My Thoughts On The USL

We are back in North America and this is the first segment of a two-part opinion piece where I will be talking about the United Soccer League (USL) and the Canadian Premier League (CPL).

Two iconic USL teams: Charleston Battery v. Pittsburgh Riverhounds (Source, Daniel Island)


In my piece Major League Soccer – From Laughing Stock To Competitor, I called MLS “an ever-growing and ever-evolving organism” – the same can be said about the United Soccer League. This isn’t a history lesson, but here is a list of important events:

  • 1986: Southwest Indoor Soccer League is created
  • 1989: Outdoor league added
  • 1999: Changed name to USL
  • 2009: NASL controversy (wrote a piece about this, read it here)
  • 2013: Partnership/affiliation with MLS
  • 2017: Promoted from 3rd division to 2nd division
  • 2018: Rebranding and this is where our ‘story’ begins

The USL gaining Division II status meant that a new third division had to be created. It was stated that a new league would be coming soon and in 2018, the USL announced that it would adopt the British league system (without promotion/relegation of course). The USL would be called USL Championship, the new league would be called USL League One and the USL affiliated Premier Development League (PDL) would become USL League Two.

I think that using the British system is a good move, as it gives a clear picture of the hierarchy of the leagues. I never knew whether or not the PDL was a part of the USL and where it ranked on the football pyramid, considering that there is also the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) and both are very similar, but now it’s clear that the PDL/League Two is the fourth division. It is better to have a well-defined structure.

Promotional picture used to showcase the new-look USL (Source)

The biggest problem I have with the new structure is that teams still seem to be all over the place. Why are reserve teams in the Championship/League One? In my opinion, all the reserve teams should be in League Two – I know that would be harsh on the New York Red Bulls II because they have actually won the Championship before, but this season, you got the Red Bulls II and the Timbers 2 etc. in the Championship and Toronto II and Orlando B in League One – shouldn’t all reserve teams play in the same league? But then again, what is a reserve team? Are all MLS affiliates ‘reserve teams’? No, they’re not. Clubs like San Antonio and the Ottawa Fury aren’t, but the Real Monarchs and Swope Park Rangers are, so where do you draw the line?

Then there’s the disproportionate quantity of clubs in the USL leagues. The Championship consists of 36 teams, rising to 38 in 2021, split into an Eastern and Western Conference.
There are 10 teams in League One, 2 expansion franchises will join next year and the aim is to have 24 clubs in the league for the 2021 season.
Then we get to the big boy. USL League Two is made up of 72 teams, spanning across 4 conferences and split up into multiple divisions. To give you an example, newly formed Manhattan SC play in the Eastern Conference’s Northeast Division.

The main aim of having such a significant number of teams is to grow the sport in the US and Canada, but is it really necessary to have two teams from San Francisco competing in the same division? Oregon has 4 teams spread across 3 leagues – the Timbers in MLS, their reserves in the Championship and their U23s from Salem along with Lane United from Eugene in League Two. Portland, Salem and Eugene are all pretty close to each other, so Lane United could have just been Portland’s affiliate and that would have opened up two expansion spaces for other cities that don’t have an MLS or USL team (e.g. Boise, Idaho and New Orleans, Louisiana). It’s not just MLS/USL though, there are two teams from Chattanooga, Tennessee – one in USL League One and another in the NPSL. Chattanooga has the same population as my hometown, Dresden. I genuinely couldn’t imagine there being two ‘big’ clubs from Dresden, because it’s just not that big a city. This is probably a silly thing to get upset about, but for some reason, it’s really bothering me.

Should MLS reserve teams, like Swope Park, play in League Two? (Source, Nick Smith)

I think that MLS/USL affiliation rules should be stricter. Why the hell are the Tulsa Roughnecks (Oklahoma) an affiliate of the Chicago Fire (Illinois)? I thought affiliates are supposed to be local clubs? To get to Tulsa from Chicago, you have to drive through the entirety of Illinois and Missouri, that’s a distance of 700 miles. Imagine PSG announcing a partnership with ‘local’ club Hibernian from Edinburgh. Let’s not even mention New York City FC’s affiliation with San Antonio FC, that’s like travelling from Portugal to Poland.

Another thing is the number of players that can be loaned to a franchise’s USL affiliate – the Philadelphia Union loaned 7 (SEVEN) players to their affiliate club in 2016. There needs to be a cap on how many players can be loaned out, I think that three are more than enough. USL clubs need to have their own rosters – they need to be independent.

My solutions (not that anyone cares) for these ‘issues’ would be to:

  • Force every MLS team to have an U23 squad in League Two or move reserve teams to League Two.
  • Rebrand current reserve teams as independent affiliates and be allowed to stay in the Championship/League One.
  • Have a minimum distance between franchises/markets, temporarily at least. Give every corner of the country a team first, when that has been done, you can start to think about having four teams in little old Oregon.
  • Tighten affiliation rules:

– MLS franchises are only allowed to loan three players to their USL affiliate (+ maybe one emergency loan).
– Three additional players are allowed to go out on loan to different USL teams (one per team).
-Give MLS teams the rights to USL affiliate players as an incentive to actually get an affiliate team (looking at you, Columbus).
– Implement set prices depending on the player’s age and contract length, to reward the USL team for developing the player.
– MLS franchises can only have partnerships with USL teams from either the same state or a 150-mile radius, if there is no USL team in the state (*cough* Montreal – Ottawa *cough*)

Tacoma Defiance (formerly Sounders 2) unveiling (Source, Lindsey Wasson)

Additional information: In a Q&A on Twitter, the USL stated that they are toying with the idea of promotion/relegation and that the new structure would be perfect for it. I’m not one of those hardcore promotion/relegation advocates, but it would definitely be interesting to see it implemented.

So there you have it, my thoughts on the USL. Part two will be released in a few days and there I will give my thoughts on the Canadian Premier League. Stay tuned!

3 thoughts on “My Thoughts On The USL

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