The structure of professional soccer in the United States has been complicated throughout its history, to say the least. The United States is fundamentally unique in its efforts to establish successful professional soccer due to its vast size and influence from other competing sports. That is, the United States is ridiculously larger than any European country with a top league.
Additionally, the National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), and Major League Baseball (MLB), together with traditions surrounding European clubs, have influenced the structure and branding of professional soccer in the United States. Furthermore, 2019 was an extremely eventful year when it comes to changing the pro soccer landscape in this country.
History of Soccer in the United States
Before we take a look at where soccer is going the US, it might be useful to understand where it is coming from. Professional soccer in the US first has its roots with the American Soccer League (ASL) in 1921 (McDuling, 2014). Having shown promise initially, the league ended up falling apart just a decade later due to fighting between those on the inside (McDuling, 2014). Keep in mind that since this was so long ago, it’s hard to even judge it based on what we know today as professional soccer in the United States.
The next major feat for the game in the US came in 1975 with the North American Soccer League (McDuling, 2014). The NASL is typically what people today regard as the precursor to the MLS. Ironically, the NASL died in 1984 (McDuling, 2014), but it was brought back in recent modernity. It is now again on the brink of destruction due to legal issues.
2019 Changes in US Professional Soccer
Two major changes have been in the making in the professional landscape over the last several years. First, Major League Soccer has been continuing to expand, granting franchises to FC Cincinnati, Inter Miami CF, and Nashville SC in 2019, 2020, and 2021, respectively. This puts the MLS at 26 teams across the US and Canada by 2020, an accomplishment that most people would’ve previously thought of as wishful at best.
The other major change also started in 2019 and involved everything that’s happening with United Soccer Leagues (USL) currently. In 2019, there were three different leagues that made up USL. These were USL Championship, USL League 1, and USL League 2. USL League 2 is essentially what used to be known as the Premier Development League. While the three leagues resemble English football in structure, they differ in that there's still no promotion/relegation between them (Carlisle, 2018).
Furthermore, USL Championship, League 1, and League 2 boasted 33, 11, and approximately 80 teams, respectively, in 2019 (Carlisle, 2018). Clearly, it’s a bit strange that the brand’s first division has three times the number of teams in the second division. However, I’m positive that expanding the number of League 1 members will be of top priority for the USL over the next few years. Once USL is comfortable with the number of member clubs at each level, I fully expect league leadership to entertain the idea of promotion/relegation.
USL President Jake Edwards also stated that some sort of cup contest would be started just for USL teams of the three different leagues (Carlisle, 2018). Nevertheless, one thing is for certain—we can continue to expect rapid change in the US professional soccer landscape with both MLS and USL. Could an MLS/USL merger with promotion/relegation be in the mix for years down the road? Time will only tell, but that was my immediate thought after digesting all the news.
It finally seems like clear levels of professional soccer are forming for the long-term in the United States. Three levels of USL exist as stepping-stones to the MLS. That’s four clear divisions in the US soccer pyramid. However, we should not get too excited about this development.
Professional leagues in the United States have risen and fallen before, as mentioned above, and it can happen to the various divisions of USL if they’re run poorly. On the optimistic side, the interest and demand for soccer in the United States has never been higher, so there is definitely a lot of promise surrounding the developing structure.
Carlisle, J. (2018, September 25). United Soccer League confirms new branding, league structure. ESPN. Retrieved from: http://www.espn.com/soccer/united-soccer-leagues/story/3646084/united-soccer-league-confirms-new-branding-league-structure
McDuling, J. (2014, May 10). A brief history of soccer in the US, and why it might finally have found its place in the American psyche. Quartz. Retrieved from: https://qz.com/206259/a-brief-history-of-soccer-in-the-us-and-why-it-might-finally-have-found-its-place-in-the-american-psyche/
© 2018 Dennis