With the 30th MLS expansion side set to be announced in the coming weeks, where has the USSF left the country in terms of competitive soccer, and where can we go from here.
Major League Soccer began play in 1996, in part due to a deal with FIFA which saw the United States host the 1994 World Cup. America has always been lacking when it comes to soccer, so a new professional league had to succeed, especially after the failure that was the NASL. The key thing about this league being different from many others across the globe(namely in Europe) is that it runs based off the calendar year, there is an east/west playoff format, but most importantly it is a closed league.
There were 10 teams when play began in the 1996 season, but the number quickly grew to 12 by 1998. With big names like Jorge Campos, Carlos Valderrama, alongside USMNT stars like Alexi Lalas and Eric Wynalda the MLS slowly but surely started to grow a fanbase.
After nearly ten years of struggling to find success as a league, MLS found its big break. In 2007, global superstar David Beckham put pen to paper on a contract with the LA Galaxy. This transfer changed the rules around salary caps in the league, and brought global attention to the league.
Since Beckham’s move the league has only grown bigger. There are currently 29 MLS teams, with the 30th franchise to be announced in the coming weeks. The league has boasted the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa, Gareth Bale, and countless other legends of the game.
With the league finally growing into itself and nearing the end of new franchises, questions are starting to arise about what’s next for the American soccer landscape. At the moment MLS remains a closed league with no promotion and relegation. While this creates a unique environment, there are also serious drawbacks to not having promotion and relegation
The United Soccer League(despite not being able to gain promotion) is the name of the three divisions below the MLS. It consists of the USL Championship, USL League 1, and USL League 2.
Originally formed in 1986 as a semi-professional indoor soccer league, the USL has overgone a number of changes in the way they run themselves, and only recently rebranding as the Championship, League 1, and League 2.
With no prospect of moving up in the divisions, these teams often stagnate and are unable to compete with higher opposition. Despite this however Didier Drogba did end his career in the USL just before their latest rebrand.
The one competition that pits USL teams against MLS teams is the Lamar Hunt Open Cup. While only one team outside the MLS has won this cup since 1996, USL teams have been noisier lately, and are starting to make a strong argument for promotion.
In the 2022 US Open Cup, USL Championship side Sacramento FC made it all the way to the final where they lost to Orlando. This was just after a failed campaign from Sacramento to acquire an MLS expansion slot.
More recently, new USL side Monterey Bay FC beat the San Jose Earthquakes before taking reigning MLS champs LAFC to a penalty shootout. Following their penalty loss to LAFC, head coach Frank Yallop said “I’m not frustrated, just disappointed.” As USL teams gain bigger fan bases and are able to attract better players, the mentality against MLS opposition starts to change. These teams think they can win, and they are in a real position to do so.
With both the USL divisions and MLS filling up the final few spots in their leagues, it is finally time to talk about promotion and relegation. Potentially the best possible argument for not having this fluid division system is that the USA needed time to grow a fanbase around the sport, and teams needed time to actually come to fruition.
This argument has started to lose its ground to stand on however. The MLS planned for 30 teams and now that goal has been reached. Once no more teams join the league through a $500-million-dollar buy-in, it becomes time to open the entire system up.
Alongside the growth of club soccer, the US Men’s National Team has also been growing rapidly since 1996. With the 2026 World Cup headed to the USA, the time is now for the USSF to make some big decisions. Reworking the league, and thus reworking the youth and grassroots systems as well, to better reflect nations that have had continued success in the sport will be nothing but beneficial to soccer in this country as a whole.
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