This month, in the United States men’s club soccer scene, three different professional third divisions kick off 2023 campaigns. USL League One kicks off this weekend. Then, MLS Next Pro the following weekend. Finally, NISA the weekend after. 

What exactly is a third division in a system with no promotion and relegation? Well, It’s a free-standing professional division meeting the USSF’s arbitrary Pro League Standards for a Division Three league. This level of soccer provides important player development opportunities in a professional setting for young domestic starlets. At the same time, it is a proving ground for small- and medium-sized cities or local communities growing the beautiful game. Oftentimes, these are within larger metropolitan areas.

A pyramid, or a maze?

Other soccer-playing nations consolidated their pyramids building foundations at the bottom. Yet, US Soccer created a system where predatory competition between professional and adult-amateur leagues is not just permitted. Rather, it is tacitly encouraged.

This amounts to creating a chaotic soccer landscape throughout the country. One where palace intrigue and in-flighting dominate more than anything tangible in a sporting sense.

US Soccer currently boasts three independently-managed and sanctioned professional third divisions. There are no less than four separate national adult-amateur fourth divisions. Then, factor in roughly 12 regional leagues that can also fall under the ‘fouth division’ umbrella.

No serious nation involved in this sport has such disarray in its setup for the professional and adult-amateur game. It leads directly to the sort of predatory behavior that often curtails logical long-term growth for players. Consequently, it damages the understanding of the soccer divisions for fans. Additionally, the virtual anarchy at the lower division level contributed greatly to an unprecedented laundry list of club failures. This is unrivaled by other major industralized nations. 

Just this past week, MLS Next Pro’s Rochester New York FC (RNYFC), announced they were not going to contest the 2023 season. RNYFC played one year in the MLS-run third division created in 2021. MLS Next Pro launched to further player development. However, it was also a vehicle for MLS to destabilize USL.

Destabilizing competing leagues

In the past several months, countless people have spoken to me about clubs pondering the jump from USL League 2 to a professional league. MLS Next Pro provides the nomenclature of professional in the US soccer pyramid. The wider ultimate goal, multiple sources believe, is to cast doubt about USL’s long-term viability. At the same time, MLS’s net ecosystem grows with more clubs.

The prospect of commercial association with MLS is unquestionably very tempting to lower clubs’ owners and investors. Now, the Rochester situation casts doubt into whether MLS is operating a viable third-division for independent ownership. In fact, since last Friday, I have heard from multiple contacts that the Rochester hiatus will serve as a victory for USL. Reason being, MLS’s third division now looks no more stable for independent clubs than that of USL or NISA. MLS Next Pro will field 27 teams in 2023. Each of those 27 is an affiliate of existing MLS clubs. 

Meanwhile, NISA, sanctioned as a third division by USSF, has seen three of its clubs defect to USL in the last four years. It loses several other teams in the usual manner that lower division soccer clubs fail. NISA will play the 2023 season with just nine teams, including expansion sides in Savannah and Central Florida.

US Soccer’s willingness to allow corporate entities to fight it out left the sporting landscape resembles the wild west. The Federation only paid token interest to lower divisions in the last several years. US Soccer instead focused solely on its senior national teams, fending off litigation. Former USSF President Sunil Gulati warranted many of his criticisms. At least he tracked lower soccer divisions to try and play peacemaker when problems arose. Since Gulati’s departure in 2018, we have seen no effort from US Soccer whatsoever to deal with the mayhem below MLS.

The plight of lower divisions in US Soccer

Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a figure in the sport that has long consulted for lower division clubs in the United States. This person said to me that their advice to prospective owners today is simple.

“Don’t start or buy a club in the United States.”

US Soccer is unwilling to serve as an honest and fair facilitator at the lower division level. The ensuing havoc with MLS’s foray into the field destabilized an already volatile situation. In fact, investment at this time is just unwise. That is even with the US having won the right to co-host the upcoming 2026 FIFA World Cup. 

Instability is the name of the game in the United States thanks to the USSF role as an absentee landlord. Take south Florida, for example. The Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach metropolitan area has been ravaged. It lost an MLS team in 2001, a second-division NASL side in 2016, and our remaining second division side was forced to play in an adult-amateur league in 2018 due to a situation beyond the club’s control. 

By 2020, south Florida had three professional clubs, two of which were brand new, including an MLS entrant. Backtracking to 2018, the year we lacked a club in a professional league locally, we still had 12 teams playing in a national fourth division. These clubs split between PDL (now USL League 2), NPSL and UPSL. Since 2018, many of the 12 clubs have either gone under or changed leagues. This discussion does not even factor in the large number of clubs that have come and gone in local leagues the Florida Adult Soccer Association (FASA) sanctions.

Effect on fans 

Southern Florida is but one areas of the country where this sort of disarray has created an unstable and unsustainable soccer environment. It also leads directly to fans becoming jaded and quitting the domestic game, instead choosing to focus on foreign soccer or worse yet, other entertainment pursuits. 

Yet all of this, seems to go above the heads of those running US Soccer and many in the media that cover the sport in this country. With the United States co-hosting a FIFA World Cup in 2026, the time is now for some degree of consolidation and logical build-out of the US Soccer pyramid to take place. Alas, it appears like bringing a semblance of order to lower division pro soccer is not among the priorities for the US Soccer Federation.