New on SocTakes: Understanding the pyramid: American soccer explained

American soccer

Photo credit: AD Teasdale

So, you’re new to American soccer. Maybe you caught the MLS bug, maybe your city just joined USL, maybe you’re trying to figure out how the Open Cup works, or wonder what all this talk of divisions and tiers is about. That’s understandable! You’ve entered into something that is undeniably complicated. There’s a fair bit of chaos to unravel from the top down, and for the soccer novice, it’s far from simple. Hopefully this explanation will help.

Let’s start with the basics. Soccer leagues typically operate in some sort of hierarchy around the world, and the United States is no exception. However, because we have to be different, soccer operates differently here than it does in other countries, and it’s not quite the same as how other professional sports work in the United States. More on that later.

So, the pyramid. This is the (somewhat) organized hierarchy of leagues within the United States. Officially, there are three levels on the pyramid for professional soccer, and unofficially, there are several other leagues further down ranging from strictly amateur to semi-pro. These are known as “divisions” or “tiers.”

At the top of the three professional leagues, we find Major League Soccer, or MLS. MLS was founded as part of the USA hosting the World Cup in 1994, and began play in 1996. After originally launching with 10 teams, MLS has grown to 23 for the 2018 season with Cincinnati set to join in 2019 and Miami and Nashville in 2020. MLS is the top soccer league in the U.S., home to the best and highest-paid players from the likes of Zlatan to Giovinco to Josef Martinez. The league is divided into two conferences, East and West, with every team playing a 34-game season from March through October.

Two major trophies are awarded to teams in MLS annually: the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup. The Supporters’ Shield is awarded to the team which finishes the season with the best overall record in the league. Compare this to the winner of the Premier League or the President’s Trophy in the NHL. The other trophy, the MLS Cup, is awarded to the playoff champion at the end of the season, as unlike in much of European soccer, MLS ends the season with playoffs. Currently, six teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs and play two-game series until the championship game. The MLS Cup final is held between the playoff champions of both conferences, and the winner is crowned the champion of MLS for the season.

Now for the second division league, the USL. The United Soccer League has been around in some form since 2011, although the organization that runs it has staged leagues dating back technically to 1988. The modern USL began as the third-division league, was awarded joint second-division status for 2017 and is the only operating second-division league in 2018. The USL currently has 33 teams for 2018, again divided into East and West, and also plays a 34-game schedule from March through October. Like MLS, the USL also ends the season with playoffs, although eight teams from each conference qualify and every round of the playoffs is single-game elimination. The winner of the USL Playoffs is awarded the USL Cup and crowned league champion for the year. The USL is also growing, and rather quickly at that. Seven teams are joining the league next year in Austin, Birmingham, El Paso, Hartford, Loudon, Memphis and Albuquerque, and teams in Chicago and Oakland are expected to join the league in 2021.

The USL is a professional league and the players are all paid, but wages are lower than in MLS, stadiums are smaller, attendance is lower and so on. The best analogue to this is MLB and AAA minor league baseball, or the NHL and AHL, or the NBA and G-League. Many players in MLS either got their start or spent some time playing in the USL in the past, and it’s increasingly common for players who aren’t quite ready for MLS to spend a season or two in the USL.

If you look at the USL standings, you’ll see a number of teams with “2” or “II” in their name. That’s because MLS and the USL have an agreement in place where MLS teams can field reserve or affiliate teams in the USL. Almost every single MLS team actually has an affiliation with a USL team or a team they operate themselves. Compare this to major and minor league baseball. Some USL teams, specifically Reno, Rio Grande Valley and Bethlehem, are actually operated by MLS sides, although they play in a different city (or state) than the MLS team under a different name. The inclusion of these “2″ teams in the USL has been controversial to say the least. The agreement is up for renewal or renegotiation in a few years, so this might not be the case in several years’ time.

Unlike in other countries, there is no promotion and relegation between MLS and the USL. There have been some discussions in the past and within the USL organization about this, but there’s no plans to implement anything like this in the near future. This means that the only way for teams in the USL to join MLS is to apply for an expansion spot with MLS, put together a good enough bid — including a stadium — and hope that MLS selects it. Orlando City and FC Cincinnati are the two teams that have successfully joined MLS from the USL.

And now onto the third division: there isn’t one. Or, there isn’t one playing in 2018. For 2019, two different leagues have applied to start as division three leagues: USL Division III (USL D3), operated by the same organization as the DII USL; and the National Independent Soccer Association, or NISA. USL D3 currently has eight teams announced for 2019, with two (Toronto FC 2 and the Richmond Kickers) joining from the USL. NISA, meanwhile, expects to kickoff in August 2019 with at least eight teams. Both leagues could grow in number by the time a ball is kicked next year.

So, that’s the professional side of the pyramid. Now let’s try and tackle the wild world of amateur and semi-pro soccer.

Below the three official divisions as designated by USSF, there are several active leagues ranging from intrastate competitions to nationally sprawling leagues. All of these are sanctioned not by USSF directly but by the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA).

The top two leagues, commonly defined as the fourth division, are the Premier Development League (PDL), operated by the same body that operates USL and USLD3, and the National Premier Soccer League, which operates independent of any other league. These leagues are both massive, with 74 teams contesting the 2018 PDL season and 98 in the NPSL. Both are also growing constantly, with teams coming (and sometimes going) every single year.

Despite their national footprints, both leagues are heavily subdivided into smaller regional conferences comprising roughly six to ten teams each. Teams generally don’t play opponents outside their specific conference until the postseason. The two leagues play a much shorter season, with 14 games played by PDL teams from May into July, and between 10 and 14 games played by NPSL teams depending on that team’s conference. Both leagues feature playoffs that start off regionally and culminate in a league championship game.

Both of these leagues are technically amateur, although some teams do pay their players. The primary reason why a team would choose to remain amateur is due to eligibility rules with the NCAA, as players lose their eligibility if any of their teammates are professional.

Below these two, things start to get a bit odd. There are 16 leagues around the country designated as “Elite Amateur Premier Leagues” which is generally considered the fifth division, along with the massive United Premier Soccer League (UPSL), which operates between one and three divisions within the league depending on the region. For more on the UPSL, check out my “UPSL explained” post here. It’s also believed that some of the USASA leagues might join the new US Premiership, about which little else is known. To find out what little we do know, check out my piece on the league’s announcement over here.

Below the fifth division leagues, there are the regional leagues affiliated with USASA or US Club Soccer, which could be described as sixth division. These are essentially a step above local rec leagues, and are almost entirely fully amateur.

Another noteworthy tidbit is that the USL and its two affiliated leagues, USL D3 and the PDL, are all rebranding in line with the English pyramid. Starting at the end of the 2018 season, the USL will be known as the USL Championship, USL D3 as USL League One and the PDL as USL League Two. With the leagues explained, it’s time to talk about the Open Cup.

The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, as it’s officially known, is an annual knockout tournament dating back to 1914, and is the largest single soccer tournament in the entire country. With a few exceptions, just about every soccer team in America is eligible to compete each year. Every American team from MLS is automatically entered, as are the American USL teams which aren’t owned by MLS (“2 teams”), and for 2019, the teams at the third division. Moving down, the best teams from the semi-pro and amateur ranks play in a qualifying tournament to determine who gets to contest the actual cup. The qualification tournament is held every fall for the following year’s Open Cup. For 2018, 108 teams entered the qualifying tournament and 55 won their way into the competition.

The Open Cup begins in May with the first round, consisting entirely of semi-pro and amateur teams. The teams that win move on to play teams from the USL in the second and third rounds, and teams from MLS enter for the fourth round in June. The tournament generally runs from May through September, with the bulk of games played in May and June. The winner of the Open Cup receives a $300,000 prize, while the runner-up receives $100,000, and the last team from each lower-division league receives a prize of $25,000. It’s no secret that the Open Cup is one of my favorite things, as it’s one of the few chances where a team made up of amateurs playing soccer for fun on the weekends gets to take on a giant of MLS. And sometimes, those amateur teams win! There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in America.


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@houstondynamo savor the flavor of a first @opencup 🏆 after a 3-0 rout of @philaunion. #USOC2018

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Now that you understand the leagues and the Open Cup, it’s time to discuss the Concacaf Champions League.

Every one of the six continental soccer confederations holds an annual Champions League tournament for all the top clubs in the region. The most famous of these, the UEFA Champions League, is arguably the most widely watched club soccer competition in the world. Our version of this in North America is run by Concacaf and operates pretty similarly.

Every year, the United States sends four teams to the Champions League, which will run from February through April 2019. Three teams are always guaranteed to be from MLS: the MLS Cup winner, the Supporter’s Shield winner, and the team with the best record from the conference opposite the shield winner. However, for 2019, this will be a little different. I’ll explain below. The fourth team is the Open Cup champion, which means that amateur teams can qualify for the Champions League in the United States, and that’s pretty amazing. It hasn’t happened yet, and no team outside MLS has won the Open Cup since 1999, but it’s possible, and that’s enough for me to remain excited.

So, the 2019 changes. The Champions League used to run from August through April, with teams participating in a group stage. That changed for 2018, and because of that, the teams that the U.S. sends in 2019 are a little different. The winners of the 2018 MLS Cup and Open Cup qualify, as does the 2017 Open Cup winner, and the team with the best overall record in MLS combined across the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Thankfully, it’s just for the one tournament, but it does make things confusing.

Who do these teams play? That changes every year, but there are a guaranteed number of spots awarded to several countries throughout North and Central America as well as the Caribbean. Mexico always sends four teams, the winners and runners-up of the two most recent campaigns; Canada gets one spot awarded to the winner of the Canadian Championship (their Open Cup), and Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama all send one team each. The remaining two spots go to one team in Central America, the winner of the annual Concacaf League tournament (yes, it’s a bit confusing) and one team in the Caribbean, the winner of the Caribbean Club Championship. This is not only a great opportunity for teams from different countries to compete against each other, it’s also the pathway to the annual Club World Cup. The Champions League is always a big deal (although not so much here in the United States, yet), and the games are generally amazing to watch. So far, Mexico has dominated the tournament, but the USA and Canada keep inching closer and closer to victory.

So, if you’ve made it this far, you might have noticed that technically an amateur team can win the Open Cup, which means technically an amateur team can win the Champions League. That also means that an amateur team from the United States could end up competing in the Club World Cup against the winners of the other five continental Champions Leagues, which means the likes of Real Madrid and Independiente. Yes, this actually could happen. Maybe it never will, but as long as there’s a chance, teams will fight for it.

I hope you enjoyed this slightly rambling explanation of how exactly soccer works here, and how all these different leagues fit into the system. Coming soon are explanations of how the women’s game works in the United States, as well as an explanation of the Canadian soccer system.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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