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As MLS works to become an international brand can USL become the States' domestic one?

By Sam Vanolinda and Brian Maurer


Photo courtesy of CJ Hellner/TopBin90


MLS has been the league that dominates the American market since it was created in 1993. From its flashy stadiums to the multitude of stars that have shared the pitch, from David Beckham to Zlatan to Lionel Messi, it's safe to say that soccer in America runs through its “Major” league.


That being said, multiple leagues are usually present anywhere football is played. The United Soccer League (USL) was created in 1986 as the Southwest Indoor Soccer League. Since then, it has grown into a force of its own within the American soccer world.


The USL consists of a Championship League, League One, League Two, and the Youth Super Y League. They also have a women's division called USL W League, which began in 2022.


Over the past couple of years, the USL has grown substantially and even looks to be a competitor with MLS in the future.


North Carolina soccer fans will be aware of the league's presence, with Cary-based NCFC defeating Charlotte Independence in the USL League One Final on November 5.


Since the Messi deal last summer, MLS has looked like a league focused on trying to expand its reach into foreign markets. This could leave an opening for the USL to increase its exposure domestically. Several recent events indicate ways in which the USL may attempt to compete with MLS at the domestic level.


CBS deal


USL announced on November 7 that they had signed a TV deal with CBS Sports to air 100 USL matches annually on their networks through 2027.


Matches, like the Championship final, will be shown on the CBS television network and being cast on Paramount+. 


Within the article by USL announcing the partnership, USL CEO Alec Papadakis added: “This partnership is a clear indication of the USL’s growth and impact on domestic soccer, providing us with more national TV exposure and platforms to tell stories about our players, clubs, and fans than ever before. We are entering a new, exciting phase, both on and off the field, and we look forward to working with CBS Sports over the next four years to take our leagues and our game to new heights.”


MLS has its partnership with Apple TV, and now through CBS, USL will be able to stream into the homes of millions of Americans who may not have known about the league otherwise.


This deal should cause a surge in just about every facet of the league. With the boost of viewership, it should create more attendance, and merch sales, and therefore create more pull for bigger-name players to join USL.


USL has been known as a more local league, but being a mainstay program on one of the biggest channels in America could cause a rise in the league's popularity.


Promotion/relegation


While the MLS mirrors other big sports leagues in America like the MLB, NBA, and NFL, with owners who want more American rules (salary caps, no promotion/relegation, drafts, playoffs, etc.); USL is considering the English and European model of building a league.


Promotion/relegation has yet to exist in USL, as the vote to add the rule to the league was tabled to an undisclosed date, but it could be implemented amongst the USL divisions in the future.


Promotion/relegation would create an immense amount of drama. Fans will be able to see their local teams progress through the leagues like an English fan watching their team progress to the Premier League.


It is within the foundations of soccer to have promotion/relegation, it keeps teams on their toes and creates a chance for teams to move up. MLS will most likely never implement this rule due to the more American-style league and owners who don’t want to lose money when their team is relegated.


USL adding promotion/relegation could attract the more die-hard soccer fans who enjoy the traditional style of the sport. As we have seen in the past, final-day relegation battles can be just as exciting as a title race, so it could boost the USL.


Community focus


The size and scope of MLS teams can make fans feel somewhat forgotten and underappreciated. Several MLS teams lack the community feel that is so important in soccer culture.


After Lionel Messi’s arrival, loyal supporters were kicked to the curb because of the immense rise in ticket prices whenever Inter Miami came to town. It left many supporter groups with a sour taste in their mouths.


USL clubs have a more community-based feel to them. The smaller locations of teams and the smaller stadium sizes can make the experience seem more authentically local. 


Recent news has made soccer fans in America feel even more discouraged by MLS. The league announced that they wanted to take MLS teams out of the US Open Cup, which has been going since 1914, 79 years longer than MLS.


They opted to have their NEXT Pro sides take the field in the cup competition, but after severe backlash from the MLS community, the USSF decided to reject that idea and have MLS teams remain in the competition. 


Another instance in which soccer fans in America will feel disconnected from the higher-ups within MLS, who seem to operate in the interests of the league as an entity, rather than the best interests of its teams and fans.


MLS by wanting to make this change showed they were willing to go against traditions of the World’s game, as well as a tradition within the US. This discouraged many fans and added another reason why USL may just start to creep closer to the MLS’ popularity as the CBS deal starts to put the league on the national stage.


As MLS increases foreign investment, USL could become a pathway for domestic prospects


In 2021, MLS instituted the U22 Initiative as a new roster rule. This rule has incentivized MLS clubs to spend more on younger prospects. The impact of this rule plus the continued growth of MLS academies has increased the level and competition for younger players trying to find minutes in MLS.


This rule change appears to open a new route for domestic prospects to find minutes in the USL. One of the top SuperDraft prospects in this year's class, Pape Mar Boye, opted to sign a contract with USL club Phoenix Rising. According to The Athletic’s Tom Bogert, Boye was offered a Generation Adidas (GA) contract going into the SuperDraft and had interest abroad.



Phoenix saw an opportunity to entice a player with a good contract as well as minutes. In MLS, GA players aren’t earning the types of roles they have in years past. Of the eight GA players drafted in 2022 only three earned over 900 minutes in 2023 (two of them are goalkeepers, a position where MLS clubs regularly try to find a value option). This highly-touted draft contract is not leading to regularly contributing roles.


Boye chose a different route, one that could provide big benefits to Phoenix Rising if he succeeds and the offers abroad come searching again. This could lead to a pathway USL clubs can create to take advantage of MLS clubs attempting to raise their level with prospects from abroad. As MLS continues to incentivize clubs to sign foreign prospects, domestic prospects will be searching for opportunities. USL could provide those opportunities if they can be ambitious with their offers and keep prospects local like Phoenix Rising did with Boye.


Summary 


As mentioned earlier, MLS will be the king of the soccer scene in America now and in the foreseeable future, but competition is always positive.


The USL has been given a great opportunity to create a much larger fanbase and truly compete against MLS for the views of fans of the beautiful game in the States. As MLS continues to push itself and its investment strategy into becoming an international brand, USL could have an opportunity to increase its value as a domestic one.


This opportunity for USL could strengthen substantially if they can garner increased support from the USSF, who denied the MLS request to use their development teams in the US Open Cup. The USMNT is also scheduled to play a friendly against Slovenia on January 20 at USL Championship side San Antonio FC’s home base.


If the USSF can be convinced that the USL can provide a legitimate pathway for domestic players there could be more power struggles, similar to the latest US Open Cup saga, to come as the 2026 World Cup approaches. MLS will likely not want to contend with any serious domestic competitors as they continue to work towards increasing their international recognition. This is the threat the USL could pose in the years ahead.




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Notes and comments from the MLS-USSF and the US Open Cup saga:


MLS states that they intend to require their clubs to only play their NEXT Pro sides in the US Open Cup for 2024: https://x.com/jeffrueter/status/1735783781565395117?s=20




Sebastian Salazar’s take:


USSF Statement in response to MLS' request:


MLS’ statement in response to USSF:

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