Wednesday, 24 Jul 2024

MLS vs USL: Understanding the Difference


In recent years, professional soccer in the United States has seen significant growth. While the levels of play may not yet match that of Europe, the presence of high-quality professional players on American teams is undeniable. Two prominent leagues in the United States are the MLS and USL. For newcomers to the sport, it’s essential to understand the differences between these leagues.

MLS: The Top Division of American Soccer


Major League Soccer (MLS) serves as the premier soccer division in the United States. Unlike European leagues, the MLS does not have a relegation system. All teams remain in the top division regardless of their performance. Currently consisting of three teams, the league plans to expand further by adding St. Louis in 2023 and potentially another team to balance the Eastern and Western Conferences.

Since its founding in 1996, Major League Soccer has experienced tremendous growth. With increased team payrolls, the league has been able to attract better players. However, convincing European stars to join a league that is still considered inferior remains a challenge. Notable MLS accomplishments include the LA Galaxy’s five MLS Cups and four Supporters’ Shields, which they share with DC United. The league maintains a salary cap and other financial regulations to ensure competitiveness across all teams.

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The growth of Major League Soccer has led to its inclusion among the Big Six major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada. Although not quite in the same category as Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, and the National Hockey League, MLS strives to continue progressing towards that level.

USL: Officially Recognized as Division Two


The United Soccer League (USL) is officially recognized by the United States Soccer Federation as a Division Two League. This designation means that the USL operates under the authority of Major League Soccer, which is the only Division One league in the country.

Similar to the MLS, the USL has experienced substantial growth in recent years. It currently boasts 27 teams, with five of them serving as official affiliates of MLS teams. Of these five teams, four are owned by MLS teams. Many soccer enthusiasts view this interconnected relationship as the future of the sport in the United States. By focusing on developing players locally and preparing them for the highest level, teams can nurture talent and improve the overall quality of play.


Will there ever be promotion and relegation in United States soccer?

Promotion and relegation, a common feature in soccer leagues worldwide, is absent in the United States. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, the structure of the MLS was not initially designed to incorporate promotion and relegation. The league was established to build a business, and its expansion has been a primary focus. Another factor is that the owners and investors, accustomed to other American professional sports, are hesitant to miss out on revenue due to a single bad season. While promotion and relegation add excitement, it remains unlikely to be implemented in American soccer.

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What limits soccer from growing in the United States?

The growth of professional soccer in the United States faces several challenges. Firstly, soccer is a relatively new sport compared to traditional powerhouses in Europe and South America. Developing homegrown talent among various sporting options presents a significant hurdle. Secondly, financial constraints limit Major League Soccer’s ability to attract top talent from around the world. Greater financial resources would benefit both the league and youth soccer by enhancing the overall popularity and investment in the sport. Finally, the MLS schedule differs from other major soccer leagues globally, making it challenging for players to navigate transfer windows and participate in international competitions held during the summer months.


Despite not yet reaching the same level as European leagues, the MLS and USL continue to grow and evolve. While USL players often aspire to move up to the MLS, even MLS players frequently harbor ambitions of playing for top European clubs. The financial aspects of American soccer are steadily improving, leading some to believe that the United States could eventually compete with the world’s best leagues. With the right investors and continued growth, the future holds endless possibilities for American soccer.