Soccer is one of the world’s biggest and most popular sports and has long been growing in popularity in the United States. This rise in popularity has had a major impact on the development of American soccer leagues, with the top leagues, including MLS (men’s) and NWLS (women’s), managing to attract some of the attention and focus that has graced the NBA, NFL and MLB for centuries in the US.
At present, the number of young people playing soccer in the US is higher than ever before and has even overtaken other popular sports such as basketball, ice hockey and baseball in many parts of the US.
The development of soccer in the US.
Soccer has been played in the United States for over a century, but it is only recently that it started to rise in popularity and reach the same level as other major professional sports in the country.
The first professional leagues are founded.
The first professional soccer league in the United States was the American Soccer League, founded in 1921. However, the league struggled to attract a large audience and went bankrupt in 1933. It was only with the creation of the North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1968 that professional soccer began to take hold in the United States. The NASL was the first professional soccer league to gain widespread attention in the United States, thanks to the success of the New York Cosmos, who signed global soccer star Pelé in 1975.
The league’s popularity peaked in the late 1970s, but went bankrupt in 1984 due to financial problems.
Major League Soccer (MLS) is founded.
In 1996, Major League Soccer (MLS) was founded as a professional soccer league in the United States. The league struggled in its early years, but it has since grown in popularity and now has 24 teams, with plans to expand to 30 teams in the near future.
MLS has also seen an increase in the quality of play, with top international-level players choosing to join the league. Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, Andrea Pirlo, Didier Drogba and many more can be mentioned as some of the top players who have gone to MLS in the fall of their careers.
Good international performances by the US national team.
The US national team has also seen success in recent years, with strong performances in the World Cup. The team reached the quarter-finals back in 2002 and has continuously qualified for the tournament since then. During the 2022 World Cup in Qatar here in 2022, the US also managed to put on a good show.
In addition, the US has also won the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the championship for North and Central America and the Caribbean, several times.
Increasing interest from the American youth.
The rise of professional soccer in the US has also been helped by the increasing popularity of the sport at youth and amateur level. Participation in youth soccer in the United States has grown significantly in recent decades, with millions of children and teenagers playing. There are many reasons for this, one of which is the accessibility of soccer. You only need a round ball to try it. You don’t need a goal, net or equipment, which is a contrast to the popular sports in the US.
Another reason is also that European football, e.g. The Premier League first started to be shown on national TV around 2010. They have been behind for a long time. This has, of course, raised awareness in the US and has led to more young Americans becoming aware of it in recent years.
This has helped cultivate a larger pool of talent for professional teams to draw on and has also helped increase the overall quality of play in the country. In general, the rise of professional soccer in the United States has been a slow but steady process.
The sporting structure in the US.
The professional league system in the United States ranks as one of the most confusing of all. With a structure that is far from the European one, the system can be difficult to understand if you have not been in it yourself.
Many people from Scandinavia and Europe do not know that the major American sports leagues (NBA, MLS, NFL, MLB and NHL) do not have a promotion/relegation system. Teams from the major American sports leagues (it actually works the same way in college in the US) are neither promoted nor relegated based on their performance in a given season and are basically guaranteed a spot in the league they are placed in. It is not performance in a specific season that dictates the team’s position in Division 1 or 2, but rather various other aspects, most often financial or commercial.
1. Open leagues (Europe)
The open leagues operate with promotion and relegation. The teams at the bottom of the league move to a lower-ranked league, while the top teams move to a higher-ranked league after each season. It’s the system you know in Europe – plain and simple.
This ‘open’ approach gives all teams, regardless of history and finances, a theoretical chance to win the best league and play against the best teams. The European system gives all clubs the opportunity to fly high if they are also prepared to fall low if their investment in promotion fails.
1. Closed leagues (USA)
Closed leagues have always been the sporting culture in the US. The closed leagues provide greater stability for clubs. It is much easier for them to estimate income and expenditure and clubs and investors can be confident that they have a place in the league. (provided they continuously comply with other criteria)
The obvious disadvantage is the limited places in the top leagues and that sporting achievements become secondary in the big picture.
US sports leagues place restrictions on club spending and budgets to ensure competitive balance. Competitive Balance means that all teams in a given league must have a realistic chance of winning it. The effect is that, for example, there are often different winners each year in the Super Bowl or in MLS – unlike in Europe where the same 1-3 clubs are often winners at the end of the season.
The two most important rules in this respect are:
Leagues in the US (men)
There are several different professional leagues in the US on the men’s side. We give a brief overview of each of them below.
Major League Soccer (MLS): The biggest soccer league in the US. The league started out with 10 teams in 1996, but has since grown to 26 teams. Many of the greatest soccer stars of all time, such as Wayne Rooney, Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard have signed contracts with MLS.
One of the biggest soccer leagues in the US and formerly known as the United Soccer League (USL) & USL Pro. Officially, the league is characterized as a Division 2 league - i.e. one level below MLS, but generally has a large fan base and a high level of which e.g. Chelsea FC legend Didier Drogba most recently played for Phoenix Rising FC, a top team in the USL Championship.
USL1 is a professional league that has existed under various names since 2005. It is officially categorized as a Division 3 league and counts 11 teams playing 30 matches in a season + playoffs.
Historically, the league has served as a place where MLS teams such as Inter Miami CF have placed their reserve teams to be matched continuously and at a high level, but with new initiatives from MLS, USL1 looks more like a bid for a league that is level-wise just below, but in close connection with USLC.
NISA is a professional soccer league in the United States. The league is a division 3 league, such as USL1 and began play in 2017. NY Cosmos is one of the 8 professional soccer teams in this league - Brazilian Pele played here in the old days!
MLS Next Pro is a new league in the US and Canada that is closely affiliated with MLS. The league will begin in 2022 and will start with 21 teams. 20 of these are reserve teams for MLS clubs and the league will be categorized as a division 3 league like NISA and USL1. As the name of the league suggests, the point is to create a more viable and obvious pathway to the highest level of professional American football (soccer) for the many national and international talents.
USL2 is an amateur league for college players that runs from May to August each year. Many professional MLS clubs have U23 teams playing in this league, and it's a great opportunity for college players to develop, play with new teammates and travel to a different area of the US through soccer. Our founders Gustav Fink-Jensen and Marcus Nordgard spent a summer playing in this league for San Francisco City and San Francisco Glens respectively. Here they had the opportunity to play alongside some talented players from Stanford, UCLA, Berkeley etc. while traveling up and down the California coast to play matches.
Leagues in the US (women)
There are several different professional leagues in the US on the women’s side. We give a brief overview of each of them below.
NWSL is a professional women's soccer league under a management contract with the United States Soccer Federation. At the pinnacle of the American league system, the NWSL represents the highest level of the sport in the United States. They have players like, Lynn Williams, Kailen Sheridan, Tziarra King, Savannah Mccaskill and Rachel Daly.
UWS1 is a semi-professional series created in 2015. The best of these consists of 45 teams spread across 6 regions. It is categorized as a Division 2 league and is just below the NWSL. This is often where some of the young talents who have gone under the radar or have had a late development fight for a place in the NWSL and for full-time professional status.
UWS announced the start of League Two in the summer of 2020. A new development league for players in the U20-U23 category and the official league for reserve teams in UWS1. The whole point of the league is to provide more development opportunities to a wider range of players through the reserve team option.
WPSL is an amateur league - the best of its kind in the US, and has been in existence since 1998. With 135 active teams across 13 divisions, it is one of the largest leagues in the world.