Thursday, 18 Apr 2024

Exploring the Differences Between MLS and USL

mls next pro vs usl

Whether you’re a seasoned American soccer fan or new to the sport, understanding the structure of the leagues can be crucial. The two prominent leagues in the United States are Major League Soccer (MLS) and the United Soccer League (USL). While they both offer professional soccer, there are significant distinctions between the two that we’ll delve into. So, let’s explore the unique characteristics of MLS and USL and how they shape the American soccer landscape.

The Fundamental Difference: MLS and USL

First and foremost, it’s important to note that while both leagues are professional soccer competitions, they operate at different levels within the American soccer pyramid.

Major League Soccer (MLS)

MLS holds the distinction of being sanctioned as a Division One league by US Soccer. This recognition grants MLS direct spots in prestigious competitions like the CONCACAF Champions Cup. The Division One status also elevates the league and its clubs in the eyes of fans and the media, adding a sense of prestige and accomplishment.

United Soccer League (USL)

On the other hand, USL operates exclusively within the lower divisions of American soccer. It oversees the USL Championship (Division Two) and League One (Division Three) leagues. These lower divisions have less stringent ownership, venue, and market requirements compared to Division One. Additionally, USL manages the amateur League Two league, which serves as one of the de facto Division Four leagues in the US. USL also operates an academy setup.

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Exploring Further Distinctions

Beyond the fundamental divide between MLS and USL, there are other noteworthy differences that shape the leagues and their operations.

MLS Expansions and Youth System

MLS, originally established as the single major league, has expanded its scope in recent years. In addition to the main league, MLS operates the MLS NEXT academy youth system. This system includes teams from the existing 29 MLS teams, as well as independent youth clubs across the country.

Furthermore, in 2022, MLS introduced MLS NEXT Pro, a third division league primarily featuring reserve teams from major league clubs.

Legal Structure and Ownership

MLS operates as a “single-entity” league, which differs from the traditional club model seen in most leagues worldwide. This approach emphasizes centralized strength, stability, and cost control. While each market has a distinct legal company responsible for day-to-day operations and player salaries, team owners are co-investors in the league itself. Player contracts in MLS are signed with the league rather than individual teams.

USL, on the other hand, follows a franchise-based model similar to other American sports leagues like the NFL and NBA. Unlike MLS, USL is not a single entity. The major difference lies in the fact that player contracts in USL are signed directly with individual teams.

Market Presence

While MLS generally operates in larger cities, and USL in smaller markets, exceptions exist. USL has numerous clubs located in major league markets, including Miami, Tampa Bay, Raleigh, Washington D.C., and many more. Some USL Championship and League One teams are in big-league towns like Charlotte and Brooklyn, further blurring the distinction.

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The Connection: MLS and USL

MLS and USL, despite their differences, are intertwined in various ways. Although they lack a system of promotion and relegation, they have shared connections and history.

From 2013 until the launch of MLS NEXT Pro, MLS reserve teams participated in the USL league system. Additionally, independent USL teams had affiliations with MLS teams that did not operate their own reserve teams.

Teams have also been “promoted” from USL to MLS, with a significant number of current MLS teams having a USL background. This includes well-known teams like Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps, Portland Timbers, and more.

Moreover, MLS and USL are closely interconnected in the women’s professional soccer structure. While MLS doesn’t have its own women’s league, several MLS clubs own and operate teams in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). Furthermore, USL Championship clubs have shared ownership with NWSL teams.

Competing Together on the Field

A unique aspect of American soccer is that teams from different levels in the pyramid compete against each other in meaningful games. This occurs through the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, one of the oldest competitions of its kind globally, dating back to 1913. The tournament allows all clubs, from amateurs to MLS teams, to vie for the national championship.

While MLS teams generally dominate the competition, USL sides have had moments of glory. Teams like the Rochester Raging Rhinos, Charleston Battery, and Sacramento Republic FC have made their mark in past editions.


Q: Is there promotion and relegation between MLS and USL?
No, currently there is no promotion and relegation system between the two leagues. However, USL has considered implementing it within their own structure.

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In conclusion, Major League Soccer (MLS) and the United Soccer League (USL) are the top-tier professional soccer leagues in the United States. While MLS holds Division One status and enjoys greater recognition and prestige, USL operates within lower divisions. Both leagues have distinct characteristics in terms of legal structure, ownership, and market presence.

MLS and USL have a shared history, with teams having transitioned between the two leagues. Additionally, they cooperate in the women’s professional soccer landscape. Despite the absence of promotion and relegation, clubs from different levels compete against each other in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

MLS and USL continue to shape the American soccer landscape, and their future promises to be intriguing and captivating.

Photos: Imago.

For more information on American soccer leagues, visit Pesstatsdatabase.