MLS vs USL: What’s The Difference?

United States professional soccer has grown considerably over the last couple of decades. The levels might not be quite the same as in Europe, but some high-end professional players are suiting up for teams in the United States.

The MLS of the USL are the two leagues with the best teams in the United States playing. Understanding the difference between the MLS and USL will help out newcomers to the sport.

MLS

Major League Soccer (MLS) is the top division of soccer in the United States. There is no relegation system in place, so all the teams stay in the top division.

There are currently three teams in the league, with a plan to add St. Louis in 2023. More than likely, they will look to add at least one other team to even out the Eastern Conference and Western Conference as soon as possible.

Founded in 1996, Major League Soccer has grown considerably over the years. Team payrolls have grown to the point that they can find ways to bring in better and better players. The hard part is for United States teams to convince European stars to come over to play in a league that is still inferior from top to bottom.

The LA Galaxy has the most MLS Cups with five, and they are tied with DC United for the most Supporters’ Shields with four. The league has a salary cap and other financial restrictions put in place to make it a competitive league from top to bottom.

A testament to the growth of Major League Soccer is that they are now part of the Big Six major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada.

They are continuing to work towards breaking into the big four categories, which are traditionally Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, National Football League, and National Hockey League.

USL

The United Soccer League (USL) is officially recognized by the United States Soccer Federation as a Division Two League. That means they are officially under Major League Soccer, which is the only Division One league in the country.

Just like MLS, the USL has grown considerably over the last few years. They are up to 27 teams, and five of them are official affiliates of MLS teams. Of those five, four of them are owned by MLS teams.

A lot of soccer people believe that this is the future of the sport, as it allows teams to focus on home-growing their players and getting them ready for the highest level.

Will There Ever Be Relegation and Promotion in United States Soccer?

Anyone who follows soccer in other countries understands the relegation and promotion aspect that makes everything exciting.

Every single year, new teams come into the first division, while the worst teams in the first division drop to the second division in the following year. It’s meant as a way to keep everything competitive and reward teams for putting in the extra work.

There are a few reasons why promotion and relegation does not work in the United States. For starters, there was no structure set up that way in the very beginning. The MLS started because there was no actual professional soccer structure in general. They wanted to build a business a certain way, and this is how they went about it.

MLS also remained focused on expansion more than anything during the early years. It started as a humble 10-team league, and now there are plans to have 30 teams by the start of the 2023 season. Finally, business owners and investors used to other professional sports in the United States don’t like the idea of missing out on revenue because of a single bad season.

What Limits Soccer From Growing in the United States?

The easy thing to say about the lack of growth in professional soccer is that the United States doesn’t have the homegrown talent to draw in customers.

Soccer is still a relatively new sport in the country compared to European and South American countries, so it’s hard to develop talent with so many different options out there for young athletes.

The money also isn’t there for Major League Soccer to take off and bring in the best talent. If there was more money around, it wouldn’t be hard to bring in talent from all over the world. The money would also trickle back into the sport at the youth level, which would help with growth.

Finally, Major League Soccer has a different schedule than just about every other major soccer league in the world. Having a season that starts in late February and ends in the middle of October does not line up with many other leagues.

It makes it hard for players to hit the transfer window and move around it. There are also limitations when it comes to major tournaments, as most of the international competitions take place in the middle of summer.

You can read more about why soccer isn’t as popular in the US in this post.

U.S. Open Cup

The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is a knockout cup competition in soccer. It dates back to 1914, but it has renewed interest in the past few years thanks to the emergence of MLS and USL play. In total, 2022 had 103 teams participate.

Since Major League Soccer emerged in 1986, only one non-MLS team has won the US Open Cup. That was Rochester New York FC in 1999, as they beat Colorado Rapids in the final 2-0.

Maccabee Los Angeles and Bethlehem Steel have the most titles with five each, but that was pre-MLS. The Chicago Fire, Seattle Sounders, and Sporting Kansas City have all won 4 cups each. The last USL team to make the final was the Charleston Battery in 2008.

Additional Divisions in American Soccer

The pro leagues are divided into 3 divisions. The 3rd division is divided into 3 different leagues.

DivisionLeagueTeams
1Major League Soccer28
2USL Championship27
3USL League One11
3NISA10
3MLS Next Pro21

There is a USL League One and USL League Two that make up the third and fourth divisions in the United States, respectively.

These teams rarely see players who can make it all the way to the top, but they do have the opportunity of rising up the ranks. Teams provide competition for different types of athletes, and fans get to see entertaining play as well.

The additional leagues in the US that aren’t considered pro are the following:

LeagueRegionsDivisionsClubs
USL League Two416113
National Premier Soccer League41492
United Premier Soccer League430250
USASA Elite Amateur League1520354
NISA Nation4423

One Last Look at the MLS and USL

The MLS and USL are certainly not competitors against each other, but it doesn’t work the same way as the European leagues with soccer.

Most players in the USL have one goal in mind, and that’s good to get to the MLS. Even for people in the MLS, a lot of them have aspirations to play for one of the top clubs in Europe.

Money continues to go up in United States soccer, prompting some to think that they will someday compete with the top leagues in the world. It’s still a bit far off for now, but anything is possible with the right investors.

Connor Smith

I'm Connor, the guy behind SoccerPrime. I'm a former NCAA Div 1 college player that retired at the age of 21 due to injuries - which led me into a new career as a soccer coach.

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