The unequal relationship between MLS and USL

The original purpose of this piece was to find players who started their American football career in the lower league and worked their way up to Major League Soccer – not players who were loaned out, but rather athletes who signed for a USL or NPSL club, impressed at that level, and caught the eye of an MLS team.

But after a thorough review of many MLS listings, I found that this type of career path is almost non-existent; such upward mobility is nearly impossible in American football.

Watching lower league American football games is almost like purgatory. Without promotion or relegation, these clubs can only access a higher league thanks to a substantial investment by their owner.

As for the players, their chances of advancing are just as slim.

Unlike European football, where players often start with smaller clubs and work their way up the pyramid, everything in the United States comes from the top down. Major League Soccer controls the talent pool; clubs sign promising players at a young age and monitor those players’ development through the club academy and subsequent loan spells.

There are two paths for Americans to play in MLS: first, join the youth academy as teenagers, play for the minor teams, and possibly be loaned out until they are good enough to play in the first. team. Second, there’s the MLS Draft, which follows a prestigious college career that often includes summers spent with the local NPSL team.

Leagues like the USL and NPSL are equivalent to minor league baseball teams as they serve a very specific purpose for MLS teams.

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Young players are snapped up by MLS clubs before they have the chance to sign for a team that plays in the USL, NPSL or NISA. Instead of moving up the ranks, football talent in the United States tends to work their way through loans and free transfers.

The USL championship welcomes players who are not good enough to qualify for the elite or players on loan from MLS clubs. In contrast, the English League Championship, while containing the aforementioned types of players, also has top footballers who are poached by the Premier League and other top-flight leagues across Europe.

This difference can be seen in the types of transfers made by these leagues.

For the EPL and MLS, around 35% of their players on loan go to lower league teams within their national borders. Yet, in the 2021-22 season, EPL teams bought 15 Football League players (12.9% of all signed players). In contrast, only five of the 287 signings (1.7%) made by MLS teams this year were from the USL or other lower-league American teams.

Of these five lower league signings in MLS, only Christian Fuchs of Charlotte (formerly of Leicester City fame), plans to play any significant minutes this season. Additionally, only five transfers from the USL Championship this season have generated a fee, with only one of those players leaving for an MLS team.

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How can these lower leagues be expected to thrive without being able to generate revenue by selling their players? The continued expansion of Major League Soccer means that American football talent is increasingly stretched, leaving the lower leagues to pick up the crumbs.

Much like minor league baseball, USL and NPSL team turnover is so high that often the only thing that remains consistent from year to year is the team name. How is it good for developing the game?

Yes, there are fundamental differences between the history of football in the United Kingdom and the United States. in England football started at the local level and spread upwards, in the United States it was established at the top by MLS and then the support beams followed.

But English football offers opportunities for advancement at all levels of the game, rewarding hard work and encouraging progress.

Looking at England’s starting XI for their recent friendly against the Ivory Coast, six players started their careers with clubs that played outside of English football’s top flight.

Compare that to the roster the United States Men’s National Team rolled out for last week’s qualifier against Costa Rica: while four starters played at USL Championship level, none of them started his career with a lower league American team.

Together, this quartet of Americans have played 67 USL games (most for their clubs’ B teams), which is still 24 fewer league games than England starting goalkeeper Nick Pope played before his Premier League debut. .

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Instead of sending teenage prospects to the nearest MLS club, would it make sense if they could train at well-run facilities within (or near) their hometown?

For America to be competitive on the world stage, it needs a sustainable football system, built from the ground up, that encourages competition between clubs outside of the elite and that rewards the success of clubs in lower league.

This system would not only improve football, but also improve the quality of local facilities and coaches. Sell ​​a young star to an MLS club and it’s a new stand or a goalkeeper coach or a new training ground.

Right now, too much of American football is controlled by MLS, and until that changes, the game can’t reach its full potential.

About Matthew Berkey

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