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Lower League Alphabet Soup


Brendan Noble writes.


Lower league soccer in the United States is a mess.



If you try to follow the development of teams and leagues below MLS, it’s impossible to keep up. With leagues and teams falling apart constantly, promising discussions towards change ending in endless in-fighting, and a federation that turns a blind eye to the chaos. It is truly exhausting and disheartening to watch the state of the beautiful game in our country. While the bright spots are plenty, they come in the form of clubs and communities, such as your own Dekalb County United, that are succeeding despite the structure of lower league soccer, not because of it.


When talking about soccer at the lower level, the scope is massive. While a real “pyramid” does not exist, one can be pictured with a set-up from top to bottom: MLS, USL Championship, USL 1 and NISA, USL2 and NPSL (Plus the NPSL Founders Cup), UPSL, and then various USASA amateur leagues.


In most countries, these “tiers” would be connected by relegation and promotion (top teams from lower tiers move up and bottom teams from higher tiers move down). In the US, that doesn’t happen. What we end up with is leagues squabbling over clubs and geographic territory.


Each league has different rules. The US Soccer Federation has ridiculous ownership rules for the top three tiers. The best clubs receive no real reward for their success, while the most poorly performing clubs receive no real punishment for failing to compete.


Without any financial prizes or the massive opportunity of promotion, many of the best lower level clubs have failed financially as fish far too big for their pond. Without relegation, many teams have been able to sit in their tiers, bogging down some divisions and making them jokes.


The result is a convoluted and uneven playing field where borderline actual professional teams that want to play in higher divisions but can’t (such as Miami FC and New York Cosmos) end up repeatedly beating up amateur clubs in leagues like the NPSL.


It's apparent to anyone paying attention that the system is broken (which is why it’s obvious the USSF is not paying attention). Since the Federation has shown little interest in fixing things, ambitious clubs are left having to try to figure out a way to exist. There have been seemingly endless discussions on Twitter, podcasts, blogs, and at conferences as clubs try to figure out a way forward. It seems that while we can agree things aren’t working, it is difficult to agree on a common path.


An example of how broken things have become can be seen in the process of becoming a professional club. A semi-pro club looking to go professional now has four options (from least rebellious to most): fight for a spot in MLS in the highly politicized process they’ve created, join one of the USL’s tiers, join the still forming National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), or join the NPSL Founders Cup (nicknamed by many as “NPSL Pro”).


The fact in itself that there are four routes for a club looking to go pro is a dangerous thing in itself, and each of the options has many advantages and disadvantages.


The MLS route is costly and highly unlikely, but it is the only way into the first division, even though it requires sacrificing your club to become a franchise. The USL is a more stable group of leagues with goals of promotion and relegation, but it has many of its own issues, not tleast that it is filled with a lot of MLS reserve clubs. For clubs looking for a less MLS-feeder team route, there are then only two options, neither of which has started playing yet, and neither of which is without controversy.


NISA is trying to take an independent approach to pro-soccer and eventually establish promotion and relegation, but its adherence to the USSF’s ownership rules (requiring at least one extremely rich owner) causes an issue for successful clubs like Detroit City FC or Chattanooga FC that have different ownership models. They’ve also acted very quietly, and their kickoff has been delayed multiple times, so it’s hard to know what to expect.


The last option for a club looking to go pro is the NPSL Founders Cup, which is the only of the four league acting outside the USSF’s professional system. Trying to work around the system instead of within it has caused issues for some clubs within the league before it has even kicked off, but it does offer the freedom of various ownership models apart from the USSF’s standards. It’s hard to know the stability of the league, though, as the USSF could seek to punish them for avoiding their rules by changing standards beyond the top 3 tiers.


The complicated nature of the transition from amateur or semi-pro to professional shows just how frustrating the state of American soccer is. Without a system of relegation and promotion, clubs that can’t figure out a way through the muck and to the pro level are stuck in the same leagues as amateur teams. Competitively and financially, that is a serious issue for the sport, but even at the semi-pro and amateur levels, clubs and leagues can’t agree.


Instead of potentially building an alternative system, things get bogged down in the specifics on how to do it. That is why we have an alphabet soup of disconnected (and competing) leagues that have bad blood with each other as they try to poach each other’s clubs instead of working together for the sake of the sport. Until that ability to cooperate among lower league clubs and leagues happens instead of the constant fights over smaller issues, the USSF will continue to ignore the problem, and the chaos will continue to rule.