U.S. soccer pyramid: A guide on understanding the American soccer pyramid

U.S. soccer pyramid: A guide on understanding the American soccer pyramid

Grace Waruguru
December 15, 2023 at 8:41 AM
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How does the U.S. soccer pyramid work? The professional and semi-professional football leagues and associations have undergone massive restructuring over the years, causing confusion among soccer fans and players. However, the pyramid is now organized, with Major League Soccer (MLS) at the helm.

US soccer pyramid
Thierry Henry played for MLS's New York Red Bulls between 2010 and 2012. Photo: Catherin Ivill (Modified by author)
Source: Getty Images

The first men's professional soccer league, the American Soccer League, was founded in 1921. The attempt to organize the country's football scene exposed the disorganization among youth and professional soccer, with several divisions needing clear-cut guidelines for managing their teams. Thankfully, the sport has attained order over the years. What is the U.S. soccer pyramid, and how does it work?

Origin of the U.S. Soccer Pyramid

Soccer has become increasingly popular in America, triggering the need for order and professionalism at all levels of the sport. The U.S. soccer pyramid in 2023 is unique, and one of the notable policies is that it does not allow promotion or relegation. However, players can grow from one level to another based on their skills and competence.

The pyramid aims to cultivate participation and inclusion in the sport from the grassroots to the top tier. As leagues scout for fresh talent, the players must settle in teams and divisions that help them grow professionally.

How many U.S. soccer leagues are there?

The different soccer league levels play a unique role in shaping soccer in America. The pyramid has six primary categories, with the MLS taking the top tier. However, the lower-level tiers have more than one league. Here is the U.S. soccer pyramid explained from the lowest cadre to the highest:

United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA)

US soccer pyramid 2023
Milan Iloski plays for USL Championship Club Orange County SC as a forward. Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea (Modified by author) Photo:
Source: Getty Images

This soccer league is a national sanctioning body for amateur soccer in the United States. It comprises 54 state organizations, regional clubs, and teams at large, covering various skill levels for over 30s and 40s.

United Premier Soccer League (UPSL)

The UPSL is one of the U.S. soccer pyramid youth leagues that started in Los Angeles. It integrates the global standard of soccer with the amateur community and seeks to create a pro-development pathway.

Cosmopolitan Soccer League (CSL)

The New York-based league has been in operation since 1923. The local league has produced several teams that have excelled in the U.S. Open Cup. National Premier Soccer League (NPSL)

The NPSL is an amateur league recognized as the fourth tier in the U.S. soccer pyramid. It hosts numerous gifted players, most starting their professional careers. As of 2023, this league has over 90 teams from across America.

US soccer pyramid youth
Gareth Bale played for Los Angeles FC of the MLS between 2022-2023. Photo: James Williamson (Modified by author)
Source: Getty Images

The league organizes regional conferences and operates primarily during summer to accommodate college students pursuing NCAA eligibility. Teams in this league attract a massive local following. The amateur league regular season runs from May to July, ending in a championship game at the national playoffs.

National Independent Soccer Association (NISA)

The National Independent Soccer Association falls in the third U.S. soccer league pyramid division. It was founded in 2017 after being sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF). NISA has nine teams across America (as of 2023). Its season is split into two, between spring and fall, and the winners battle it out at a championship game.

The league aims to help local and independent clubs grow organically and plans to introduce promotion and relegation, which is unheard of in the larger pyramid. Additionally, NISA provides a platform for players, coaches, and clubs to grow professionally, offering competitive soccer to markets that might need help to support a team in a higher league.

USL League Two

US soccer league pyramid
Emerson Hyndman of the USL Championship club Memphis 901 FC made his professional debut in 2014. Photo: James Williamson (Modified by author)
Source: Getty Images

This league is the fourth pyramid tier, an amateur league that features college players looking to maintain their eligibility as they gain experience. The USL League Two is a developmental phase for players pursuing professional soccer.

Many players in this league are enrolled in college and use it to stay fit and compete at high levels during the summer. It has several divisions across America and Canada and has over 80 teams (as of 2023). Several USL League Two players have represented their countries locally and internationally. The season runs from May to July before the playoffs in August.

USL League One

The USL League One is the third level of the U.S. pro soccer pyramid. Launched in 2019, the USSF placed the league below the MLS and the USL in the pyramid. This league has 12 teams playing a regular season and a playoff to determine the league champion.

This tier facilitates player development for those determined to advance to the USL Championship or the MLS. The team owners constantly assess and develop upcoming talent in a competitive environment.

United Soccer League Championship

US pro soccer pyramid
The legendary Zlatan Ibrahimovic played for MLS's LA Galaxy between 2018 and 2019. Photo: Nicolò Campo (Modified by author)
Source: Getty Images

The USL Championship is the second level of the U.S. soccer pyramid. It began operating in 2011 and features independently owned teams and others operated by MSL franchises. The league had 15 teams in its premier season but is expected to grow to 29 teams by 2025.

This tier plays a critical role in developing players for the MLS. The United Soccer League's influence goes beyond the United States, boasting players from over 70 countries. The diversity gives it a global feel and raises the competition level.

Major League Soccer (MLS)

The Major League Soccer (MLS) is at the helm of the American soccer pyramid and is the highest level of professional soccer. It has 29 teams as of 2023 and is expected to reach 30 by 2025 when San Diego comes on board. The MLS was established in 1996 and is the world's 8th most-attended league.

The MLS has established firm structures and policies over the years, attracting numerous players and partners due to its alignment with FIFA standards. One of the unique policies of Major League Soccer is the Beckham Rule, which allows teams to sign up to three players with salaries exceeding the salary cap. This has seen international athletes like Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic join the league.

US soccer pyramid
Italian footballer Lorenzo Insigne plays for MLS's Toronto FC. Photo: Catherine Ivill (Modified by author)
Source: Getty Images

In 2022, the MLS birthed the U.S. soccer pyramid MLS Next Pro, a professional men’s soccer league in America and Canada that completes the pro-player pathway. It has 27 teams affiliated with different MLS clubs.

How does the U.S. women's soccer pyramid work?

Women's soccer is organized differently in America. The most popular women's league is the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) which has about 16 teams. Others include the Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL), the biggest amateur league in the country, and the United Women's Soccer (UWS).

The U.S. soccer pyramid has helped shape the careers of several professional players. From the grassroots level, this structure enables raising talents that could take over the scene if nurtured consistently. With the tremendous growth of the sport in America, fans will look out for any changes in the pyramid and how it will affect the players and teams.

READ ALSO: Which are the best soccer leagues in the world? A ranked list

Sports Brief published an article ranking the best soccer leagues in the world. These professional bodies fall under the FIFA governorship and attract the best players based on their remuneration packages and growth opportunities. Here are some of the top soccer leagues.

The EPL, founded in 1992, ranks top of the list, boasting a membership of 50 teams. German Bundesliga comes in second, followed by Serie A and La Liga. Check out the top soccer leagues by clicking on the above article.

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Grace Waruguru
Grace has over 4 years of experience in article writing and digital media content creation for various local and global brands. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Communication (Public Relations) from Daystar University, Kenya.