MLS vs USL : The Difference & Future

As a soccer aficionado have you ever wondered what is the difference between the MLS & USL?

Let me say it’s somewhat like a cool steakhouse to your favorite local pub – both serve up great experiences, but one is more upscale than the other.

The MLS is the high-end steakhouse of American soccer, with top-notch players and state-of-the-art stadiums, while the USL is your neighborhood pub, filled with die-hard fans and a sense of community.

The Major League Soccer (MLS) and the United Soccer League (USL) are the two biggest leagues in the United States, with the MLS seen as the top division soccer league while the USL is seen as a division two league.

Both leagues are founded in 1993 and 2010 respectively, and ever since both leagues have been entertaining millions of fans in the States and beyond with great footballing competition.

Since the inception of professional soccer in the US, the acronym jumble of organizations and associations in charge of the sport has been embroiled in drama and controversy.

Since the start of the first American Soccer League in the 1920s and 1930s, hundreds of clubs and leagues have fallen victim to similar disputes.

And the latest front in the seemingly never-ending American Soccer debate is what is the difference between MLS & USL

What Is The Difference Between The MLS & USL?

The MLS is the premier competition for professional soccer in the United States, while the USL is a second-tier competition.

Whilst it is a known fact that both MLS and USL find themselves directly competing for ownership groups, eyeballs, and sponsors at two levels of their men’s soccer league in the United States.

Major League Soccer is no doubt the biggest entity even though both leagues are competitive in their own right, with each team struggling to get points in order to reach the top position.

The MLS invariably seems more competitive than the USL Championship due to the quality of players that each franchise club gets to sign, whilst the USL teams rely more on home-grown players to get to the top.

In terms of ownership, the MLS unlike any major professional league in the States and perhaps the world, owners do not technically own a specific franchise MLS owns each and every one of its 27 teams.

For instance when a moneybag wants to buy the right to a franchise, what such a billionaire is technically doing is buying a slice of MLS with the moneybag given the right to operate the team and also take losses or gain as a collective group.

Whilst the USL franchise is owned by a wealthy investor or investment group, which means all of the teams in the league are owned by different ownership groups agreeing to play by the league rules and likewise enjoy both losses or gains that come with owning a franchise.

Players & Salaries

In comparison to other top leagues in world football, MLS teams are quite different in their own approach with every team having a list of rules explaining what players can be paid in terms of bonuses and salaries.

Whilst in the USL there are no rules, though there are norms for how much money players make.

Simply put, the USL teams do not publish or discuss players’ salary information, but the consensus is that players’ salaries range from $43,000 to $90,000 annually.

The major difference is that the maximum salary for the MLS for the 2020 season was an astounding $7.2 million.

The average yearly salary for an MLS player is set at $52,500, which is already more than most USL players.

A club in the USL will often spend between $1 million and $1.5 million on player salaries for an entire season, but when you compare that to the MLS, where a single player can earn that much for an entire year, you can see how much better off players in the MLS are than those in the USL.

Television Rights

The money invested in the MLS through TV deals, sponsorships, and most crucially fans and stadiums’ capacity to hold thousands of supporters, provides teams with a sizable pool of cash that they are free to spend however they see fit.

When considering the caliber of teams, it all adds up, whether it be to upgrade the team’s training facilities so that there are better pitches to train on, cutting-edge gyms and recovery facilities, and everything in between.

Whilst teams are steadily been added to the league, eyeballs in terms of follower-ship also follow suit with the league reporting in 2021 that the MLS matched the 2009 success numbers in terms of attendance and viewership on FOX, FS1, and local affiliates.

But for the USL, it has a broad deal with ESPN, but the viewership doesn’t match the MLS number they were able to record a rapid growth of 500% in viewership in 2020 which gives credence to the growth the league is also experiencing.

Because there is no promotion or relegation in the MLS, USL teams do not even have the opportunity to grow as clubs and receive the same exposure as MLS clubs do through TV deals and throngs of fans filling the stadium on game days.

This is why the MLS has such a higher depth of competence than the USL.

A USL team like the Charleston Battery, for instance, plays in a 5,000-seat stadium that would be sold out every week if the LA Galaxy came to town, increasing the USL team’s revenue-generating opportunities.

What Is The MSL?

MLS vs USL: The Difference & Future

The Major League Soccer (MLS) is a top-division soccer league in the States that consists of 28 teams with no relegation system in place for both the Eastern and Western Conference teams competing in the league.

The MLS is also a single-entity league in which each team is owned by the league and individually operated by investors.

The league also has a fixed membership like most sports leagues in the United States and Canada, which makes it one of the few soccer leagues that do not use a promotion and relegation system

There are 34 games for each team in the regular MLS season which runs from late February to mid-October. The teams who reach the playoffs play an additional 8 games which makes it 42 games for some teams.

The MLS teams are geographically divided into Eastern and Western Conferences, with each team playing 34 games in an unbalanced schedule plus an extra eight games to play against cross-conference opponents.

After the Conference Finals are done and dusted, the winner of the Eastern and Western Conferences will battle each other for the MLS Cup.

The league owns and controls each and every franchise, and league investors oversee each team on a separate basis.

Additionally, it has set club memberships; as a result, unlike many other soccer leagues across the world, the MLS currently does not have in-play promotion and relegation.

The Philadelphia Union is the current winner of the Supporters Shield, while the Seattle Sounders are the current MLS Cup champions.

What Is The USL?

MLS vs USL: The Difference & Future

The United Soccer League (USL) is a professional men’s soccer league that is based in the US. It has its first season back in 2011 and is sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation.

USL is owned and operated by United Soccer League and was formed as a result of the merger of their first and second divisions following the 2010 season which saw the USLC 1 and NASL 2 receive division sanctioning from the United States Soccer Federation (USSF).

A merger of the USL League and the MLS reserve league was agreed upon by the United Soccer Leagues and Major League Soccer in the early months of 2013.

The main goals of this were to improve player development in North America, strengthen the league as a whole, and create long-lasting ties between the two leagues.

Currently, there is an agreement that calls for player loans with the key goal of having games to play for the teams and their developing talent. It also urges both MLS and USL team affiliations to have player loans.

All teams in the USL played 28 regular season matches stretching from March to September, which includes a double-round-robin schedule that pitted each team against all its conference opponents at home and away.

Whilst the remaining six fixtures is been played against regional rivals which leads to inter-conference regular season matches, with the top six finishers in each conference through to the playoffs in October that will provide the two teams playing in the Championship final.

What Is USL’s Future?

What does this all signify going forward? It indicates that USL may very possibly take ambitious measures to set itself apart.

Since the NASL exodus, the USL has made significant progress in areas like sponsorship and streaming/TV (even recently pulling higher ratings on ESPN2 than MLS national games on the same weekend).

However, the league still significantly depends on ticket sales and expansion fees to remain profitable. In the past 10 years, USL has attracted a lot of interest from investors and fans because of the attraction of potentially moving up to MLS

With the little realistic possibility of any USL team being promoted to MLS anytime soon and MLS developing its own American-style “minor league,” the league needs to emphasize what makes it unique.

Things could start to fall apart very fast if they can’t convince investors as to “why they should invest (or maintain) their team here” and fans as to “why should we watch and/or buy the tickets?”.

Switching to the European calendar and introducing internal promotion and relegation for the men’s side are two options that USL has already openly proposed. If implemented wisely, these kinds of improvements could not only strengthen USL but also significantly improve it.

These are, however, the same sorts of measures that, if taken carelessly, may result in catastrophe for the league.

One slip-up or the introduction of needless pride and bravery into the game might result in the end for lots of teams in addition to the league.

Undoubtedly, the USL has laid a more solid foundation for growth than the NASL ever did in terms of infrastructure.

They have undoubtedly covered more ground. It’s going to be a scary period for the game and everyone in it, though, in the opinion of someone who experienced the NASL caving in on itself and losing both their beloved team and their job on the same day.

Both MLS & USL should be able to fit comfortably. MLS gets its formative pyramid, while USL continues to grow and thrive in its own domain as a home for “self-governing” soccer, and everyone wins.

The less desirable course, where USL frantically seeks to change the current paradigm and fails, might leave the fans with only a few minor league teams and a soccer nation far worse off than it is now.

Can A USL Team Move To The MLS?

NO!, not only because there is no promotion or relegation in the MLS but also because the majority of teams are MLS affiliates, making it impossible to hold competitive games in which an MLS team would play against its sister team for the purpose of fair play.

Additional Divisions in American Soccer

The pro leagues are divided into 3 divisions. The 3rd division is divided into 3 different leagues.

Division League Teams
1 Major League Soccer 28
2 USL Championship 27
3 USL League One 11
3 NISA 10
3 MLS Next Pro 21

In the United States, the third and fourth divisions, respectively, are made up of the USL League One and USL League Two.

Despite the rarity of players who can reach the top on these teams, they do have the possibility of progressing. Teams give competition for several athletes, while also allowing spectators to enjoy interesting soccer action.

Additional leagues in the US that aren’t considered pro are the following:

League Regions Divisions Clubs
USL League Two 4 16 113
National Premier Soccer League 4 14 92
United Premier Soccer League 4 30 250
USASA Elite Amateur League 15 20 354
NISA Nation 4 4 23


Major League Soccer is the top league in America. The United Soccer League has hopes of unseating MLS but is currently the second-tier division in America

Is USL considered a pro?

At its current membership, the USL Championship is the largest Division II professional league in the world.

What does USL mean in soccer?

The United Soccer League (USL) is the largest professional soccer organization in North America, possessing nearly a decade of experience in bringing the world’s game to communities across the United States and Canada.

Do USL players get paid?


The annual salaries are as high as $77,000 and as low as $16,500, the majority of USL Soccer salaries currently range between $33,000 to $46,000 with top earners making $62,500 annually across the United States.

Is USL lower than MLS?


The top-level league is Major League Soccer (MLS) and the second level is the USL Championship. The third-level leagues are USL League One, the National Independent Soccer Association, and MLS Next Pro.

How much better is the premier league than MLS?

The MLS continues to get better but it isn’t better than the English Premier League yet. According to Global Football Rankings, the Premier League is the strongest league in the world but the MLS is ranked only 16th the strongest league.

How many leagues are in USL?

USL will have over 115 teams competing in its three leagues in 2019.

Can college players play in USL?


Is USL soccer good?


The USL Championship is one of the most successful professional soccer leagues in the world, reaching a population of more than 84 million and fueling the growth of the game across America.

Final Whistle

The MLS and USL may not be direct rivals, but they’re as different as a hotdog stand and a Michelin-starred restaurant.

In the USL, players are dreaming of making it to the big leagues of the MLS. And in the MLS, players are dreaming of making it to the even bigger leagues of Europe.

Despite the odds stacked against them, I believe with time American soccer will eventually compete with the likes of La Liga and the Premier League.

Leave a Reply