The United States soccer league system is a series of professional and amateur soccer leagues based, in whole or in part, in the United States. Sometimes called the American soccer pyramid, teams and leagues are not linked by the system of promotion and relegation typical in soccer elsewhere. Instead, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) defines professional leagues in three levels, called divisions, with all other leagues sanctioned by USSF not having an official designated level or division.
For practical and historical reasons, some teams from Antigua and Barbuda, Bermuda, Canada, and Puerto Rico (considered a separate country by FIFA) can also compete in these leagues. However, these teams are not eligible for the U.S. Open Cup and cannot represent the United States in the CONCACAF Champions League because they are not affiliated with U.S. Soccer.
No professional league in any of the major pro sports leagues in the U.S. or Canada, including the professional soccer leagues, currently uses a system of promotion and relegation. The country’s governing body for the sport, the United States Soccer Federation (also known as the USSF or U.S. Soccer), oversees the league system and is responsible for sanctioning professional leagues. The leagues themselves are responsible for admitting and administering individual teams. Amateur soccer in the United States is regulated by the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA), the only amateur soccer organization sanctioned by the USSF. Automatic promotion and relegation between its leagues, as exists in many other national league systems, was considered by United Soccer League, but was never implemented; although voluntary promotion and relegation has occurred.
Some amateur leagues sanctioned by the USASA also use promotion and relegation systems within multiple levels of their leagues. However, there has never been a merit-based promotion system offered to the USASA’s “national” leagues, the NPSL and League Two.
College soccer in the United States is sanctioned by bodies outside the direct control of the USSF, the most important of which is the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). See NCAA Division I women’s soccer programs, NCAA Division I men’s soccer programs, and NCAA Division II men’s soccer programs for a list of college soccer programs in the United States.
The standards for Division I, II and III leagues are set by the USSF.
In the United States, professional men’s outdoor soccer leagues are ranked by the United States Soccer Federation into one of three divisions: Division I, Division II, and Division III. Amateur soccer organizations are also recognized by the USSF, but individual amateur leagues are not. The only adult amateur soccer organization currently recognized by U.S. Soccer is the USASA, although several other leagues operate independently under the USASA umbrella.
Since 1996, Major League Soccer (MLS) has been the only sanctioned USSF Division I men’s outdoor soccer league in the United States. MLS has grown from 10 teams in 1996 to 24 teams as of the 2019 season.
In addition to the required positions filled by full-time staff, the league office must have full-time staff performing the functions of a chief operations officer, a chief financial officer and a director of marketing/public relations on a year-round basis
The USL Championship (USLC) is the only sanctioned Division II men’s outdoor soccer league as of 2018. The league, then known as USL Pro, formed in 2010 as a result of the merger of the former USL First Division and USL Second Division, was sanctioned as Division III league from 2011 to 2016. USL Championship was also provisionally sanctioned as a Division II league for 2017, and received full Division II sanctioning in 2018 on a year-to-year basis. USLC is divided into two conferences, East and West, to reduce travel costs for its teams and has minimal inter-conference games. The conference champions then meet in a single match to determine the league champion.
The previously Division II North American Soccer League (NASL) was formed in 2009, but did not debut until 2011 following the controversial 2010 season that saw neither the USL First Division nor the NASL receive Division II sanctioning from the USSF, resulting in the temporary USSF Division 2 Pro League. NASL was sanctioned as a Division II league from 2011 to 2016; when it fielded 8 teams for the 2017 season, U.S. Soccer only granted the league provisional sanctioning as it fell under the 12-team requirement. The USSF rejected the NASL’s application to maintain provisional Division II status for the 2018 season as the NASL did not present a plan on how it would meet the Division II criteria. In response, the NASL filed “a federal antitrust suit against the U.S. Soccer Federation” in an attempt to force USSF to drop all Division designations. Due to the continuing litigation against U.S. Soccer, the NASL then had to postpone its season to August 2018 and lost four more teams in the process.
Two leagues have indicated that they will seek Division III status. United Soccer League, administrator of USLC and USL League Two, announced that they would start a new league, called USL League One, and seek Division III certification and targeting 2019 as the first season for the new league. The league received sanctioning in December 2018. National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) led by former Chicago Fire general manager Peter Wilt plans on fielding 8 to 10 teams in 2019 and has stated that it will seek Division III certification.
In September 2015, it was reported that the USSF was proposing the addition of eligibility requirements for sanctioned Division I soccer leagues, including that they must have at least 16 teams, stadiums with a capacity of at least 15,000, and at least 75% of the teams must be in cities that have a population of at least 2 million.
In 2018, the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), a nationwide semi-professional league announced the intention to set up a professional division, NPSL Pro. As part of the announcement, NPSL initiated a single season competition, the NPSL Founders Cup, involving 11 teams that will form the new professional league in 2020. Although explicitly a professional league, there has been no confirmation that NPSL intend to apply for DIII status.
Below is a list of the number of teams sanctioned by the USSF in the so-called “modern era” under the division sanctioning scheme described above.
The USSF does not officially recognize distinctions beyond the three professional divisions above. Currently, all other leagues are sanctioned by USASA which is a national association member of the USSF and the only member of the Adult Council. Among leagues sanctioned by USASA, USL League Two (USL2) and National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) are recognized in practical terms as playing at a higher level as both are considered national leagues and receive more automatic berths to the US Open Cup than the total given to all the regional leagues and the USASA state association leagues combined.[failed verification] Additionally, USL2 and NPSL pay some of their players and are more accurately described as semi-professional leagues.
USL League Two takes place during the summer months, and has age restrictions. Thus, the player pool is drawn mainly from NCAA college soccer players seeking to continue playing high level soccer during their summer break, while still maintaining their college eligibility. The National Premier Soccer League is similar to USL2 and also attracts top amateur talent from around the United States. However, unlike USL2, the NPSL does not have any age limits or restrictions, thus incorporating both college players and former professional players.
The table below shows the current structure of the system. For each division, its official name, sponsorship name, number of clubs and conferences/divisions are given. The United States Soccer Federation regulates the standards for a league or division to be recognized as professional, while also determining the level of division for each league.
Professional leagues sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation
Major League Soccer
26 clubs – 2 conferences
35 clubs – 2 conferences
Soccer Association9 clubs
USL League One
The system is only defined as far as level 3. What follows is a representation of Open Division structure, should the structure be defined further.
Semi-professional and Amateur Leagues[m 1] sanctioned through United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA)
an Organization Member of USSF and only member of the Adult Council
National Premier Soccer League94 clubs – 4 regions with 13 conferences
Northeast RegionSouth RegionMidwest RegionWest Region
USL League Two
72 clubs – 4 conferences with 11 divisions
United Premier Soccer League
250+ clubs – 8 conferences with 19 divisions
Championship Divisions Central ConferenceNortheast ConferenceSoutheast ConferenceWestern Conference
USASA Elite Amateur Leagues
17 State and Regional Leagues
US Club Soccer
39 leagues in 4 regions
East RegionsMidwest RegionSouth RegionWest Region
United States Adult Soccer Association
55 state associations in 4 regions
See List of USASA affiliated leagues for complete listRegion IRegion IIRegion IIIRegion IV
The Women’s United Soccer Association started playing in 2001, but suspended operations in 2003. It was replaced in 2009 with Women’s Professional Soccer. WPS closed after the 2011 season due to a dispute with owners, and the WPSL Elite League was the de facto top tier of women’s soccer in 2012. In November 2012 the National Women’s Soccer League, sponsored by the United States Soccer Federation, the Canadian Soccer Association and the Mexican Football Federation was announced. The league started play in April 2013. Mexico withdrew from sponsorship of the NWSL once it established its own women’s league in 2017.
There were two leagues that acted as an unofficial lower division. The United Soccer Leagues ran the W-League from 1995 to 2015. The Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) was founded in 1998. Almost immediately following the demise of the W-League, United Women’s Soccer was founded with orphan W-League teams and WPSL breakaways.
While there was never official distinction between the national amateur leagues, it was commonly assumed that the W-League was a higher quality than WPSL. Two W-League teams had effectively promoted into the first division – the Buffalo Flash becoming the Western New York Flash in 2011 and D.C. United Women becoming the Washington Spirit in 2013 – while no WPSL teams have ever done so. UWS, as W-League’s spiritual successor, has strengthened this image of being the higher-quality amateur league by attracting four teams that had been associated with WPSL Elite.
National Women’s Soccer League
United Women’s Soccer
23 clubs (in 4 conferences)(plus 2 Canadian club)
Women’s Premier Soccer League
119 clubs (in 4 regions and 20 conferences)(plus 2 Canadian club)(plus 1 Puerto Rico club)
United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA)
55 state associations in 4 regions
See List of USASA affiliated leagues for complete list
Indoor soccer in North America is governed by the Confederacion Panamericana de Minifutbol (CPM), a member of the World Minifootball Federation (WMF).
Major Arena Soccer League
15 U.S. clubs and 2 Mexican clubs
Major Arena Soccer League 2
8 U.S. clubs and 1 Mexican club
Premier Arena Soccer League
13 U.S. clubs