will take the field in April". NASL. January 6, 2017.
- kennedy, Paul (October 17, 2017). "NASL vs. USSF: Court filings show settlement discussions were ongoing". SoccerAmericaDaily.
- "US Soccer Federation Rejects NASL's Division II application". fiftyfive.one. September 5, 2017.
- Straus, Brian. "NASL files lawsuit vs. USSF over division sanction". SI.com. Retrieved 2017-10-03.
- "USL to Launch Third-Division League in 2019". United Soccer Leagues. April 2, 2013.. See also USLD3.com.
- "EXCLUSIVE: The National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) – A New Division III Professional Soccer League Expects to Launch in 2019". NISA. June 6, 2017. Retrieved June 19, 2017.
- "NASL accuses U.S. Soccer and MLS of violating antitrust laws". ESPN FC. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
- See All-Time Division II Standings for Division II list of teams and records. and All-Time Division III Standings for Division III teams
- "United Soccer Leagues". www.uslpdl.com. Retrieved September 22, 2015.
- "Premier Leagues". www.usadultsoccer.com. Retrieved May 17, 2014.
- "Affiliates: Adult Council". United States Soccer Federation.
- "USASA Elite Amateur Leagues". www.usadultsoccer.com. Retrieved May 17, 2014.
- "Equalizer Soccer – Eight teams to start new women's pro soccer league in 2013". Equalizersoccer.com. November 21, 2012. Retrieved October 1, 2013.
- "W-League Statement". United Soccer Leagues (USL). November 6, 2015. Retrieved November 6, 2015.
- "USL W-League, once top flight, folds after 21 seasons". Equalizersoccer.com. November 6, 2015. Retrieved November 18, 2015.
- WPSL Website
- Conor, Ryan (December 15, 2015). "After struggles with former league, New England Mutiny helping form new United Women's Soccer league". MassLive. Retrieved December 15, 2015.
- See NWSL Announces Allocation of 55 National Team Players to Eight Clubs where U..S Soccer confirms it will subsidize salary for U.S. National Team players.
- "Professional Council". United States Soccer Federation. Retrieved November 7, 2013.