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 are not linked by the system of promotion and relegation typical in soccer elsewhere. Instead, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) defines professional leagues in three levels, called divisions, with all other leagues sanctioned by the USSF not having an official designated level or division.
For practical and historical reasons, some teams from Bermuda, Canada, and Puerto Rico (considered a separate country by FIFA) can also compete in these leagues. However, these teams are not eligible for the U.S. Open Cup and cannot represent the United States in the CONCACAF Champions League because they are not affiliated with U.S. Soccer.
No professional league in any of the major pro sports leagues in the U.S. 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. Automatic promotion and relegation between its leagues, as exists in many other national league systems, was considered by United Soccer League, but was never implemented; although voluntary promotion and relegation has occurred.
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 League Two.
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.
The standards for Division I, II and III leagues are set by the USSF.
|I||Major League Soccer||MLS||27||1993||1996|
|III||USL League One||USL1||12||2017||2019|
|National Independent Soccer Association||NISA||9||2017||2019–20|
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.
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 27 teams as of the 2021 season. It will further expand to 30 teams by the 2023 season.
- League must have a minimum of 12 teams to apply. By year three, the league must have a minimum of 14 teams
- US-based teams must participate in all representative U.S. Soccer and CONCACAF competitions for which they are eligible (ex. U.S. Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions League.)
- The majority owner must have a net worth of US$40 million, and the total ownership group must have a net worth of US$70 million. Both of these net worth requirements must be independent of both the club and the individuals' primary residence.
- Teams located in at least the Eastern, Central and Pacific time zones in the continental United States. These three time zones are required because the majority of the large population centers are located in these time zones
- At least 75% of the league's teams must be based in markets with one million population
- All stadiums must be enclosed
- All league stadiums must have a minimum seating capacity of 15,000
- Not later than 180 days prior to the start of each season, each team shall have a lease for at least one full season with its home stadium
- The league must demonstrate adequate financial viability to ensure continued operation on a season-by-season basis either in the form of a performance bond or similar instrument for each team in the amount of US$1 million or readily available league funds representing US$1 million
- The maximum amount of readily available league funds for covering teams operations is US$20 million
- Any team whose performance bond is used during the season will be required to replenish it at least 120 days prior to the next season
- Each team ownership group must demonstrate the financial capacity to operate the team for five years. As part of the process of demonstrating financial capacity, each ownership group must provide detailed financial history (if applicable) and projections (including a detailed budget) for the team to the Federation in a form satisfactory to the Federation. In addition, each team must have and its governing legal documents must designate one principal owner with a controlling interest who owns at least 35% of the team and has authority to bind the team. Such principal owner must have an individual net worth of at least forty million US dollars (US$40,000,000) exclusive of the value of his/her ownership in the league or team and his/her primary personal residence. The principal owner, together with all other owners, must have a combined individual net worth of at least seventy million US dollars (US$70,000,000) exclusive of the value of ownership interests in the league or team and primary personal residences. Federation shall have the right to require an independent audit to establish that the team meets these net worth requirements; the cost of such audit shall be the responsibility of the team or league. The Federation will take reasonable steps to protect from disclosure and limit access to financial information provided under this section
- The league must have broadcast or cable television contracts that provide for the telecasting of all regular season games as well as the championship game/series. High-quality internet streaming of regular season games satisfies this requirement
- All required positions must be filled by full-time staff year-round
- Each US-based team must demonstrate a commitment to a player development program. This requirement may be satisfied by supporting either an amateur or professional reserve team competing in a USSF-sanctioned league or by the league itself
- Each US-based team must maintain teams and a program to develop players at the youth level. This requirement may be satisfied by fielding teams in a Federation academy program
In addition to the required positions filled by full-time staff, the league office must have full-time staff performing the functions of a chief operations officer, a chief financial officer and a director of marketing/public relations on a year-round basis
- Principal owner with at least $20,000,000 USD net worth, 35% ownership stake.
Markets and stadia
- Year 1: Eight teams in at least 2 time zones
- Year 3: At least 10 teams
- Year 6: at least 12 teams in Eastern, Central, and Pacific time zones
- 75% of teams must be in metro areas of at least 750,000 population
- Stadiums must have 5,000 capacity
The USL Championship (USLC) is the only sanctioned Division II men's outdoor soccer league as of 2018. Formed in 2010 as a result of the merger of the former USL First Division and USL Second Division, the USL Championship was sanctioned as Division III league from 2011 to 2016 before becoming provisionally sanctioned as a Division II league for 2017, and receiving full Division II sanctioning in 2018.
The USL Championship expanded almost three-fold since its first season in 2011 to include 35 teams in the 2020 season, with the league divided into two conferences, Eastern and Western. After that season, held amid the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, five teams left the league. Two were withdrawn by their MLS parent sides, a third voluntarily dropped to USL League One, another folded entirely, and one other side chose to shut down in favor of a future MLS team in its city. One new team joined for the 2021 season. Even at its current membership, the USL Championship is the largest Division II professional league in the world, and alongside its clubs has invested almost $1 billion into new stadium projects over the past decade to provide greater infrastructure for its clubs and fans. Since 2014, valuation of USL Championship clubs have increased five-fold. In revenue, 2018 Championship clubs saw a 28% increase over 2017 numbers on an average of ticketing, sponsorship, merchandise, and ancillary revenue generation.
The USL Championship also holds a broadcast agreement with ESPN that sees 20 regular season games televised nationally on ESPN2, ESPNews and ESPN Deportes in addition to national broadcast of the USL Championship Final, which in 2019 was aired on both ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes. The league's remaining regular season games are broadcast nationally on ESPN+, with 22 of the Championship's clubs also holding local broadcast agreements. The USL Championship's broadcast agreement was made possible in large part by a major investment by USL with league technology partner Vista Worldlink to establish a state-of-the-art USL Broadcast Center out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.. In 2018, the Championship produced more than 575 matches and became a key component of the launch of the ESPN+ streaming service – for which it produces more live professional soccer matches than any other professional soccer organization – when it became available in April 2018.
The evolution of USL has seen the organization voluntarily recognize of the USL Player’s Association as the exclusive bargaining representative of the USL Championship's players, which will help to continue to raise the standards across the board.
The previously Division II North American Soccer League (NASL) was formed in 2009, but did not debut until 2011 following the controversial 2010 season that 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 from 2011 to 2016; when it fielded 8 teams for the 2017 season, U.S. Soccer only granted the league provisional sanctioning as it fell under the 12-team requirement. 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.
This section needs to be updated.(February 2020)
- Principal owner with at least $10,000,000 USD net worth, 35% ownership stake.
Markets and stadia
- Year 1: Eight teams
- Stadiums must have 1,000 capacity
In March 2017, United Soccer League, announced following the sanctioning of the USL Championship as a Division II league it would start a new tier in its professional structure. USL League One received sanctioning in December 2018 and conducted its first season in 2019 with 10 teams. The seven independent clubs averaged 2,496 fans per match in 2019. The league expanded to include 12 teams for its second season in 2020 and further expansion had been planned prior to the 2021 season, but was delayed until 2022 or later by COVID-19.
A second league, National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) led by former Chicago Fire general manager Peter Wilt, planned on fielding 8 to 10 teams in 2019 and has stated that it would seek Division III certification. Unlike MLS, the USLC, and USL1, the NISA plays a fall-to-spring season spanning two calendar years and split into halves.
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.
In 2018, the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), a nationwide semi-professional league announced the intention to set up a professional division, NPSL Pro. As part of the announcement, NPSL initiated a single season competition, the NPSL Founders Cup, involving 11 teams that will form the new professional league in 2020. Although explicitly a professional league, there has been no confirmation that NPSL intend to apply for DIII status.
- At least 75% of a league's teams must be based in the United States
- At least a certain percentage of a league's teams must be based in markets with a certain population
Field and stadium requirements
- All stadiums must have controllable ingress/egress
- All outdoor leagues must be playing on FIFA-approved surfaces at least 70 yards by 110 yards in dimension.
Number of teams in each league
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.
|Year||Total pro teams[a]||1||2||3||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 or 2018.
- Includes 10 USL1 clubs and 7 NISA clubs.
- Includes 12 USL1 clubs and 8 NISA clubs.
- Includes 12 USL1 clubs and the 9 clubs participating in the second half of the 2020–21 NISA season.
Semi-professional and amateur leagues
The USSF does not officially recognize distinctions beyond the three professional divisions above. Currently, all other leagues are sanctioned by USASA which is a national association member of the USSF and the only member of the Adult Council. Among leagues sanctioned by USASA, USL League Two (USL2) and National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) are recognized in practical terms as playing at a higher level as both are considered national leagues and receive more automatic berths to the US Open Cup than the total given to all the regional leagues and the USASA state association leagues combined.[failed verification] Additionally, USL2 and NPSL pay some of their players and are more accurately described as semi-professional leagues.
USL League Two takes place during the summer months, and has age restrictions. Thus, 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 USL2 and also attracts top amateur talent from around the United States. However, unlike USL2, the NPSL does not have any age limits or restrictions, thus incorporating both college players and former professional players.
The table below shows the current structure of the system. For each division, its official name, sponsorship name, number of clubs and conferences/divisions are given. The United States Soccer Federation regulates the standards for a league or division to be recognized as professional, while also determining the level of division for each league.
Professional leagues sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation
Major League Soccer
USL League One
The system is only defined as far as Division 3. What follows is a representation of Open Division structure, should the structure be defined further.
National Premier Soccer League
USL League Two
USASA Elite Amateur Leagues
United Premier Soccer League
United States Adult Soccer Association
See List of USASA affiliated leagues for complete list
- Tier/Division numbers are not official 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
- 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, League Two, 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. Mexico withdrew from sponsorship of the NWSL once it established its own women's league in 2017.
For many years, 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. UWS then formed a U23 reserve league, UWS2, in early 2020.
Affter the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup, USL began exploring the idea of creating a professional league to directly compete with NWSL.  This effort ultimately was scaled back to running an amateur revival of the W-League, which would operate beneath the DII WISL (operated by NISA) and a planned DIII league run by UWS.  The USL W League was official revived in June 2021.
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.
I [w 1]
National Women's Soccer League
Women's Independent Soccer League
planned UWS Pro league
|[w 2]||Affiliated through United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA)||Affiliation TBA|
United Women's Soccer (IV)
Women's Premier Soccer League (IV)
USL W League (IV)
UWS League 2 (V)
- 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 the USSF.
Women's national soccer cups
- NWSL Challenge Cup – open to NWSL teams
- 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
Major Arena Soccer League 2
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. Archived from the original on April 23, 2006. Retrieved July 15, 2007.
- Kenn, Larry. "USSF Professional Standards". Retrieved February 26, 2016.
- USSF Policy 202(H)(1) (PDF)
- USSF Bylaws 109(13) to 109(17) (PDF)
- 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 October 3, 2017.
- Straus, Brian (March 30, 2017). "USL to launch new Division 3 competition in 2019". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved May 3, 2021.
- "USL to Launch Third-Division League in 2019". United Soccer Leagues. April 2, 2013.
- "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.
- NPSL Pro league and Founders Cup
- See All-Time Division II Standings for Division II list of teams and records. and All-Time Division III Standings for Division III teams
- Soccer Organizations: Adult Council, archived from the original on October 24, 2018, retrieved October 24, 2018
- Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup 2016 Handbook: Finalists' Edition (PDF), United States Soccer Federation, March 2016, archived from the original (PDF) on October 24, 2018, retrieved October 24, 2018. (In 2016, PDL received 19 berths and the League Champion received a bye to the 2nd round. NPSL qualified 15 berths, and the Open Division Local Qualifiers received 14 berths. Similarly in 2018: PDL received 20, NPSL received 19, and Local Qualifiers received 13.)
- PDL rules dictate that a maximum of eight players on each team's 26-man roster can be over 23 years old, while at least three players on each team's roster must be 18 or younger.
- "United Soccer Leagues". www.uslpdl.com. Archived from the original on September 15, 2015. Retrieved September 22, 2015.
- USASA Leagues & Affiliates
- "Premier Leagues". www.usadultsoccer.com. Retrieved May 17, 2014.
- "Affiliates: Adult Council". United States Soccer Federation.
- "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. Archived from the original on November 19, 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". wpsl.info.
- 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 Archived March 4, 2013, at the Wayback Machine 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.