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How Is The Soccer System Structured In The USA?

Many (international) soccer players, who can’t make it to the pros in their home countries, would love a chance to try to make it abroad. Is the USA a good option in this case? Here you also have college soccer, besides the professional soccer leagues. But how is the soccer system structured in the USA?

Written by

Lars Blenckers

In this blog post, you learn everything about the soccer system in America, from high school to college soccer to the MLS (Where Messi is running the show). 

An Overview of the Soccer System in the USA

The American soccer system is unique in its diversity and structure and differs significantly from the systems in other countries. At its core, the soccer system in America consists of 3 different components:

  • Professional Soccer (MLS, USL)
  • Amateur / Semi-Pro (summer leagues)
  • College Soccer

As you can see, the sport is referred to as 'soccer' here, not 'football'.

Read on to learn more about the differences in these competitions and how they overlap with each other. 

Professional Soccer in the USA

The professional soccer landscape in the United States is characterized by a pyramid structure. However, it does not feature the traditional promotion/relegation system that is common in many other soccer systems worldwide. Find below this 'soccer pyramid'.

Pyramid of the soccer system in the USA
Pyramid of the soccer system in the USA

The Major League Soccer (MLS)

The MLS is well known to most soccer fans, especially now that Lionel Messi has decided to play for Inter Miami CF to finish his career.

MLS is the highest professional soccer league in the United States and Canada. It consists of teams divided into the Eastern and Western Conferences.

Season Structure

The MLS season consists of a regular season followed by playoffs. The regular season runs from spring to fall, where teams compete against each other to secure a spot in the playoffs. The playoffs are also known as the MLS Cup, where the winner is declared the champion.

Designated Players and Salary Cap

To maintain competitive balance, MLS has a salary cap, but also allows for so-called Designated Players, allowing teams to attract players whose salaries are outside the cap. Examples include Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets at Inter Miami.

Lionel Messi at Inter Miami CF
Lionel Messi at Inter Miami CF

United Soccer League (USL)

The USL functions as a second and third division within the soccer pyramid, consisting of the USL Championship, USL League One, and USL League Two. The USL Championship and League One are (semi-)professional competitions, while League Two mainly consists of amateur and college players during the summer months.

Although operating independently from MLS, the USL has strong ties with MLS through affiliations and reserve teams, providing young players with match experience at a lower level.

Summer Leagues

Summer leagues, such as USL League Two and NPSL, offer college players and young talents the opportunity to play during the summer months without losing their amateur status.

No Promotion/Relegation

Unlike many other countries, the American soccer system does not have a promotion and relegation scheme between the different competitions.

This model is partly due to the geographical and economic peculiarities of the sport in the U.S. There are ongoing discussions and speculations about the implementation of such a system, but to date, it remains unused.

College Soccer

College Soccer is a significant component of the American soccer system. It offers talented players the opportunity to continue playing at a high level while also earning a college degree. 

This allows young, talented players not to have to give up a career in the workforce in hopes of a chance in professional soccer.

The soccer competition in college soccer consists of three different organizations:

  • NCAA (Division I, II and III)
  • NAIA 

There are a few 'smaller' competitions, which are not considered here.

Continue reading to learn more about the differences between these competitions, the importance of college soccer, and what soccer scholarships actually are.

Differences between the NCAA, NAIA, and NJCAA

To understand college soccer, you need to know the differences between the NCAA, NAIA and NJCAA. A brief overview below:

NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association)

Divided into three divisions (I, II, and III) that reflect the size of the school and the intensity of the sports teams.

Division I is often the most competitive and generally offers the most scholarships.

NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics)

An alternative organization for smaller colleges and universities, comparable to NCAA DII.

NAIA is more flexible in academic requirements for eligibility but still maintains a good balance between soccer and study.

NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association)

Oversees community colleges and two-year institutions, often used as a stepping stone to the NCAA or NAIA through transfers.

Many international players choose this route if they are academically ineligible for the NCAA or NAIA. In California, this competition is called the CCCAA.

NCAA D1 Soccer at Creighton University
NCAA D1 Soccer at Creighton University

Structure of the competitions

Season structure

All three organizations have a short but intense season, starting in the fall and leading to championships by the end of the year. In total, players compete in about 20-25 matches over this relatively short period of about three months.

Competition and Play-offs

Teams play in their own 'conference', a sort of regional competition within their division (NAA DI, DII, DIII, NAIA, or NJCAA). The goal is to win your conference to advance to the playoffs and compete for the national championship.

College Soccer in the Soccer Pyramid and Progression to MLS

College soccer provides a structure where players can grow in a protected environment, with the possibility of progressing to professional competitions, such as through the MLS SuperDraft.

MLS SuperDraft

MLS SuperDraft is an annual event where MLS teams select the best college players. It offers college players the chance to realize their dream of playing professionally and provides MLS teams with the opportunity to add talented players from college soccer.

Mohammed is drafted by Orlando City
Mohammed is drafted by Orlando City

Soccer Scholarships

Soccer scholarships play an important role in college soccer. They make it attractive for talented players to choose a particular university team. 

Studying in America is expensive, but a scholarship can cover a large part (or all) of it.

The best players can thus study 'for free' and continue to develop themselves. Players can also receive partial scholarships, significantly reducing their study costs.

International players in college soccer

With about 1500 university teams, there isn't always enough talent available in America. Therefore, coaches often look for foreign talent. These players can also qualify for a scholarship to play and study in America.

International players bring a quality boost. You see players from top youth academies in Europe playing in NCAA DI or DII. Talent is definitely required to play here.

Dutch Players in College Soccer

For Dutch players, it is attractive to play and study in America on a scholarship. Currently, 234 Dutch players are playing college soccer. See below for an overview:

Overview of Dutch players playing in college soccer
Dutch players in college soccer

Do you want to play soccer in the USA?

As you can see, there are different ways to play in America, whether it's college soccer, professional football, or in one of the summer leagues.

Christoph and I founded Plus31 Sports to help talented soccer players make the leap to college soccer. We can also assist with starting at a high school or playing in one of the summer leagues.

If you want to find out if you qualify to play soccer in America, sign up now for a free evaluation.

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