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Leagues: MLS

MLS, NASL and USL pyramid can be successful


The growth of soccer in the United States is something that can be easily taken for granted. We’ve seen the disastrous fallout that occurs when leagues overextend themselves, lacking the financial support to reach the lofty strata they desire to attain. Last week’s flurry of Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations in Major League Soccer brought this mode of thinking back to the forefront, as players and owners faced the real option of postponing the start of the 2015 season over labor costs. Fortunately for fans of the domestic league, the Players Union and Ownership eventually agreed upon a deal; albeit one that yet again favors the owners.

But this is a mere sandbox in the vast playground of professional (and semi-pro) soccer in America. And while the head honchos Don Garber, Bob Kraft and Philip Anschutz are quite content building a large, multifaceted castle, the others who desire a piece of that real estate aren’t playing nice.

The agreement over the MLS CBA ended the prospects of the North American Soccer League filling a potentially large gap in the country’s soccer consciousness. Certainly Bill Peterson and the D2 level NASL were anticipating the chance of a work stoppage, and hoping to market their league in the vacuum left by MLS’s absence.

Of course this would be a dream scenario for NASL from another perspective. They continue to set their sights on the top division’s status. Peterson and company have openly talked of wanting a true soccer pyramid which supports promotion and relegation, and have even hinted about exploring D1 classification down the road, if MLS isn’t willing to enter the fold.

That brings us to D3, which has undergone quite a transformation in the last couple of years. Once a smattering of marginally successful regional favorites (Harrisburg, Richmond, Rochester, to name a few), USL (nee USL-Pro) has aligned with MLS for the primary purpose of providing competition for the D1 league’s reserve teams.

In recent months however, it has looked more like subjugation than alignment. USL’s rebranded logo followed in MLS’s footsteps in allowing customization for every team. And more importantly, USL has started to deal NASL a little of its own medicine by publicly discussing the possibility of rising to D2 standards.

What does all this mean? It looks like an awful lot of dysfunction, and it’s hard to imagine it’s good for long-term stability of the pyramid.

Many MLS supporters are unhappy with NASL’s rogue nature and that’s understandable. MLS itself has drawn a line in the proverbial sand, planting most of their recent franchise launches in existing NASL cities – New York City (Cosmos), Miami (Strikers), and Atlanta (Silverbacks). It’s not as simple as a promotion, as ownership of the existing teams would have to meet MLS’s sizable franchise fee. Joey Saputo was willing to pay that price in Montreal. These other owners are not, and since they are working in markets that MLS prizes, well, Garber and company will just go around them.

Even now we’ve seen USL entering prospective NASL markets, like Oklahoma City. Will more of that come down the line?

But most troubling is that this is a “pyramid” sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF). USSF has ultimate governance over the situation, and yet Sunil Gulati and his organization appear to let the sniping continue without comment or action.

There are tiers in a pyramid for a reason, and clubs that desire to move up – and have the resources to sustain their existence – should be afforded that opportunity. I don’t think anyone disagrees with that.

Where the disagreement comes is the way it should happen. Those who favor more traditional dynamics think a club’s performance should dictate ascendancy. But that would devalue the early investment of the founding owners, trying to start a successful league in that flat, formless sandbox. Just about everyone believes MLS must succeed for soccer to conquer the crowded sports landscape, and purely performance-based promotion and relegation could compromise the sustainability of the top level division.

In my mind, USSF needs to address the state of affairs in how to grow these tiers appropriately. The MLS/NASL/USL three-tiered system has plenty of opportunity to be successful for the foreseeable future.

But without leadership imparted from the federation level, it seems that the bickering and in-fighting will only continue. This animosity is unhealthy. Left in its current state, the likely outcome will be MLS and USL forcing NASL into a corner. Some iconic legacy teams could meet an unfortunate demise, and the pyramid will be no stronger for it.


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  1. Oscar Pesantez

    October 16, 2016 at 8:47 pm

    Someone help me find a soccer team. I need to play please.

  2. Dennis

    July 15, 2016 at 6:33 am

    From a UK fan who likes all 3 leagues ( I found USL by accident on youtube) why not have MLS as the stand alone league that doesn’t have promotion relegation etc then have NASL as a D1 side USL as a D2 side and NPSL as a D3 side that have Promotion Relegation pyramid structure it would make sense, It would make the MLS happy as the top dog that attracts worldwide audiences it makes the 3 other leagues look really good too with promotion relegation etc and play offs and the only time all 4 league teams play each other is the US Open Cup now doesn’t that sound better

    • Joe

      September 10, 2016 at 4:57 am

      No not at all lol half the teams in the MLS shouldn’t be there they draw small audiences and have shitty teams. The league is propped up by 5 to 8 teams and the rest are shite. That’s why it’ needs promotion and relegation so bad because there are hungry teams that would bring a breath of fresh air to the top flight like every other league in the world. Screw the owners who bought in 20 years ago you had your fun but now it’s time for the league to evolve. If you don’t have a head start by now that’s your fault. It hurts the league to see empty stands on tv. You don’t see it though because only five MLS venues are shown.

  3. Dayton

    July 5, 2016 at 6:33 pm

    I think that there should be a relegation system in place and there shouldn’t be a draft. It forces teams to think about soccer around the world. It forces them to scout and buy players from other leagues and countries to get better. It also adds more emotion with relegation battles and promotion races. Plus no league tournemants. The only one should be the open cup.

  4. Jean Pierre

    June 30, 2016 at 6:58 pm

    The future of US football depends on the unification of its leagues. Top money will always remain in MLS. This merge will provide more competition for First Division (MLS) and eager for grownth for 2nd and 3rd Divisons, etc. Fans will follow well-played football, specially if localtv. one would be surprised by the size of Brazil’ s pyramid, for exemple. 5 National Divisions with 20 teams each (every state has about 4 major teams) plus a State Championship with 20 other teams, all connected, Trust me, fans will have their main team but will definitely follow small local teams as well. That’s just a fact!
    Oh but that’s Brazil, the land of the game you say.. !! WRONG, most leagues in the world have this format.
    I really hope someday they’ll embrace this, I live here and having had played NPSL,PDL, ASL , I can’t wait for this to happen to give these leagues hope to continue growing.
    Maybe then MLS won’t be a joke outside our boarders

  5. Seth Israel

    March 14, 2015 at 3:32 am

    MLS could car less if NASL Florida teams would collapse as Orland is less than 3 hours away from West Palm Beach, Tampa and Jacksonville. They want fans to drive to Orland and becoming Lions fans. Orlando will be the only MLS team in Florida. This is what scary about MLS new fans in Florida will go watch Orlando making it impossible for NALS clubs to thrive in Florida I want all teams to thrive but the writing is on the wall.

  6. CTBlues

    March 13, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    The only way promotion relagation happens is if USSF says that it is happening and if you don’t your teams and players aren’t sanctioned by FIFA and thus cannot represent their countries. That will never happen though because USSF is in MLS’s pocket.

  7. yespage

    March 13, 2015 at 11:23 am

    Wouldn’t the problem with relegation be that investors bought into a First Division team, not a team that could slide down to the third tier.

  8. StellaWasAlwaysDown

    March 13, 2015 at 10:26 am

    I think the biggest part of the article is the line about early investors losing money. Surely MLS/NASL/USL could provide some sort of buyout/compensation for these investors if they don’t have a team? If they do have a team, then shouldn’t their team be worth more being an older club (based on the assumption that these owners would have had extra time to grow their markets and *hopefully* build a solid team)?

    Seems more protectionist than anything which is stifling competition and growth. Every article about this comes down to relegation. The world has it, and MLS should embrace it. It provides competition, increases investment, rewards those who do well and punishes those who do not, and makes for an exciting experience for fans.

  9. Impactsupporter

    March 13, 2015 at 10:09 am

    What about just unifying and merging the MLS NASL and USL into a possible 3-tier league. Or if you want to consider Brazil as a model merge MLS NASL USL PDL NPSL and make a series of regional leagues for North America. The one advantage is that it would cut down on travel costs.

    Just a thought.

    • StellaWasAlwaysDown

      March 13, 2015 at 10:27 am

      That’s what everyone basically wants (except maybe MLS). If only it was that easy.

  10. R

    March 12, 2015 at 6:58 pm

    Where’s any article saying that the USL logo is a leftover from the MLS one? Genuinely curious.

    • Christopher Harris

      March 12, 2015 at 7:03 pm

      We didn’t cover that news specifically, but we included the new USL logo here.

      Looks like MLS designers created the USL logo based on the similar design.

    • Earl Reed

      March 13, 2015 at 8:20 am

      I edited that line. There were rumors that the USL logo had been an alternative choice in MLS’s design process, but I can find no credible news articles verifying that as fact.

      With that being said, USL has all but subjugated themselves to the whimsy of MLS. It is a good thing to have a league for MLS reserve players to develop their skills in a full league season, but what if it comes at the cost of destabilizing the structure of the US pyramid?

      Thanks for your comment!

  11. WSW

    March 11, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    Why can’t FL NASL teams compete? they have no salary cap and each team is growing every year, unlike MLS where SUM will throw a bone once in a while to struggling franchises like DP blind draws etc..NASL teams don’t have to wait, they can do whatever they want.

  12. David Hughes

    March 11, 2015 at 10:14 pm

    Awesome post! My concern is with D2 and D3 levels squeezed out of the money as we see clubs collapse due to MLS power $$ and control over U.S. Soccer. That would be a shame. For example with Orlando FC now the team for all Floridians should support making Tampa, Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale clubs not able to compete.

  13. Justin

    March 11, 2015 at 9:16 pm

    While all of this bickering and back-and-forth happens between the MLS, NASL, and USL (appears to be a terrible love-triangle), I find the most interesting part of the pyramid to be the 4th tier NPSL.

    I have a local market team and it is absolutely crazy the number of fans that come out. It’s a very ‘grassroots’ feel and pride. While I’m sure the organization would love to eventually rise up the pyramid, from a fan experience I’d prefer it to stay where it is.

    Would love if you did a write-up on the NPSL (National Premier Soccer League). Its growth over the past 3-5 years has been insane!

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