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Attempting to Make Sense of the Various U.S. Soccer Leagues

The more you look, the more complicated it gets.

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Christos FC at D.C. United
Christos FC celebrating after scoring against D.C. United in this year’s U.S. Open Cup
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

At first look, the hierarchy of U.S. Soccer is pretty straightforward. Major League Soccer is at the top, with the North American Soccer League and the United Soccer League underneath. Once you dig a little deeper though, things start to get more muddled. There are a large number of professional, semi-professional, and amateur leagues that are directly or indirectly affiliated with the United States Soccer Federation, which is where things get tricky.

So why bother looking into this in the first place? Well, Paul LaPointe, one of the announced candidates for the USSF presidency, tweeted his 2018 platform and within it said he “will start with a defined pro/rel plan for local state teams, UPSL, NPSL, and PDL to be promoted to USL or NASL first.”

Certainly an interesting idea, but it might be a tad more complicated a task than one might think.

At the Top

As mentioned before MLS is the head honcho of the U.S. soccer structure. Not too much to say about this, as MLS is the only league recognized by the USSF with Division I status.

One Step Down the Rung

It still isn’t too complicated yet, as the NASL and the USL are the only leagues recognized by the USSF with Division 2 status. It is, however, a little odd that they both have that D2 status. Essentially they’re two competing leagues at exactly the same level. The number of teams in each league is also weird as the NASL has eight teams while the USL has a whopping 30. Like I said though, things are still pretty straightforward at this point, although NASL was denied D2 status for next year and the league is suing the USSF over it at the moment.

The Fourth Division?

Now it starts getting weird. The USSF only gives distinctions to D1 and D2 status leagues. Beyond that, everything is unofficial. So when I say that the Premier Development League and National Premier Soccer League are fourth-tier leagues, I mean that they are generally considered to be fourth-tier leagues. However, they have received no official distinction from the USSF.

The Premier Development League takes place during the summer, and is mainly made up of college players who want to play at a high level while they aren’t in school but still want to maintain college eligibility. They retain eligibility because the PDL isn’t considered a professional league. While most teams don’t pay their players, there are a few that do, although, as of 2012, the salary didn’t usually top $1,000 a month. The PDL also has a staggering number of teams, clocking in at 72. The league is also able to send teams to the U.S. Open Cup by way of the United States Adult Soccer Association.

The NPSL is also unofficially recognized as a fourth-tier league but has been given no actual designation from the USSF. Like the PDL, the league runs during the summer months and is also able to send teams to the U.S. Open Cup because of its affiliation with the USASA. It too has an astronomical number of teams with 96 in total.

There is a third division on the way in 2019, with USL D3 currently being built.

Division...5...I Guess?

Ahhh yes. So below the nebulous fourth division is an even more nebulous unofficial fifth division, which is currently inhabited by the United Premier Soccer League, American Soccer League, and also used to include the Premier League of America. However, the PLA folded at the end of the 2017 season and instead became part of the Midwest Division of the aforementioned UPSL. The UPSL, like the fourth-tier leagues mentioned above, also sends teams to the U.S. Open Cup, and actually had three teams qualify for the later stages of the competition, one of which was knocked out by the LA Galaxy. The UPSL runs year round, is considered an amateur league, and has 97 member teams. The American Soccer League also sends teams to the U.S. Open Cup, and pays its players.

All the Rest

Beyond that, there are a vast number of United States Adult Soccer Association affiliated leagues, (I believe the exact number is 54, but don’t quote me on that) which vary to cover states, regions, and the whole nation. These are all amateur leagues that are able to send teams to the U.S. Open Cup thanks to their affiliation with the USASA.

My point here is that while LaPointe’s stated plan is to first promote teams below Division 2 status to the USL or NASL and then institute a pro/rel system from there. That is a pretty vast undertaking that would require quite a lot of coordination between a lot of people. Then there’s the whole argument of whether or not pro/rel is even a good idea right now or at all in the U.S. (For a look at Mike Spillane’s adventure into what pro/rel might look like at the top level, click here.) A secondary point is that the confusing web of U.S. Soccer hierarchy probably hasn’t done the game any favors here in the States. It can all be a little difficult to make sense of and the more I looked into it, the easier it was for me to see how players could fall through the cracks or not be able to afford to keep playing, which ultimately doesn’t do U.S. Soccer any favors.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the slightest idea how in the hell one would even go about fixing this mess, but I sure hope somebody does.