Whether you’re new to American soccer, or a long-time fan who’s never considered the broader landscape, you may not actually know the structure of our leagues. The two biggest players on the scene currently are MLS and USL, and there is a difference between the two. In fact, there are a lot of things that vary between these two organizations.

The basic difference between MLS and USL

First and foremost, while both are professional soccer leagues, there are big distinctions that separate the two.

Major League Soccer is sanctioned as a Division One league by US Soccer. This affords the competition with direct spots in competitions like the CONCACAF Champions Cup, and of course, comes with prestige that elevates the league and its clubs in the minds of fans and media everywhere.

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USL operates exclusively in the sphere of the lower divisions. They operate the USL Championship (Division Two) and League One (Division Three) leagues. These levels have less stringent ownership, venue, and market requirements for sanctioning compared to division one. USL also has the amateur League Two league, one of the de facto division four leagues in the US. Below that is an academy setup as well.

MLS started as simply the single major league, but they’ve expanded into other areas in recent years. MLS operates the MLS NEXT academy youth system of leagues, which includes teams from the 29 current MLS teams as well as some independent youth clubs around the country. In 2022 they launched MLS NEXT Pro, a third division league that features primarily reserve teams of the major league clubs.

: 1993 (first season 1996)
Teams: 30 (including announced future expansion)

: 2021 (first season 2022)
Teams: 31 (including announced future expansion)

USL Championship
: 1992 (as USISL)
Teams: 29 (including announced future expansion)

USL League One
: 2017 (first season 2019)
Teams: 17 (including announced future expansion)

More subtle differences

MLS operates as a “single-entity” league. This business structure was chosen to promote strong central strength and stability, and control costs, after the somewhat wild-west days of the original NASL in the 1970s and 80s.

The teams are not quite true clubs in the traditional sense. There are distinct legal companies in each market that operate the day-to-day and pay salaries. But team owners are all co-investors in the league itself, who are given the exclusive rights to operate a team in a given market. Player contracts in MLS are all actually signed with the league itself, and not individual teams.

USL is a franchise-based league, similar to other American sports leagues like the NFL or NBA. USL is not a single entity, which is a major difference compared to MLS. This still has very strong central governance and really the main difference is that player contracts are signed with the individual teams.

Both leagues require paying an expansion fee to start a new team. In MLS, this fee is magnitudes higher than USL (currently a new MLS team will cost you around half a billion dollars).

While MLS teams are generally in larger cities and USL in smaller markets, that’s not a firm rule. USL has many clubs playing (or planned) in “major league” markets (those with an NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and/or MLS team). These include Miami, Tampa Bay, Raleigh, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Detroit, Indianapolis, Memphis, Milwaukee, San Antonio, Phoenix, Oakland, Sacramento, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles in the Championship. Charlotte and the planned club in Brooklyn, NY operate in big league towns as League One sides.

Connected, but separate

Unlike most leagues around the world, MLS and USL are not connected via a system of promotion and relegation. Teams don’t move up and down between the divisions based on their performance on the field (though USL is considering this within their own structure).

But that doesn’t mean the two leagues haven’t been linked in ways.

From 2013 until the launch of MLS NEXT Pro, MLS reserve teams took part in the USL league system, and independent USL sides had affiliates with MLS teams that did not operate their own B-teams.

And while true promotion and relegation does not exist in the US, teams have been “promoted” from USL to MLS. In fact, nearly a third of all teams currently in MLS played in USL in some form:

  • Seattle Sounders (2009)
  • Vancouver Whitecaps (2011)
  • Portland Timbers (2011)
  • Montréal Impact (2012 – now CF Montréal, played in USL through 2010)
  • Orlando City SC (2015)
  • Minnesota United FC (2017 – predecessor played in USL through 2009)
  • FC Cincinnati (2019)
  • Nashville SC (2020)
  • St. Louis City SC (2023 – minority owner was CEO of Saint Louis FC USL team)

In addition, former USL side Rochester Rhinos moved to MLS NEXT Pro in 2022, becoming Rochester NY FC, but they sadly folded after one season in the new league.

The leagues are also intertwined in the women’s professional structure. MLS does not operate its own women’s league, however its clubs in Houston, Orlando, Portland, and Salt Lake City own teams in the NWSL. Meanwhile, NWSL’s Louisville and North Carolina teams share ownership with USL Championship clubs.

USL is launching its own division one women’s league, called the Super League, in 2024. Interestingly, one of the inaugural teams will be based in Washington D.C. with an affiliation to MLS club D.C. United. The Washington Spirit of the NWSL currently shares Audi Field with DCU.

Competitors on the field

MLS and USL don’t just compete for markets and owners.

Unique in American sports, pro soccer teams from different levels on the pyramid actually compete against each other in meaningful games.

This is via the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, which has been around since 1913, one of the oldest competitions of its kind in the world. All clubs from the amateur ranks all the way to MLS are eligible to compete in this national championship tournament.

And MLS and USL sides are often drawn together. MLS has dominated the competition since debuting in 1996. But USL sides have had their moments of glory. The Rochester Raging Rhinos were runners-up in 1996, and actually won the whole thing in 1999, the only lower-division team to do so since MLS joined the competition.

2008 saw the Charleston Battery fall to DC United in the final, and in 2022 Sacramento Republic FC met Orlando City, but lost as well in the last game.

So there you have it. A rundown of the top tiers of soccer in the US. If the past is any indication, the future between these two will certainly continue to be interesting.

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