I’m going to be honest, if you’ve been following soccer in the United States for awhile, there probably isn’t much in this post for you. But, as conversations with parents tend to do, a phone call last night made me realize something I hadn’t thought of in depth. The pyramid of professional soccer leagues in the U.S. is convoluted and can make it difficult for new fans to keep straight. As Spurs Sports and Entertainment prepares to deliver what will hopefully become San Antonio’s permanent top-tier professional soccer club, I’m going to take this time to break down the North American soccer pyramid, the league they will be playing in, and how it differs from previous professional soccer in San Antonio.
As defined by United States Soccer Federation and Canada Soccer Association, Major League Soccer is the top division of professional soccer in the United States and Canada. MLS (not THE MLS) is where you’ll find several players who represent their national teams, such as Seattle Sounders’ Clint Dempsey, Toronto FC’s Michael Bradley, and NYCFC’s Mix Diskerud. While there are young stars like Orlando City’s Cyle Larin, MLS is fighting against an old reputation of being a “retirement league” for international stars that are past their prime. Working to shed this stigma has helped MLS gain respect overseas as a serious league.
MLS is the most stable league in North America, due in part to their single-entity ownership system. Unlike other professional leagues, MLS owns all player contracts instead of the teams. This, as well as rules governing salary and designated players, help to keep MLS teams on an even level financially. MLS matches are broadcast on local and national broadcast and cable channels as well as streamed on their MLS Live service.
There are currently 20 teams in the league for the 2016 season. 2017 will see the addition of two teams: Atlanta United FC and either Los Angeles FC or Minnesota United FC. 2018 will see the entry of whichever of the two clubs didn’t enter the year prior bringing the league to 23 teams. MLS executives have announced their intentions to expand the league to at least 24 teams by 2020, but possibly 28 teams. English soccer legend David Beckham is working to form a Miami club, for which he already has already gained approval to enter the league, but has faced struggles trying to build a stadium. USL’s Sacramento Republic FC & San Antonio teams are front runners for expansion, but neither has been given a bid to enter the top league. Another USL team, St. Louis FC, has a strong market with support from coaches and other owners, but currently lacks an ownership group willing to build an MLS size stadium. MLS expansion is extremely popular with city governments at the moment because of the relatively low cost to subsidize stadiums and the growing soccer market.
MLS is great and all, but we’re here because San Antonio is going to be playing in the United Soccer League. USL is technically the third division in the North American soccer pyramid, but acts as a second division for MLS. USL is a professional soccer league made up of 29 teams. Matches can be viewed live on YouTube.
Some teams, like San Antonio, are independent franchises. Some teams, like Seattle Sounders FC 2 and Orlando City B, are direct developmental teams for their corosponding MLS franchises. And the third category of teams are independently owned, but have partnered with an MLS franchise. USL’s Oklahoma City Energy FC has a partnership with MLS club FC Dallas for example.
A World Class Partnership
MLS and USL are not owned by the same group, but they have agreed to work together in the development of players and growth of professional American soccer. USL President Jake Edwards affirmed his stance while introducing the San Antonio club in January of 2016, stating that USL seeks to become one of the best second division leagues in the world.
The Third Wheel
So MLS is 1, USL is 3, and the third wheel on the metaphorical fixed-gear bike that is North American professional soccer is the North American Soccer League. NASL holds division 2 status, but for all intents and purposes is a competitor to MLS. Unlike the single-entity ownership model MLS employs, NASL is run as a traditional league where teams control the contracts of their players individually. This does have its benefits, but is also pointed to as a reason for instability with teams folding frequently. The argument that this traditional model is better for players is valid, but until MLS players unite against the policy they’re under the division 1 league has no reason to change.
NASL is made up of 11 teams currently with a 12th joining this fall. NASL lost two teams this year. The first is Atlanta Silverbacks FC which folded in part because the billionaire owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons franchise is backing the MLS franchise coming into town. The second team is San Antonio Scorpions FC who are still technically a franchise, though they don’t have a home as the Spurs’ USL team will be playing at Toyota Field this season. They’re expected to relocate, possibly to Las Vegas, but nothing has been announced officially.
So Why USL?
So some questions casual soccer fans might have are why didn’t Spurs Sports and Entertainment just buy the Scorpions and continue the team we’ve had for a few years? Isn’t USL a step backwards in the goal for MLS? Did Stephen Avery actually kill the photographer?
Well the answer to the first two lie in the partnership between MLS & USL discussed above. MLS commissioner Don Garber held meetings with Scorpions owner Gordon Hartman and gave praise to the work done with professional soccer in San Antonio. But SS&E believe USL is the best path to MLS, so Hartman agreed to sell Toyota Field to the City of SA and Bexar Couty who then leased it to the Spurs. (As a side note: I have nothing but praise for Hartman and Soccer For a Cause, but that’s for another time). Its technically a step backwards in the pyramid, but its one that allows for a correction towards the ultimate goal of bringing an MLS franchise to San Antonio.