USSF Division I and II soccer clubs of the United States and Canada (2022).
USSF Division I and II soccer clubs of the United States and Canada (2022).

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.

Structure

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.[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. 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.[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 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.

General professional standards

The standards for Division I, II and III leagues are set by the USSF.[3]

Market requirements

Field and stadium requirements

Financial viability

Standards summary table

DI DII DIII Indoor
Men Women Men Women Men Women
Teams 12 8 8 6 8 6
(Year 3: 14) (Year 4: 10) (Year 3: 10,
Year 6: 12)
(Year 3: 8)
Req. Participation All eligible CONCACAF competitions Open Cup
Geographic Coverage Eastern, Central,
and Pacific time zones
Two time zones
(Year 6: Eastern, Central,
and Pacific time zones)
Market Population >75% with >1mil >75% with >750k >50% with >500k
Min. Stadium Capacity 15,000 5,000 2,000 1,000
Lease Lead 180 days 120 days
Bond $1mil $100k $750k $50k $250k $20k
Time Guarantee 5 years 3 years
Primary Owner Worth $40mil $15mil $20mil $7.5mil $10mil $5mil $3mil

League specifics

Men's Division I

Ownership requirements

Market requirements

Financial viability

Media

Team organization

League operations

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

Men's Division II

Ownership requirements

Markets and stadia

Men's Division III

Ownership requirements

Markets and stadia

Men's leagues

Professional leagues

Division League Abbreviation Teams First season
I Major League Soccer MLS 28 1996
II USL Championship USLC 27 2011
III USL League One USL1 11 2019
National Independent Soccer Association NISA 10 2019–20
MLS Next Pro MLSNP 21 2022

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 28 teams as of the 2022 season. It will further expand to 30 teams by the 2023 season.

The USL Championship (USLC) is the only sanctioned Division II men's outdoor soccer league as of 2021. 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,[5] and receiving full Division II sanctioning in 2018.[6]

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. At its current membership, the USL Championship is the largest Division II professional league in the world.[citation needed]

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.[7] 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[8] on how it would meet the Division II criteria.[9] In response, the NASL filed "a federal antitrust suit against the U.S. Soccer Federation"[10] 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. Please help update this article to reflect recent events or newly available information. (February 2020)

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.[11][12] USL League One received sanctioning in December 2018 and conducted its first season in 2019 with 10 teams. 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 Division III league, National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) debuted in August 2019 with eight teams. The league initially played a fall-to-spring season spanning two calendar years but switched to the standard American schedule in 2022.

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.[13]

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.[14]

Number of teams in each league

Below is a list of the number of teams[15] sanctioned by the USSF in the so-called "modern era" under the division sanctioning scheme described above.

Pro soccer teams (includes teams outside United States)
Year Total pro teams[a] 1 2 3 Non-sanctioned[b]
MLS APSL USISL PL
1994 7 7[c] -[d]
1995 61 6 55
MLS APSL/USISL SL USISL PL
1996 65 10 28[e] 27
MLS A-League USISL D3PL
1997 73 10 24[f] 39[g]
1998 79 12 28 39
1999 68 12 30 26[h]
2000 59 12 25 22
2001 50 12 21 17
2002 46 10 18 18
MLS A-League Pro League
2003 42 10 19 13[i]
2004 38 10 16 12
MLS USL-1[j] USL-2 MLS Reserve
2005 33 12 12 9 12[k]
2006 33 12 12 9 12
2007 35 13 12 10 13
2008 35 14 11 10 14
2009 35 15 11 9
MLS USSF D2 Pro[l] USL-2
2010 34 16 12 6
MLS NASL[m] USL[n] MLS Reserve
2011 38 18 8 12 18
2012 38 19 8 11 19
2013 40 19 8 13 15
2014 43 19 10 14 8[o]
2015 55 20 11 24
2016 61 20 12 29
MLS NASL/USL
2017 60 22 38[p] none[q]
MLS USL
2018 56 23 33 none[q]
MLS USLC USL1/NISA
2019 77 24 36 17[r]
2020 81 26 35 20[s]
2021 79 27 31 21[t]
MLS USLC USL1/MLSNP/NISA
2022 97 28 27 42[u]
Notes
  1. ^ Only includes those sanctioned by USSF as Professional
  2. ^ Teams with players receiving salary (professional teams) that played in leagues not sanctioned as Division I, II, or III by USSF.
  3. ^ American Professional Soccer League changed their name to A-League and gained official Division II sanctioning this year.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ A-League merged with USISL and teams from USISL Select League became part of the A-League. The merger avoided competing Division II leagues.
  7. ^ USISL renamed Division III league to USISL D3 Pro.
  8. ^ USISL D3 Pro was renamed USL D3 Pro as part of the re-branding of USISL to United Soccer Leagues.
  9. ^ Started season called the USL Pro Select League but was changed to Pro Soccer League for legal reasons.
  10. ^ The A-League was renamed USL First Division commonly called USL-1.
  11. ^ MLS sponsored a Reserve League with players from MLS teams that are not on the active roster from 2005–2008 & 2011–2013.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ NASL gained provisional Division II sanctioning this year.
  14. ^ Was branded as USL Pro until 2015.
  15. ^ Last year of MLS Reserve League – teams now expected to have a USL affiliate instead.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ a b No league played at the Division III level in 2017 or 2018.
  18. ^ Includes 10 USL1 clubs and 7 NISA clubs.
  19. ^ Includes 12 USL1 clubs and 8 NISA clubs.
  20. ^ Includes 12 USL1 clubs and the 9 clubs participating in the second half of the 2020–21 NISA season.
  21. ^ Includes 11 USL1 clubs, 21 MLSNP clubs and 10 NISA clubs.

Semi-professional and amateur leagues

The USSF does not officially recognize distinctions beyond the three professional divisions above. Currently, two other national leagues are sanctioned by USASA which is a national association member of the USSF and the only[16] member of the Adult Council. Among the leagues sanctioned by USASA, United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) and National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) are recognized in practical terms as playing at a higher level as both are considered national leagues. USL League Two (USL 2) is a national league sanctioned by USL. Both USL2 and NPSL receive automatic berths to the US Open Cup first round.[17][failed verification] Additionally, clubs in USL2, UPSL and NPSL pay some of their players and are more accurately described as semi-professional leagues.[citation needed]

USL League Two takes place during the summer months, and has age restrictions.[18] 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.[19] 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.[citation needed]. The United Premier Soccer League takes place year round with two seasons, one in spring and one in fall. Unlike USL2 and NPSL, the UPSL does not rely on college players and is the national league with the most diverse participation.

Men's league structure

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.[3]

Division

Professional leagues sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation

I

Major League Soccer
28 clubs – 2 conferences

II

USL Championship
27 clubs – 2 conferences

III

MLS Next Pro
21 clubs – 2 conferences

National Independent
Soccer Association

10 clubs

USL League One
11 clubs

The system is only defined as far as Division 3. What follows is a list of additional notable leagues, with those having automatic entry into the U.S. Open Cup listed at the top.

Semi-professional and amateur leagues[m 1] sanctioned through United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA)[21]
an organization member of USSF and only member of the Adult Council[22]

USL League Two
113 clubs – 4 conferences with 16 divisions

National Premier Soccer League
92 clubs – 4 regions with 14 conferences

United Premier Soccer League
250+ clubs – 4 regions with 30 divisions

USASA Elite Amateur Leagues
15 State and Regional Leagues

NISA Nation
25 clubs - 4 regions

United States Adult Soccer Association
55 state associations in 4 regions

See List of USASA affiliated leagues for complete list
Region I
Region II
Region III
Region IV

  1. ^ 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.[20] Currently there is no relegation/promotion among any of these leagues.

Men's national soccer cups

Women's leagues

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.[23] 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.[24][25] The Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL) was founded in 1998.[26] Almost immediately following the demise of the W-League, United Women's Soccer was founded with orphan W-League teams and WPSL breakaways.[27] UWS then formed a U23 reserve league, UWS2, in early 2020.[28]

After the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup, USL began exploring the idea of creating a professional league to directly compete with NWSL.[29] 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.[30] The amateur USL W League was official revived in June 2021, called by USL as "pre-professinal",[31] and the new USL Super League was announced for professional Division II status three months later[32] in direct competition to WISL, both of which aim to launch in 2023.[33]

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.[citation needed] 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.

Division Professional leagues by the United States Soccer Federation
I [w 1]

National Women's Soccer League
(NWSL)
12 clubs

II

Women's Independent Soccer League
(WISL) (sanctioning pending)
1 club (TBA planned)

USL Super League
(USLS) (sanctioning pending)
12 clubs (planned)

III

Planned UWS Pro league
TBA clubs

Amateur leagues not directly sanctioned by USSF
[w 2] Affiliated through United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA)[21][36] Affiliation TBA

United Women's Soccer (IV)
(UWS)
49 clubs – 6 conferences

Women's Premier Soccer League (IV)
(WPSL)
133 clubs – 4 regions with 23 conferences

USL W League (IV)
(USLW)
44 clubs – 6 divisions

UWS League 2 (V)
(UWS2)
47 clubs – 9 conferences

United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA) (VI)
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.[34] U.S. Soccer has now officially labeled NWSL as a Division 1 Professional league, and has added the league to its Professional Council.[35]
  2. ^ The tiers or levels here are approximate and not specifically so designated by the USSF.

Women's national soccer cups

Indoor soccer

Indoor soccer in North America is governed by the Confederación Panamericana de Minifutbol (CPM), a member of the World Minifootball Federation (WMF).

Leagues/divisions

Major Arena Soccer League
(MASL)
13 clubs

Major Arena Soccer League 2
(M2)
13 clubs

Premier Arena Soccer League
(PASL)
9 men's clubs
8 women's clubs

See also

References

  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. Archived from the original on April 23, 2006. Retrieved July 15, 2007.
  3. ^ a b Russo, Kenneth. "USSF Professional Standards". Retrieved July 2, 2021.
  4. ^ a b c d e "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on November 11, 2020. Retrieved September 23, 2019.((cite web)): CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  5. ^ Straus, Brian (January 6, 2017). "U.S. Soccer grants provisional division two sanctioning to both NASL, USL". Sports Illustrated.
  6. ^ "US Soccer grants USL 2nd-division status". Chicago Tribune. January 17, 2018.
  7. ^ "Eight clubs will take the field in April". NASL. January 6, 2017.
  8. ^ Kennedy, Paul (October 17, 2017). "NASL vs. USSF: Court filings show settlement discussions were ongoing". SoccerAmericaDaily.
  9. ^ "US Soccer Federation Rejects NASL's Division II application". fiftyfive.one. September 5, 2017.
  10. ^ Straus, Brian. "NASL files lawsuit vs. USSF over division sanction". SI.com. Retrieved October 3, 2017.
  11. ^ Straus, Brian (March 30, 2017). "USL to launch new Division 3 competition in 2019". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved May 3, 2021.
  12. ^ "USL to Launch Third-Division League in 2019". United Soccer Leagues. April 2, 2013.
  13. ^ "NASL accuses U.S. Soccer and MLS of violating antitrust laws". ESPN FC. September 2015. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
  14. ^ NPSL Pro league and Founders Cup
  15. ^ See All-Time Division II Standings for Division II list of teams and records. and All-Time Division III Standings for Division III teams
  16. ^ Soccer Organizations: Adult Council, archived from the original on October 24, 2018, retrieved October 24, 2018
  17. ^ 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.)
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ "United Soccer Leagues". www.uslpdl.com. Archived from the original on September 15, 2015. Retrieved September 22, 2015.
  20. ^ USASA Leagues & Affiliates
  21. ^ a b "Premier Leagues". www.usadultsoccer.com. Retrieved May 17, 2014.
  22. ^ "Affiliates: Adult Council". United States Soccer Federation.
  23. ^ "Equalizer Soccer – Eight teams to start new women's pro soccer league in 2013". Equalizersoccer.com. November 21, 2012. Retrieved October 1, 2013.
  24. ^ "W-League Statement". United Soccer Leagues (USL). November 6, 2015. Archived from the original on November 19, 2015. Retrieved November 6, 2015.
  25. ^ "USL W-League, once top flight, folds after 21 seasons". Equalizersoccer.com. November 6, 2015. Retrieved November 18, 2015.
  26. ^ "WPSL Website". wpsl.info.
  27. ^ 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.
  28. ^ "United Women's Soccer Launches League Two – United Women's Soccer". February 7, 2020.
  29. ^ "USL Serious in Launching Women's Professional League to Rival NWSL (Sources)".
  30. ^ "WISL aims to fill the Division 2 women's pro league void in the US – Equalizer Soccer".
  31. ^ "United Soccer League To Launch W League in 2022".
  32. ^ "USL launching women's Division II league with 'commitment to gender equity'".
  33. ^ "Lower-division development is the next frontier in U.S. Women's pro soccer – Equalizer Soccer".
  34. ^ 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.
  35. ^ "Professional Council". United States Soccer Federation. Retrieved November 7, 2013.
  36. ^ http://uwssoccer.com/2015/12/16/uws-to-form-national-pro-am-womens-soccer-league-in-2016/[dead link]