US Soccer’s Club Structure – The Breakdown

First of all, there are some basic factors to understand about the structure and why teams are in certain leagues, especially in comparison to most other leagues around the world. US club soccer is a closed system due to anti-trust law and many more of these factors – for a further exploration of those factors and more, visit these posts:

US Soccer’s Club Structure: Series Posts
Behind the StructureInland NW Teams in the StructureIntroduction

The one key component to understand is that US club soccer is a ‘closed system’ and there is no promotion or relegation based on competition. Any team movement up or down the soccer ladder are merely business transactions.

Division 1 (MEN) – Major League Soccer

MLS kicked off in 1996 with its inception and creation fully integrated with the US Soccer bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup. The league launched with 10 teams. It now boasts 29 and is obviously seeing exceptional growth on and off the field but has had its struggles over the years with three folded teams and a franchise relocation (though San Jose was reborn several years later).

Division 1 (WOMEN) – National Womens Soccer League / USL Super League

The NWSL launched late in 2012 and is by far the most successful incarnation of top flight professional women’s soccer following the existence of the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-03) and Women’s Professional Soccer (2007-12). The league currently features 14 teams. Prior to 2021, the US Soccer Federation was the management organization behind the league and USWNT players received pay for both USSF and league play jointly from US Soccer.

USL Super League is a new league launching in late summer 2024 with a fall-and-spring league calendar that matches most other international leagues. Its application for Division 1 status was granted in February 2024. It will feature eight teams in its debut season.

Division 2 – USL Championship

The top tier of United Soccer League’s system of minor league soccer, the USL Championship is the lone league at this tier and features 24 teams. The league as it is today was born out of the off-the-field battle with the second incarnation of the North American Soccer League, which intended to compete with USL and eventually long-term with MLS. Defecting teams led to USL merging the USL First Division and USL Second Division in 2011 to the USL Championship. USL has had a longstanding presence at the Division 2 flight. As it grew in the mid-90s the then Select League was slated to be elevated to D2 when USL incorporated the previously independent A-League (D2). The A-League name remained for D2 USL from 1997-04 when the league rebranded to USL First Division (USL-1). For a bit more history, the A-League dates to the folding of the NASL when a handful of teams launched on each of the coasts via the Western Soccer Alliance (1985) and Americal Soccer League (1988). The two would eventually work with one another and fully merge competitively in 1990 as the American Professional Soccer League (APSL, later branded A-League).

Division 3 – USL League One / MLS Next Pro / NISA

There are currently three different leagues at this tier. USL League One currently features 12 teams, MLSNP 29 (two of them independent) and NISA 9.

MLS reserve teams for many years played in various USL leagues dependent on the desire of each individual club. They came together under the roof of the newly-created MLSNP in 2022. The league is also open to independent teams but has not seen many join the league as the league’s primarily goal is to serve as developmental teams and does not place much emphasis on creating sports entertainment franchises.

The National Independent Soccer Association formed in 2017 and began play in 2019 after several years of off-the-field trouble in its formation. Originally playing a fall-to-spring schedule, the league has since adopted the traditional American soccer calendar.

USL is the longstanding organization that has played at the tier with its roots dating back to 1995 when its membership grew to great numbers and many team owners desired going professional. The Pro League was then created. A year later further ownership groups forged the D2-bound (but still D3) Select League that and would later merge with the A-League in 1997. Following the inclusion of the A-League, the branding again changed to D3 Pro League. Now the third tier within soccer, the branding issue began to arise as many owners felt the league name was part of what was holding them back from success. As inner conflict among USL owners in the two leagues continued back and forth discussions on how to improve branding several branding changes would continue to occur. In 2003, the league simplified its name to Pro League but another two years later overall branding led USL to shifting the league names to USL-1 (A-League) and USL-2 (Pro League). USL-2 continued play until the NASL fight in 2010 led to a devastating setback in minor league soccer. As a result, USL-1 and USL-2 would merge simply as USL and play at the D3 tier as it re-grouped and later branched into the USL Championship and USL League One structure of today in 2019.

*** If you’ve read this much, there is bonus material about the mind-blowing NASL Mess [+]

Division ‘4’ – Amateur Soccer (debatably aka semi-pro soccer)

US Soccer only oversees the three professional soccer tiers, and everything below is casually referred to as Division 4, though it does not technically hold that distinction. These competitions are primarily under the purview and oversight of USSF member US Adult Soccer Association.

The primary men’s competitions at this level are USL League Two, National Premier Soccer League, NISA Nation, United Premier Soccer League and a myriad of regional and state leagues. Though the USASA has a national designation for leagues of that scope (NPSL and NISA nation) and USL League Two (sanctioned by USSF indirectly via USL’s direct membership of USSF through the pro leagues) and UPSL operate nationally unaffiliated to USASA, all leagues at this level are considered peers though off-the-field minimum standards and roster composition vary greatly from league to league and region to region – much like the youth soccer landscape.

On the women’s side the three primary leagues are the Women’s Premier Soccer League, USL W-League and United Women’s Soccer.

With their longstanding histories on and off the field in US Soccer, USL League Two and NPSL are the only two national amateur leagues that have direct qualification in the US Open Cup’s amateur field of teams (teams are determined by the previous league season) while all other amateur teams must go through the rigorous qualification process.

  • USL League Two :: Long known as the USL Premier Development League, the league was rebranded in late 2018 in conjunction with the USL Championship and USL League Two structure and branding announcement. There are approximately 122 teams across the United States and Canada. The league’s roots date all the way back to the earliest years of USL’s birth in 1989 when the then Southwest Indoor Soccer League (a handful of teams primarily in Texas) decided to expand the league to outdoor competition. The SISL’s continued growth saw it move from a regional league to national in just a few short years, leading to the headquarters moving to its current home in Tampa, FL and development of professional tiers in 1995 at which time the PDL moniker was born. The modern eras of USL PDL / League Two are known for having the highest operating standards amongst the amateur flight off the field.
  • National Premier Soccer League :: The NPSL features approximately 92 teams and is the second oldest national men’s league at this level. The NPSL (then MPSL) was born as an offshoot of the similarly structured Women’s Premier Soccer League in the western US, featuring a number of men’s sides from WPSL teams and a handful of ex-USL teams that left the league or had their franchises/membership terminated for failing to meet league standards. Though not a franchise model, the league has historically operated in that manner with territory exclusivity for teams similar to USL.
  • United Premier Soccer League :: Featuring several hundred teams, the UPSL was born in 2011 and features two tiers internally (Premier and Division 1) – created in 2017 – with divisions and conferences populated with several teams in the same market areas, including academy teams of professional teams. For example, Chicago is listed as the home city of six teams and Southern California on its own is split into three separate divisions amongst 34 teams.
  • NISA Nation :: An offshoot of the professional Division 3 NISA, the league began play in 2021 and features 22 teams in Texas and northern and southern California. Looking to expand NISA Nation has developed a unique structure from the traditional model by congregating a second tier that is comprised of independantly operated regional soccer leagues around the nation – including the famous Cosmopolitan Soccer League (NY) – from which the championship teams are invited to compete in the NISA Independent Cup.
  • USL W League :: Though the new incarnation, which currently features 81 teams, launched in 2022, it is ultimately the re-launch of the nation’s oldest elite women’s league (W-League… yes, the hyphen is the difference!) that was first created in 1995. Amidst the USL-v-NASL mess and with a focus on the men’s side of the game, USL surprisingly shut down operations of the league in late 2015.
  • Women’s Premier Soccer League :: The league currently consists of 131 teams across the nation. It was forged in 1998 when many of the California W-League teams unhappy with management from the east coast-based league chose to defect and form their own mirror league. The rivalry, combined with lower entry standards fueled its growth over the years and made it the longest continually operated league existing today.
  • United Women’s Soccer :: The WPSL currently consists of nearly 100 teams across two flights within its organization. Following the dissolution of the W-League in 1995, many teams from that league along with those unhappy with the management of the WPSL ventured off to form the new league, which began play in 2016.
  • Regional / State Leagues :: There are obviously a multitude of these leagues around the nation. Many of them operate through some sort of governing body, whether they be US Adult Soccer, a state association of some sort or another entity that has affiliation with USSF – mostly out of player insurance and registration purposes. There are two such leagues that have had a presence in the inland northwest.
  • – Evergreen Premier League: The EPLWA was launched in 2014 under association with Washington Adult Soccer (member of USASA) by clubs looking to form a competition free from the expenses of being in a national league (entry fees and national playoff travel expenses). The league featured 10 teams in 2023.
  • – Cascadia Premier League: Launched in 2017 as the Western Washington Premier League and rebranded CPL in 2022, the league featured 14 teams in its top flight and 11 in 2023. With membership primarily in western Washington, the CPL features a promotion and relegation system.