Even the most casual soccer fan in North America knows the top league here is Major League Soccer.
Just as La Liga is tops in Spain. The Premier League in England, Serie A in Italy, Ligue I in France and Liga MX in Mexico. And all over the world, soccer works in divisions, with everything below the top league labeled as second division, third division, fourth division, etc.
Below MLS, the North American Soccer League (NASL) was the second division and USL the third. But the NASL
fell on hard times financially among several franchises, and the USL made its play to move up to No. 2.
The distinction is important. The higher the division, the higher quality of player and soccer the league is perceived to be. So there is status in being the second-division league.
could end up the lone second division league after this season. Since 2014, the league has more than doubled in size. Ottawa Fury FC, Reno 1868 FC and the Tampa Bay Rowdies (formerly of NASL) are joining as new clubs for next season while Nashville SC will begin play in 2018 with further expansion on the horizon.
“The USL is honored to receive provisional U.S. Soccer Federation Division 2 status, which provides further validation about our League’s financial sustainability, national footprint, ownership quality, stadium infrastructure and player development,” said Alec Papadakis, the USL Chief Executive Officer, in a statement from the league. “Our teams have invested more than $100 million into stadium development in the last year to enhance the experience for the 1.5 million passionate fans that attended games in 2016, the 1,000-plus players and nearly 100 coaches that have positioned our League as a highly sophisticated competition model that cultivates strong regional rivalries.”
The USL has teams in 21 of the top 50 U.S. Metropolitan Statistical Areas and three of the top six populated Canadian cities. One is in the Phoenix area, where the former Arizona United SC is now Phoenix Rising FC.
U.S. Soccer didn't want to give up on the struggling NASL, and it will get a chance to right itself. NASL has teams in Miami and Puerto Rico plus a new one set to open play this year in San Francisco proper, and the New York Cosmos could return with new ownership.
Keeping the Cosmos afloat maintains a link to the league's past, and also a team in a market that can be big enough for two MLS clubs and the Cosmos, of the Cosmos can properly undertand their place in that triumvirate.
The USL has very successful clubs in Sacramento, Cincinnati and Louisville, plus MLS-afilliated clubs in Seattle, Portland, Toronto, the L.A. area, metropolitan New York and Vancouver.
Some might say the market for soccer is oversaturated with so many teams and two leagues in the same division. But the landscape continues to change with rebranding and expansion.
U.S. Soccer has a lot of decisions to make as to how to keep as many of the teams afloat and build a viable pyramid system that works for teams, players and fans.
It could a big key to the future of soccer in the U.S.