USL vs MLS: Differences and Similarities Between the Two American Soccer Leagues

USL vs MLS: Differences and Similarities Between the Two American Soccer Leagues

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As most soccer fans will know, in a specific country there is not just going to be one sole professional league and tier. This is especially true for soccer in the United States with the top tier in their footballing pyramid being the MLS. Then there is the USL or the “second division” which is just below the MLS. So that brings us to the question, what are the differences and similarities between the USL and the MLS?

The major difference between the two leagues is the quality of soccer played and player wages. Because MLS is the top tier it can attract good players from all over the world which adds to the quality of the league. Also because of all the sponsors and commercials, there is a ton of money in the league and therefore it can afford to pay its players a higher wage.

In this article, we will look at some of the differences and some of the similarities between the two leagues. Things like games, player wages, clubs, and so on will be covered when seeing what is similar and what is different between the two leagues.

What is the USL?

The USL Championship 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. The league’s headquarters are in Tampa in the state of Florida.

It was founded in early September in 2010 and has a total of 32 teams that currently play in the league.

In early 2013, the United Soccer Leagues together with the MLS came to an agreement to combine the USL league with the MLS reserve league. The main reason for this was to help improve player development in the North American region and also to ultimately make the league stronger and to build lasting relationships between the two leagues.

It is currently a deal that runs for multiple years and it also urges both the MLS and the USL team affiliations to have player loans with the major ambition to have for games to play for the teams and their developing talent.

At the start of the 2020 season, there were as many as thirteen USL teams are joined with teams in the MLS. Today most of the teams in the MLS have teams that they affiliate with, either in the USL Championship or the lower leagues in the US football pyramid like the USL League One competition.

The competition’s current champions are the Real Monarchs and it operates as a reserve team for MLS side Real Salt Lake.

What is the MLS?

The MLS or Major League Soccer is a professional soccer league that is permitted by the United States Soccer Federation and it currently is the highest level of professional soccer in the United States and Canada.

The MLS currently has 26 teams that play in the competition. 23 of which are based in the United States and three are based in Canada. The league is hoping to expand the league to 30 teams by the start of the 2023 season. MLS is one of the major professional leagues in both the US and Canada.

The MLS was founded was back in 1993 and it was a crucial part of the United States’ bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup which was ultimately successful. The very first season started in 1996 and at that stage, there were only ten teams that took part in the competition.

The regular season for Major League Soccer starts late in the month of February and sometimes early March and runs all the way to the middle of October. Each team plays a total of 34 games during the regular season, with 17 games at home and 17 away. 

The team that has the best record after these 34 games is then rewarded with the Supporters’ Shield. After the regular season concludes, 18 teams will then compete in what is called the MLS Cup Playoffs. This knockout competition starts late in October and finishes in November and finished with the final which is called the MLS Cup Final.

Unlike other sporting organizations, instead of operating as a group of individually owned clubs, the MLS went a different way. Every single team is in fact owned by the league itself and is separately run by investors of the league. It also has memberships that are fixed and unlike many other soccer leagues around the world, the MLS does not currently have in play promotion and relegation because of these fixed club memberships.

The current Supporters Shield champions are the Philadelphia Union while the current MLS Cup champions are the Seattle Sounders.

MLS vs USL- similarities


The USL is similar to the MLS with its games. The USL plays 34 regular-season games and each team in the competition will play a schedule that is a home and home-style within their own specific conference.

10 teams from each conference qualify to participate in the playoffs and will be played with separate brackets for each of the conferences and is sole a knockout style tournament where if a team loses, they are out of the competition.

All of the playoff conference finals are hosted by teams that are the higher seed. The final, the USL Cup is the only match in the entire season where teams from different conferences will play each other. The final is hosted by the conference winner that has a better overall record during the regular season.

Much like the USL, the MLS has a 34 game regular season too and the season runs from February through to October. The teams that compete are divided into two conferences, the Eastern Conference, and the Western Conference and this is done by where the teams are located.

They play 34 home games and because there are only 26 teams in the competition, it is a schedule that is unbalanced. Each team will play two games, both home and away against every team that is in their conference and then one game against ten of the 13 teams that are located in the other conference.

The 2020 season is going to be the first-ever season where teams are not going to play against every other team that is in the league. Once the regular season is finished, the team that has the most points totaled up after the 34 games will be rewarded the Supporters Shield and will also have the benefit of play all their games at home for the entire duration of the playoffs.

The league does take a pause from league action around halfway through the season and this is a friendly match that is made up of the best players that are currently playing in the league. Since it became a regular thing, the actual format of the All-Star Game has changed often, and the 2020 season was the very first time that the MLS All-Stars were going to be playing against the Liga MX All-Stars however with the current Covid pandemic that match was scratched.

A difference when comparing the MLS to other leagues is that the normal MLS season is then followed by a postseason tournament that is a knockout format, much like other sporting leagues in the United States.

A total of 18 teams play in the postseason or the MLS Cup Playoffs in October and it finishes with the MLS Cup Final at the beginning of December.


Another thing that is similar between the two leagues is the conference system that both run. Each conference is made up of a certain number of teams that are put into a specific conference base don where they are located. The eastern conference teams are on the east side of the US and the western conference teams are on the western side of the US.

USL teams like New York Red Bulls 2, Indy Eleven, North Carolina FC, and Sporting Kansas City II are all located in the Eastern Conference and teams such as LA Galaxy II, Real Monarchs, Austin Bold FC, and Las Vegas Lights FC are all located in the Western Conference.

In the MLS conferences, teams such as Atlanta United FC, DC United, Montreal Impact, and New York Red Bulls are all in the Eastern Conference while teams like Real Salt Lake, Portland Timbers, Los Angeles FC, and FC Dallas are all in the Western Conference. Similar to the USL the teams that are located in the eastern conference are all located on the eastern side of the country and the western conference teams are located on the west side of the US.

USL v MLS – Differences

USL vs MLS: Differences and Similarities Between the Two American Soccer Leagues


This is really a no brainer simply because the MLS is the premier competition for professional soccer in the United States and the USL is a second-tier competition.

Because of the money that is put into the MLS with TV deals, sponsorships, and most importantly fans and stadiums’ abilities to host thousands of fans, this gives teams a huge supply of money that they can do with as they please.

Whether that be to improve the team’s practice facilities so that there are better pitches to train on, state of the art gyms and recovery areas, and everything in between, it all adds up when looking at the quality of teams.

Because of the money that MLS teams can gain from matchdays and sponsors, this can also go towards paying high profile stars to join their team, most notable players like David Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahimović. With players of such a high caliber at the club, this is going to drive fans to the games and result in sold-out stadiums week in and week out.

So if an MLS team has a stadium capacity of 20,000 and they constantly fill that every week then there is going to be a steady amount of money coming in through sales and TV deals and that can then be used to buy even more quality players and further enhance the quality of the teams and the league.

Whereas when you look at the USL, the TV broadcast deals are nowhere near as much, the sponsorship deals are not as much and of course, the stadiums are nowhere near the size of an MLS stadium and this affects the amount of money that comes into the club.

If there is not a steady amount of money coming into the club on a matchday for example an MLS stadium can hold around 15,000 fans and a USL can hold 3,000 or 4,000 fans then that is going to seriously limit how much money teams can spend on star players and this affects the leagues quality.

That is why the MLS has so much more quality than the USL, not only that but also because there is no promotion and relegation in the league, so USL teams do not even get the chance to grow as clubs by having the exposure that MLS clubs have through TV deals and fans swarming to the stadium on matchdays.

For example, a USL team like Charleston Battery has a stadium capacity of just 5,000 and if the LA Galaxy came to town then the stadium would be sold out every single week and that would then create more money-making opportunities for the USL side.

Player wages

Much like the quality of the MLS compared to the USL, this also relates when talking about player wages. Because the MLS has so much money being made from its clubs through all the TV deals and sponsors, teams have a wealth of money to spend on good high-quality players.

Just to compare the wages of the two leagues, on average players playing in the USL will have a usual salary for the year that is in the range of $40,000 to $60,000. So the most that a player can earn is $60,000, now compare that to the MLS.

The average salary for an MLS player is set at $52,500 for a year and that is already more than most USL players, however, the biggest difference that the maximum salary for the 2020 season in the MLS was an astonishing $7.2 million.

So when we look at the wages, there is a huge difference because on average a club in the USL will spend around $1 million to $1.5 million on player wages for an entire season but then when you look at the MLS, a single player can get that for a year then you see just how financially better off players in the MLS are compared to those in the USL.

When talking about the differences between the two leagues the aside from the quality of players, the biggest difference is player wages. This is because there is not as much fanfare for USL teams and they do not get the same amount of coverage that MLS teams do. Add to that, there is no relegation or promotion so there is literally no way for the gap to close at all unless it is brought in.


Another difference between the leagues is the number of clubs that both leagues have. The MLS currently has 26 teams however the league is looking at expanding that to 30 teams by the start of the 2023 season and that will make it a much bigger league and could change the way fixtures are released and played among the conferences will the potential there to perhaps for teams to play more regularly against teams from other conferences.

Then we look at the USL and they currently have 32 teams already playing in the competition, however, given that there is not enough money in the league some seasons, teams are forced to fold and close their doors.

An example of this is the team Reno 1868 FC. They had been in the league for five years however with the current Covid-19 pandemic the club simply could not afford to keep going with no money coming in from fans. Because they were an affiliate of the San Jose Earthquakes, most of the money went to the MLS team and Reno ceased operating on the 6th of November 2020 as the club simply could not sustain itself without the financial backing that other clubs have.

Can a USL team go to the MLS?

The short answer is no because there is no promotion or relegation in the MLS but also because most teams are affiliates of MLS teams so they could not have a competition matches where an MLS side will play against their sister team for integrity purposes.