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Professional Soccer in the United States Overview

Since the United States does not have one league system, it can sometimes get a little muddled what the United States soccer competition pyramid actually looks like. The professional leagues are split up into three divisions. The most elite development leagues are shown below, to see the full picture click on United States – Country Page.

USSF Division 1 - Professional Leagues

Leagues that are officially sanctioned by USSF as professional leagues. These leagues represent the highest level of competition in the growing United States soccer system.

Tier 1
Senior
domestic
Club
League

Top-flight professional soccer league in the United States and Canada. Three teams qualify to play in the CONCACAF Champions League.

USSF Division 2

Tier 2
Senior
domestic
Club
League

USSF Divison 3

Tier 3
Senior
domestic
Club
League
Tier 3
Senior
domestic
Club
League

Development Leagues

Tier 4
Development
domestic
Club
League
Tier 4
Development
domestic
Club
Cup
Tier 4
Senior
domestic
Club
League
Tier 4
Development
domestic
Club
League

Iconic Players Light Up Major League Soccer

More teams have household names boosting their image than ever before. Pele was one of the first of the legends to make an impact on the league when he joined New York Cosmos in 1991. At the time he was thirty-four and not played soccer for eight-month prior.

Yet it was the introduction of David Beckham that sparked a real interest in the league. He joined MLS at the time when he was a global icon. Since then the league has seen an influx of soccer legends on several teams. For example Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Frank Lampard.

Major League Soccer Club Values Higher than Ever Before

Major League Soccer (MLS) continues to make strides towards improving its standards. The number of teams in the league has grown and so has its support. The twenty-six teams in the league now have a greater value than the ten original teams from 1996. Furthermore, they have larger arenas to accommodate bigger crowds of fans attending games. A comparison of Forbes articles shows how much their values have changed over time.

Cup Competitions

Tier 1
Senior
domestic
Club
Cup

The oldest and most prestigious club cup competition in the United States. The winner of the cup qualifies for CONCACAF Champions League.

All professional teams automatically qualify for the cup and make up the bulk of the clubs that compete for this title.

Tier 1
Senior
domestic
Club
League
Tier 2
Senior
domestic
Club
League
Tier 3
Senior
domestic
Club
League
Tier 3
Senior
domestic
Club
League

qualifies

Tier 1
Senior
domestic
Club
Cup

Built on Tradition

The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, also known as US Open Cup for short, is the United State’s oldest soccer competition. 100 of the best American soccer clubs compete for the cup, which has been running since 1913. This upcoming Lamar Hunt US Open Cup will be the 108th iteration of the competition.

The most elite cup in the United States Soccer Competition Pyramid is undoubtedly the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.

Current Format

The teams that make up the cup competition are all the professional teams in the United States – those from MLS, USL Championship, USL League One, NISA, and development or amateur teams that qualified by winning their respective regional cups and qualification matches.

The cup is played throughout the year in a single-leg knockout format (also called single-elimination format) leading up to the final where the two remaining teams play a single match to determine the champion.

Qualification

There are two paths to qualify for the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup: the professional and amateur paths.

Professional Path

All professional teams automatically qualify for the cup and make up the bulk of the clubs that compete for this title.

Cup Awards and Prize Money

Tier 1
Senior
continental
Club
Cup
  • The runner-up is awarded $100,000
  • To promote development, the highest-placed team from each lower division is awarded $25,000

Modern Game

Since the creation of Major League Soccer in 1996, only 1 non-MLS club has won the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup: Rochester Rhinos. Additionally, only 1 non-MLS club has made it to the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup finals since. However, as the beautiful game continues to grow in the United States, the lower division level is getting better and will predictably mount a title challenge in the future.

US Open Cup Winners by Year

Year Team
1996 DC United
1997 FC Dallas (Dallas Burn)
1998 Chicago Fire
1999 Rochester New York FC (Rochester Rhinos)
2000 Chicago Fire
2001 LA Galaxy
2002 Columbus Crew
2003 Chicago Fire
2004 Sporting Kansas City (Kansas City Wizards)
2005 LA Galaxy
2006 Chicago Fire
2007 New England Revolution
2008 DC United
2009 Seattle Sounders FC
2010 Seattle Sounders FC
2011 Seattle Sounders FC
2012 Sporting Kansas City
2013 D.C. United
2014 Seattle Sounders FC
2015 Sporting Kansas City
2016 FC Dallas
2017 Sporting Kansas City
2018 Houston Dynamo
2019 Atlanta United FC
2020 N/A, COVID-19 pandemic.
2021 N/A, COVID-19 pandemic.
2022 Orlando City SC

Top 3 Major League Soccer Stadia by Capacity

Major League Soccer
Seattle
Capacity: 68,740
Lumen Field is located in Seattle, United States. The stadium can hold up to 68,740 fans in its stands on matchday. Officially opening in 2002, Lumen Field is most notably host to the Major League Soccer competitions.
 
CONCACAF Gold Cup
Lamar Hunt US Open Cup
Major League Soccer
Nashville
Capacity: 69,143
Nissan Stadium is located in Nashville, United States. The stadium can hold up to 69,143 fans in its stands on matchday. Officially opening in 1999, Nissan Stadium is most notably host to the Major League Soccer, Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, CONCACAF Gold Cup competitions.
 
CONCACAF Nations League
CONCACAF Gold Cup
CONCACAF Champions League
Lamar Hunt US Open Cup
Major League Soccer
Atlanta
Capacity: 73,019
Mercedes-Benz Stadium is located in Atlanta, United States. The stadium can hold up to 42,500 fans in its stands on matchday. Officially opening in 2017, Mercedes-Benz Stadium is most notably host to the Major League Soccer competitions.
 

USL Structure

The United Soccer League, together with NISA, makes up the entire professional lower leagues in the United States. On the men’s side of things, there are 3 different divisions in the USL: Championship, League One, and League Two.

The USL Championship represents the 2nd division in the United States soccer pyramid and is sanctioned by USSF.

Men's Competitions

Tier 2
Senior
domestic
Club
League
Tier 3
Senior
domestic
Club
League
Tier 4
Development
domestic
Club
League

The USL Championship is regarded as the 2nd tier in the United States soccer pyramid. There is no promotion and relegation with the MLS, as the two league systems are entirely separate.

USL League One and NISA are both widely regarded to be division 3 in the United States Competition Pyramid.

USL League Two, formerly known as PDL, is the premier development league in the United States. USL League Two is part of the 4th tier in American soccer because this league is not a professional league, and. divisions 1-3 are considered professional leagues under USSF.

Women's Competitions

The USL also features women’s competitions. The USL W League is considered to be third in the United States Women’s soccer pyramid as a "pre-professional" or developmental league.

USL W League is set to kick off in 2022.

Tier 3
Development
domestic
Club
League

Financial Criticisms

There are many critics of the USL’s financial structure as it does not promote wage growth or incentivizes competition through prize money.

Right now, winning the USL Championship does not give any prize money to the players that won it.

Additionally, the organization recently declined a petition to raise the minimum salary of players to $20,000/season.

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