United States soccer league system

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The United States soccer league system, sometimes called the American soccer pyramid, is a series of professional and amateur association football 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 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.

Teams and leagues in the United States are not linked by a system of promotion and relegation, just as none of the major professional sports leagues in the United States are; however, U.S. Soccer (USSF) does officially define and sanction leagues into three divisions. The other leagues listed are not based on standards set by the USSF.

The professional soccer clubs of the United States and Canadian teams playing in U.S. leagues (2015).


In the United States, no professional soccer league, and indeed no professional league in any of the major pro sports leagues in the US or Canada currently uses promotion and relegation to allow teams to move between divisions.[1] 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.[2]

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 men's soccer programs, and NCAA Division II men's soccer programs for a list of college soccer programs in the United States.


Pro Soccer Teams (includes teams outside US)
Year Teams MLS (D1) USL-1 (D2) USL-2 (D3)
2005 33 12 12 9
2006 33 12 12 9
2007 35 13 12 10
2008 35 14 11 10
2009 35 15 11 9
MLS (D1) D2 Pro (D2) USL-2 (D3)
2010 34 16 12 6
MLS (D1) NASL (D2) USL (D3)
2011 38 18 8 12
2012 38 19 8 11
2013 40 19 8 13
2014 43 19 10 14
2015 55 20 11 24
2016 62 20 12 29

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.[3] Amateur soccer organizations are also recognized by the USSF, but individual amateur leagues are not.[4] 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.


League Tier Teams Attendance Founded
Major League Soccer 1 20 20,951 1993
North American Soccer League 2 12 6,274 2009
United Soccer League 3 29 3,144 1995

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 20 teams as of the 2015 season.

The only sanctioned Division II men's outdoor soccer league is the North American Soccer League (NASL). 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.

The only recognized Division III league is United Soccer League (USL). The USL is the result of the merger of the former USL First Division and USL Second Division.

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. [5]



Sanctioned by USSF as Professional Leagues

USSF Division I

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


Western Conference
9 US clubs and 1 Canadian club


Eastern Conference
8 US clubs and 2 Canadian clubs


USSF Division II

North American Soccer League (NASL)
9 US clubs, 2 Canadian clubs and 1 Puerto Rican club

USSF Division III

United Soccer League [m 1] (USL)
26 US clubs and 3 Canadian clubs


Western Conference (USL)
14 US clubs and 1 Canadian club


Eastern Conference (USL)
12 US clubs and 2 Canadian clubs



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.[citation needed]

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.[6] The National Premier Soccer League is similar to the 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.[citation needed]

Leagues[m 2] sanctioned through United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA)[7]
an Organization Member of USSF and only member of the Adult Council[8]

United Soccer Leagues
Premier Development League
63 clubs (in 4 conferences)
(plus 8 Canadian clubs)

Central Conference
Eastern Conference
Southern Conference
Western Conference

National Premier Soccer League (NPSL)
78 clubs (in 4 regions)
Northeast Region
South Region
Midwest Region
West Region

USASA Elite Amateur Leagues
13 State & Regional Leagues[9]
Coast Soccer League (South California)
Cosmopolitan Soccer League (New Jersey, East New York)
Long Island Soccer Football League
Maryland Major Soccer League
Michigan Premier Soccer League
Rochester District Soccer League
Buffalo & District Soccer League
San Francisco Soccer Football League
United Soccer League of Pennsylvania
United Premier Soccer League (South California)
Washington Premier Soccer League (Metro DC, Virginia, & Maryland)
Evergreen Premier League (Washington State)
Premier League of America

Other Regional Leagues
American Soccer League

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

US Club Soccer (USCS)
39 leagues in 4 regions
East Region
Midwest Region
South Region
West Region

  1. ^ USL is now divided into 2 conferences with minimal inter-conference league games, separate tables, and league champion determined between the two conference champions.
  2. ^ Tier/Division numbers are omitted for these leagues as US Soccer does not designate a Division number or directly sanction them. The leagues are generally ordered by quality of play from top to bottom.[citation needed] Currently there is no relegation/promotion among any of these leagues.

Men's national soccer cups[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.[10] The league started play in April 2013.

There were two leagues that acted as a unofficial lower division. The United Soccer Leagues ran the W-League from 1995 to 2015. [11][12] The Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL) was founded in 1998. [13] Almost immediately following the demise of the W-League, United Women's Soccer was founded with orphan W-League teams and WPSL breakaways.[14]



Division 1[w 1]

National Women's Soccer League
10 clubs

[w 2] Affiliated through United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA)[7][17]

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

United Women's Soccer
8+ clubs (in 2 conferences) planned

[w 2]

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

  1. ^ 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[15] U.S. Soccer has now officially labeled NWSL as a Division 1 Professional league, and has added the league to its Professional Council.[16]
  2. ^ a b The tiers or levels here are approximate and not specifically so designated by USSF.

Women's national soccer cups[edit]

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.[18]



[i 1]

Major Arena Soccer League
17 US clubs and 3 Mexican clubs

[i 1]

Premier Arena Soccer League
20 US clubs and 1 Mexican club

  1. ^ a b The tiers or levels here are approximate and not specifically so designated by USSF.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Galarcep, Ives (October 9, 2014). "Jurgen Klinsmann backs promotion-relegation system for American soccer". Sporting News. Retrieved January 27, 2015. 
  2. ^ "Q & A with USL Vice President Tim Holt". United Soccer Leagues. April 21, 2006. Retrieved July 15, 2007. 
  3. ^ USSF Policy 202(H)(1) (PDF)
  4. ^ USSF Bylaws 109(13) to 109(17) (PDF)
  5. ^ "NASL accuses U.S. Soccer and MLS of violating antitrust laws". ESPN FC. Retrieved September 3, 2015. 
  6. ^ "United Soccer Leagues". www.uslpdl.com. Retrieved September 22, 2015. 
  7. ^ a b "Premier Leagues". www.usadultsoccer.com. Retrieved May 17, 2014. 
  8. ^ "Affiliates: Adult Council". United States Soccer Federation. 
  9. ^ "USASA Elite Amateur Leagues". www.usadultsoccer.com. Retrieved May 17, 2014. 
  10. ^ "Equalizer Soccer – Eight teams to start new women’s pro soccer league in 2013". Equalizersoccer.com. 2012-11-21. Retrieved 2013-10-01. 
  11. ^ "W-League Statement". United Soccer Leagues (USL). November 6, 2015. Retrieved November 6, 2015. 
  12. ^ "USL W-League, once top flight, folds after 21 seasons". Equalizersoccer.com. November 6, 2015. Retrieved November 18, 2015. 
  13. ^ WPSL Website
  14. ^ Conor, Ryan (15 December 2015). "After struggles with former league, New England Mutiny helping form new United Women's Soccer league". MassLive. Retrieved 15 December 2015. 
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ "Professional Council". United States Soccer Federation. Retrieved November 7, 2013. 
  17. ^ http://uwssoccer.com/2015/12/16/uws-to-form-national-pro-am-womens-soccer-league-in-2016/
  18. ^ United States Indoor Soccer Association

External links[edit]