Football is one of the world's biggest and most popular sports and has long enjoyed increasing popularity in the United States. This growing popularity has had a major impact on the development of the US soccer leagues where the top divisions, including, MLS (men) and NWLS (women) have managed to attract some of the attention and focus that has graced the NBA, NFL and MLB for centuries in the US.
Currently, the number of young people playing football in the US is higher than ever before and has even overtaken other popular sports such as basketball, ice hockey and baseball in several places in the US.

The growing football fan culture in the US has led to greater financial investment in the sport. The recently signed TV deal between NBC and the Premier League, worth almost USD 3 billion by 2022, is a symbol of this development. A development that not only creates more young footballers in the US, but fundamentally shifts the hierarchy among the 5 major sports in the US that have historically united the masses in North America.

David Beckham i aktion for LA Galaxy der spiller i MLS – den bedste herreliga i USA.

Why is football developing in the USA?

There are many reasons why football is developing in the United States. Big franchises with big financial muscle have been able to lure many European football icons to the US over the past 10 years - especially in MLS. David Beckham, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo are just a few of the notable names and the high-profile names have been instrumental in stirring interest in US football leagues. As players like David Beckham and Frank Lampard made their MLS debuts, interest in watching them and their teams - not just in the stadium - but on TV, naturally began to grow.


Bigger and better TV deals with major networks like ESPN and NBC have helped boost viewing figures in recent years and have widened the opportunity for Americans to watch football. It has made them want more - which can be read directly into the growing size of the TV deals the same stations most recently renewed with the Premier League in 2022 and which first began national coverage in 2009-2010. The US has been behind for a long time.

With the growing awareness of football as a substitute for, for example, basketball and American football, football has gained metres in terms of its accessibility. You only need en, round ball to play - so much of the US has tried it. All of this trickles down through soccer ecosystems in the United States. Down to club, high school and college soccer, which is experiencing all the good things about the growing interest in professional soccer in the US.

Frank Lampard i aktion for New York City FC der spiller i MLS – den bedste herreliga i USA.

Professional football in the USA

The professional league system in the United States is one of the most confusing ever. With a structure that is far from European, the system can be difficult to understand if you have not been in it yourself.

Many people from Scandinavia and Europe do not know that the major American sports leagues (NBA, MLS, NFL, MLB and NHL) do not have a promotion/relegation system. Teams from the major US sports leagues (it actually works that way in college in the US too) are neither promoted nor relegated based on their performance in the given season, and are basically guaranteed a place in the league they are placed in. It is not performance in a specific season that dictates the team's placement in Division 1 or 2, but rather various other aspects such as finances.

1. Open leagues (Europe)

The open leagues have operate with promotion and relegation. The teams at the bottom of the league move to a lower ranked league, while the top teams move to a higher ranked league after each season. This is the system in Europe - quite simple.

This 'open' approach gives all teams, regardless of history and economics, a theoretical opportunity to win the best league and play against the best teams. The European system gives all clubs the opportunity to fly high if they are also prepared to fall low if their investment in, say, promotion fails.

1. Closed leagues (USA)

The closed leagues ensure greater stability for the clubs. It is much easier for them to estimate income and expenditure and clubs and investors can be sure that they have a place in the league. (provided they continually meet other criteria)

Den helt åbenlyse ulempe er de begrænsede pladser i de bedste ligaer og at sportslige præstationer bliver sekundære i det store billede.

Competitive balance

The US sports leagues place restrictions on club spending and budgets to ensure competitive balance.
Competitive Balance betyder at alle hold i den givne liga skal have en realistisk chance for at vinde den. Effekten er at der fx ofte er skiftende vindere hvert år i Super Bowl eller i MLS – i modsætning til i Europa hvor de samme 1-3 klubber ofte er vindere ved sæsonens afslutning.

The two most important rules in this respect are:

  • Salary Cap

Sets limits on how much money clubs can spend on player wages.

  • The Draft

The lowest ranked teams in the previous season will have the opportunity to choose first when new, young and eligible talent is ready for the top tier. This ensures that these teams have the greatest chance of getting the best future talent, thereby providing competitive balance.

Didier Drogba i aktion for CF Montreal der spiller i MLS – den bedste herreliga i USA.

The big differences in leagues in the US and Europe

In the European leagues, clubs have traditionally been members of the given league and have had no ownership over it. This tradition is changing significantly and England's Premier League is a good example. In the Premier League, the 20 teams involved in the league at any given time own the private company that is the Premier League. The result is that the ownership structure changes every year.

In the North American sports system, the owners of the clubs/franchises are also the exclusive owners of the league - e.g. MLS. They have a private ownership structure. The owners have a clear and defined right to decide which clubs should be involved in the league. It also appoints a commissioner who has full authority to make decisions on behalf of the league - effectively acting as a CEO.

The Big Differences In clubs In USA And Europe

In many cases, European clubs are still 'clubs' or associations. Publicly owned associative institutions.

Think of the 50+1 rule in the German Bundesliga. If a club chooses to become a private or publicly listed company, commercial investors may not own more than 49 % of the company. The whole point is that private investors cannot take over clubs and start initiatives that prioritise profit over the wishes of fans and supporters.

Compare this to the sports system in the US again. Here the teams are privately owned franchises. Not clubs or associations and operate with a completely different mindset. This means, for example, that owners can easily move the team to a new city, perhaps a new league, if it is likely to generate more revenue. Something that is impossible and completely unthinkable in Europe.

Ligaer i USA (Herrer)

Major League Soccer (MLS): The biggest football league in the USA. The league started with 10 teams in 1996, but has since grown to 26 teams. Many of the biggest football stars of all time, such as Wayne Rooney, Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard have signed contracts with MLS.

One of the largest soccer leagues in the United States and formerly known as the United Soccer League (USL) & USL Pro. Officially, the league is characterised as a Division 2 series - i.e. one level below MLS, but generally has a large fan base and a high level of which e.g. Chelsea FC legend Didier Drogba most recently played for Phoenix Rising FC, a top team in the USL Championship.

USL1 is a professional league that has existed under different names since 2005. It is officially categorized as a division 3 league and counts 11 teams, which play 30 matches in a season + playoffs.

Historically, the league has served as a place where MLS teams such as Inter Miami CF have placed their reserve teams to be matched continuously and at a high level, but with new developments from MLS, USL1 looks more like a bid for a series that is level-wise just below, but closely related to the USLC.

NISA is a professional football league in the United States. The league is a Division 3 series, such as USL1 and began play in 2017. NY Cosmos is one of the 8 professional soccer clubs in this league - Brazilian Pele played here in the old days!

MLS Next Pro is a new league in the USA and Canada which is closely affiliated with MLS. The league will begin in 2022 and start out with 21 teams. 20 of these are reserve teams for MLS clubs and the league will be categorized as a Division 3 series like NISA and USL1. As the name of the league suggests, the point is to create a more a viable and obvious path to the highest level of professional American soccer for the many national and international talents.

USL2 is an amateur league for college players that runs from May to August each year. Many professional MLS clubs have U23 teams playing in this league, and it's a great opportunity for college players to develop, play alongside some new teammates and travel around a different area of the US through soccer. Our founders Gustav Fink-Jensen and Marcus Nordgard spent a summer playing in this league for San Francisco City and San Francisco Glens respectively. Here they had the opportunity to play alongside some talented players from Stanford, UCLA, Berkeley etc. while travelling up and down the California coast to play matches.

Ligaer i USA (kvinder)

NWSL is a professional women's soccer league under a management contract with the United States Soccer Federation. At the top of the American league system, the NWSL represents the sport's highest level in the United States. They feature players such as, Lynn Williams, Kailen Sheridan, Tziarra King, Savannah Mccaskill and Rachel Daly.

UWS1 is a semi-professional series created in 2015. The best of these consists of 45 teams spread over 6 regions. It is categorized as a division 2 series and is just below the NWSL. This is often where some of the young talent that has gone under the radar or has had late development competes for a place in the NWSL and for full-time professional status.

UWS announced the start of League Two in the summer of 2020. A new development league for players in the U20-U23 category and the official league for reserve teams in UWS1. The whole point of the league is to provide more development opportunities to a wider range of players through the reserve team option.

WPSL is an amateur league - the best of its kind in the United States, and has existed since 1998. With 135 active teams in 13 divisions, it is one of the largest leagues in the world.

Andrea Pirlo i aktion for New York City FC der spiller i MLS – den bedste herreliga i USA.

You can read much more about hvordan College fodbold i USA fungerer right here.
If you're a soccer player and are even the least bit interested in what College and Soccer in the USA is all about, don't hesitate to reach out to us!

Thanks a lot for reading along!
//NSSA team

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    Read more
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