United States Soccer Pyramid – League Tiers, Levels and Divisions Explained

A century ago, the American Soccer League set the stage for pro soccer in the United States. But what followed was a jumble of leagues and divisions that left players like me puzzled. The fear of not finding a clear way to turn pro loomed large.

Thankfully, things have changed in recent years. The American soccer pyramid got a makeover, making it easier for young talents like me to pursue our dreams of going pro. After the American soccer pyramid’s recent makeover, many budding players also start their journey practicing with Backyard Soccer Goals before entering the competitive scene.

In this article, we’ll guide you through the United States Soccer Pyramid, a system that’s different from what you might see in other countries. Instead of promotion and relegation, it’s a unique soccer ecosystem. From local leagues to the glitz of Major League Soccer (MLS), each level plays a big role in helping players like me reach the highest level.

Let’s start this journey through the US soccer league tiers together.

Understanding the U.S. Soccer Pyramid – Best Youth and Professional Leagues

The U.S. soccer pyramid moves from the elite Major League Soccer (MLS) to grassroots levels, emphasizing their roles in player development and the growth of soccer in the country. Let’s have a deep insight into the American soccer pyramid; 

Major League Soccer (MLS)

At the pinnacle of this soccer league pyramid stands Major League Soccer (MLS), the premier professional soccer league that has been captivating fans since its establishment in 1996. Unlike many international leagues, MLS follows its unique journey, having evolved from penalty shootouts to standard extra time and adopting the FIFA standard for game clock management.

The introduction of the Designated Player Rule, famously known as the “Beckham Rule,” brought global stars to MLS and transformed the league into a powerhouse.

Understanding the intricacies of the game goes beyond just knowing the leagues and players. For instance, being well-versed with the Soccer Foul Rules is crucial for both players and fans to fully grasp the dynamics of a match.

The Path to Professionalism

Just below the MLS, we find the United Soccer League Championship (USL Championship), the second tier. The USL Championship has seen remarkable growth, expanding from 15 teams to 29 by 2025, emphasizing its role in developing American soccer. The U.S. youth soccer pyramid level acts as a breeding ground for future MLS stars, allowing young talents to shine.

The USL Championship connects to USL League One, the third tier. Established in 2019, it serves as a stepping stone for players aspiring to reach higher soccer league tiers of professional soccer. With a focus on player development and plans for expansion, USL League One promises to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of American soccer.

USL League Two and Beyond

Moving down the soccer pyramid, we encounter USL League Two, often considered the fourth tier. While amateur in nature, it’s where college players maintain their eligibility while gaining valuable experience. This developmental league has produced numerous professionals, mostly attributed to the top youth soccer clubs in USA. 

Beyond these tiers of US soccer, leagues like the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) and the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) offer unique philosophies, emphasizing organic growth and community involvement.

The Lower Rungs

Exploring the lower tiers of the pyramid, leagues like the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA) cater to varying skill levels. These hunt for the best youth soccer leagues in U.S.A. While the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) integrates amateur soccer with a pro-development pathway.

US Soccer League Tiers – History and Evolution 

In the vast and evolving landscape of the American soccer pyramid, understanding the structure and levels of competition is paramount.

The U.S. Soccer Pyramid is a multifaceted system that encompasses various tiers, each contributing uniquely to the growth and development of the sport in the United States. Let’s explore different tiers of this pyramid;

1- Major League Soccer (MLS)

Major League Soccer (MLS)

At the summit of the United States Soccer Pyramid stands Major League Soccer, better known as MLS. Since its establishment in 1996, MLS has evolved into the highest echelon of professional soccer in the nation. As of 2023, it boasts an impressive roster of 29 teams, with San Diego set to join the ranks in 2025. 

But what truly sets MLS apart is its growth, ranking as the world’s eighth most-attended soccer league, nestled just behind the prestigious European and Latin American counterparts.

  • Innovations and Evolution

MLS’s journey is nothing short of remarkable. In its formative years from 1996 to 1999, tied matches didn’t follow the conventional extra time protocol. Instead, they ventured into shootouts with a unique twist – players had five seconds to score one-on-one against the goalkeeper, reminiscent of ice hockey.

Beyond the rules of the game, the physical layout of the soccer field plays a pivotal role in how matches unfold. If you’re new to soccer or looking to deepen your understanding, it’s beneficial to Know the Soccer Field Layout, which provides insights into areas like the penalty box, goal area, and midfield dynamics

The league also deviated from global norms by employing a countdown game clock that halted for stoppages, mirroring North American sports like football and basketball. In 2000, MLS embraced the FIFA standard, adopting a continuously running clock.

  • The Beckham Rule and International Allure

Notably, Major League Soccer introduced the “Designated Player Rule” in 2007, affectionately known as the “Beckham Rule” due to its inception alongside David Beckham’s arrival. This rule allows teams to sign up to three players whose salaries exceed the team’s cap, revolutionizing MLS by attracting global stars like Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Gonzalo Higuain, and Blaise Matuidi.

2- United Soccer League Championship

Among the US league tiers, the second tier of the U.S. Soccer Pyramid is occupied by the United Soccer League Championship (USL Championship). Its journey commenced in 2011, featuring a blend of independently owned teams and those operated by MLS franchises.

  • Explosive Growth

The USL Championship’s rise has been meteoric. In its inaugural season, it welcomed only 15 teams. By 2025, this number is set to skyrocket to 29 teams, signaling the nation’s burgeoning passion for soccer. While it doesn’t offer promotion to MLS, the USL Championship plays a pivotal role in nurturing American professional soccer.

  • Player Development and Global Impact

Beyond its role as a professional league, USL Championship is a crucible for developing talent destined for Major League Soccer. Many MLS teams host affiliate squads in the USL Championship, creating a proving ground for emerging players and a space for MLS athletes to regain match fitness. This league’s global allure is undeniable, attracting players from over 70 countries, infusing diverse styles and tactics into the American soccer scene.

3- USL League One

USL League One, established in 2019, commands the third tier of professional soccer in the United States. It features 12 teams strategically spread across the nation and offers a structured competition that culminates in a thrilling playoff for the league championship.

  • Player Development Hub

USL League One’s primary mission is nurturing player development, serving as a stepping stone for those aspiring to ascend to the USL Championship or the MLS. Several teams in the league boast affiliations with higher-level clubs, creating an ideal environment to foster young talent.

  • Expansion on the Horizon

Following in the footsteps of MLS and the USL Championship, USL League One envisions expansion as part of a broader strategy to expand professional soccer’s reach across the United States. Notable expansion teams on the horizon include Santa Barbara Sky FC and USL Spokane.

4- USL League Two

USL League Two, previously known as the Premier Development League, holds its place as the fourth tier in the U.S. Soccer Pyramid. Positioned as an amateur league, it becomes a critical platform for college players seeking to maintain their eligibility.

  • Development Meets Competition

This developmental league enables aspiring professional players to gain valuable experience while preserving their collegiate eligibility. With a vast network spanning across the United States and Canada, USL League Two boasts over 80 teams, fostering the growth of young talents.

  • Talent in the Making

USL League Two has a strong track record of preparing players for professional careers, with many alumni securing positions in the MLS, USL Championship, and international leagues. Notable figures like Geoff Cameron, Brad Guzan, and DeAndre Yedlin, who have represented the U.S. Men’s National Team, trace their roots to this league.

What are the Levels of Soccer League? 

What are the Levels of Soccer League

The U.S soccer divisions represent the structure of soccer leagues in the United States, providing opportunities for players at various stages of their careers and skill levels. The U.S. soccer structure can be categorized as follows, starting from the highest level;

1. Major League Soccer (MLS)

MLS is the top-tier professional soccer league in the United States and Canada. It features the highest level of competition and attracts both domestic and international talent.

2. United Soccer League Championship (USL Championship

This is the second-tier professional league, just below MLS. It serves as a developmental league for players aspiring to reach MLS.

3. USL League One 

USL League One is the third-tier professional league. It focuses on player development and offers a platform for young talents to showcase their skills.

4. USL League Two

Formerly known as the Premier Development League (PDL), USL League Two is often considered the fourth tier. It is an amateur league where college players can maintain their eligibility while gaining experience.

5. National Independent Soccer Association (NISA)

NISA is another third-division professional soccer league in the United States. It has a unique philosophy and aims to introduce promotion and relegation to American soccer.

6. National Premier Soccer League (NPSL)

NPSL is typically recognized as a fourth-tier league and is considered amateur. Many of its teams consist of players with professional aspirations.

7. United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA)

USASA is a national organization for amateur soccer in the United States. It consists of state organizations, regional leagues, and at-large teams, catering to various skill levels.

8. United Premier Soccer League (UPSL)

 UPSL operates in a tiered system with promotion and relegation. It integrates amateur soccer with a pro-development pathway.

Video Guide:

Video Credit: Become Elite


In conclusion, as a young player navigating the United States Soccer Pyramid, this revamped system provides a clearer path to achieving my dream of playing professionally. With Major League Soccer (MLS) at the top, followed by the USL Championship, USL League One, and USL League Two, each tier offers valuable opportunities for development and growth.

Additionally, leagues like the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) and the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) bring unique philosophies and community involvement into play. This diverse ecosystem ensures that aspiring talents like me have a chance to shine and contribute to the future of American soccer.


What is the United States soccer league system?

The United States soccer league system comprises multiple tiers of soccer leagues, ranging from the prestigious Major League Soccer (MLS) to lower-tier divisions like USL Championship, USL League One, and USL League Two. These divisions serve as a structured pathway for player development and competitive play, fostering the growth of soccer across the nation.

How does professional soccer work?

Professional soccer in the United States operates with Major League Soccer (MLS) as the pinnacle. MLS teams compete for the MLS Cup, and the league also incorporates unique rules such as the Designated Player Rule to attract global talent. Additionally, lower divisions like USL Championship contribute to player development and offer opportunities for aspiring professionals to showcase their skills.

What is DPL Vs. ECNL

While numerous youth leagues dot the American soccer landscape, two have emerged as giants – the Development Player League (DPL) and the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL). These leagues are home to some of the nation’s most promising talents, providing a highly competitive environment where players can grow and thrive. Let’s delve deeper into the competition between these two powerhouses.

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