Last weekend, the United Soccer League announced plans to create a new third division league in the American soccer pyramid. This new league could be a strong signal that soccer in America is moving closer to that of the German pyramid.
The German soccer pyramid is a six-tiered structure. The Bundesliga, 2. Bundesliga, and 3. Liga make up the first three tiers, which are all professional. The fourth tier down are all amateur and separated into regions. Many of the clubs in the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga have reserve teams that play within the pyramid but can only be promoted to 3. Liga.
America has never had a strong pyramid structure of leagues but that is beginning to change. When the second division split in two, it became the NASL and USL Pro with the former occupying the second division and the latter the third division. The fourth division was made up of the USL-operated PDL and the NPSL, both amateur leagues.
After MLS and the USL formed a partnership in 2013, connecting teams in the two leagues for the purpose of development, the LA Galaxy formed the first reserve team of a club from the top tier in 2014. Over the next two years, 10 more teams joined the Galaxy’s lead with all 11 reserve teams taking a spot in the second division. These changes moved American soccer much closer toward the German structure.
Prior to this season, the USL was granted second division status by the U.S. Soccer Federation, joining the NASL. The new league announced by the USL is planned to slide into the current third division slot. While much is still unknown about the new league, due to start in 2019, it is believed that the league will be regionalized.
Soccer in the United States is growing rapidly, with new clubs popping up every year in cities all across the country. While many are looking to find a way into MLS, less wealthy owners are satisfied sliding into a more reasonable financial situation in one of the leagues run by the USL. And the trend of a pyramid run by the USL and MLS looks likely to continue.
While the USL was happy to be a “development league” for MLS, the NASL has considered itself an eventual competitor of MLS. It’s something that’s been troublesome for the league. As the NASL clearly has no chance of competing with the top tier, new clubs prefer the USL over the NASL with the thinking that it’s easier to make the jump to MLS from that league. Recently, the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Ottawa Fury moved over to the USL as it obtained second division status.
As the USL continues to flourish, the NASL strives to simply stay alive. Having only been around since 2009, the league has lost more teams than it currently has. The league currently has eight teams which includes two additions in 2016, Miami FC and Puerto Rico FC, and one in 2017, San Francisco Deltas. Meanwhile, several teams have bolted the league for the USL or MLS, or have fallen into financial difficulty. The league even briefly lost its flagship team, the New York Cosmos, which ceased operation before a new owner came in to save the club.
With the struggles of the NASL to stay afloat and the long list of cities vying to get into MLS, it seems only a matter of time until the NASL goes under and a second MLS league is announced. The new MLS-owned league would likely slide into the second division, dropping the USL leagues down one level. The top three leagues (MLS, MLS2, USL) would all be national and the top four (MLS, MLS2, USL, USL2) would presumably all be professional. The fourth division down would all be regionalized leagues, relieving those less wealthy owners the headache of national travel.
Regardless of whether promotion and relegation ever gets instituted in the United States, this pyramid would be quite reminiscent of the German pyramid. It would also create a much more stable pyramid than the current one. MLS would run the first two divisions while the USL would run the following three divisions, all being overseen by U.S. Soccer.
The growth of soccer in America has seen a dramatic shift in the league structure of the sport. That structure continues to develop with the announcement of a new league by the USL. It still has a way to go but, considering the dramatic shift toward a German-style pyramid in recent years, it can be expected that future changes may move the American structure towards that style.