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The Challenges for Lower League Soccer Clubs

The Struggle to Rise to the Top 

Because of the constraints imposed by US Soccer in favor of MLS, there are several difficulties that lower level soccer teams face when trying to grow in the US Soccer system. Much of this stems from the structure of the leagues in the US soccer system which does not allow lower-level teams to move up the ranks. The lack of  promotion and relegation in the US system means that teams are often stuck in their respective leagues for years, with limited opportunities for growth to a higher level. 

In no specific order, here are 5 major challenges to overcome:

  1. Financial Constraints: USL, NISA and other lower league clubs operate on smaller budgets than MLS teams, making it difficult to attract top talent and compete with the higher salaries offered by MLS clubs.
  2. Stadium Size and Location: Many lower league clubs play in smaller venues that are not suited for larger crowds, and may not meet the standards imposed by US Soccer.  This limits revenue and exposure opportunities when compared to MLS teams who play in larger stadiums with prime locations.
  3. Marketing and Exposure: MLS has a significant advantage in terms of marketing and exposure due to its broadcast deals and media partnerships, making it more challenging for lower league teams to gain exposure and attract new fans.
  4. Player Development: MLS teams have a more comprehensive player development system and infrastructure, including academy programs and reserve teams, which allows them to nurture young talent and build a sustainable pipeline for their teams.

    Although improving, lower leagues do not have the  resources to build strong youth academies, and make it a challenge for young players to commit to their clubs, as the players are viewed, right or wrong, as less quality players than those who rise through the MLS academies. 
  5. Brand Value: The MLS brand carries more weight among potential sponsors, advertisers, and investors. USL and NISA teams, while they may have loyal fan bases, lack the same level of recognition and reputation that MLS teams have built over decades.

Mostly, the dominance of Major League Soccer (MLS) and the lack of disincentive for investment in lower-level teams prevents these teams from gaining mainstream popularity and support.

Is MLS a monopoly?

Although some may argue that MLS is not a complete monopoly, the league has undoubtedly established a dominant position within the American soccer landscape. With its exclusive broadcasting rights and strict single-entity structure, MLS exercises a level of control over the sport and the players that cannot be ignored.

MLS has been questioned for its monopolistic business practices in the North American soccer market. MLS owns all teams and players, controls player salaries, and manages all media rights. This has led to limited competition and high barriers to entry for potential new teams and players.

US Soccer has given only MLS a top-level Tier 1 status which closes off any attempt for a true soccer pyramid in the United States and Canada. This means that lower-tier leagues are prohibited from becoming fully professional and competing with MLS. This has hindered the growth and development of the sport across the country.

Moreover, while other rival leagues exist,  they still pale in comparison to the level of popularity and financial stability of MLS. And while league such as the now-defunct North American Soccer League did attempt to challenge MLS in the past, their failure to do so only reinforced the league’s dominant position.

While MLS may not be a complete monopoly, it does operate as the preeminent force in the American soccer market working closely with US Soccer to maintain its status as a closed league. As other league continue to grow, it remains to be seen whether any other organizations will be able to challenge US Soccer “partnership” with MLS.

10 significant impacts MLS has on lower league soccer in the United States.

Here are ten ways that MLS  hurts the growth and development of lower league soccer:

  1. Limited Investment
    Without an opportunity to promote to  the highest tier of pr soccer, investors will most likely not invest as much in the lower league teams, which limits the growth and development of these teams.
  2. Talent Drain
    Lower league teams often lose talented players to MLS teams and academies once they begin to develop, making it harder for lower league teams to compete with the resources of the MLS academies and affiliates.
  3. Expansion Dominance
    MLS focuses on expansion, which can draw resources away from lower leagues. See San Diego Loyal saga.
  4. Stadium Infrastructure
    MLS teams have more resources for stadium infrastructure than lower league teams, which can limit lower league teams’ ability to attract fans and generate revenue.
  5. TV Deals
    MLS teams have more lucrative TV deals than lower league teams, which can keep lower league soccer from gaining exposure.
  6. Unfair Competition
    Since 1914, all US sanctioned professional teams, and some amateur teams, have had the opportunity to play in the historic U.S. Open Cup, which is the oldest soccer competition in the United States.  In 2019, MLS and US Soccer created a new tournament, the Leagues Cup, but included MLS and Mexican Liga MX teams. In a slap in the face to all non-MLS teams and the history of US Soccer, in 2024, MLS requested to completely leave the US Open Cup tournament, and only enter the MLS Next Pro teams, leaving the MLS teams to focus on the Leagues Cup. In December 2023, after a huge outcry from US soccer fans, including many MLS fans, U.S. Soccer announced that they had denied MLS the waiver to allow only the affiliated MLS Next Pro teams to play in the tournament.

    These type of stunts that MLS attempts to achieve gives them an unfair advantage over lower league teams. Fortunately, as of early 2024, US Soccer has supported all soccer club in the US. We’ll see what MLS does next as their focus and media attention is placed on the Leagues Cup instead of the US. Open Cup.
  7. Sponsorship Opportunities
    MLS teams have access to larger sponsorship deals, putting lower league teams at a disadvantage in terms of revenue generation.
  8. Top-Heavy Approach
    MLS teams often have large rosters and budgets focused on a few star players, making it harder for lower league teams to compete for top talent.
  9. Fan Base Competition
    MLS teams can draw fans away from lower league teams, limiting their ability to attract support. However, there are many lower league teams which have a passionate fan base, which would most likely grow with promotion and relegation in place.
  10.  Fragmentation of Support
    The focus on MLS can fragment support for lower league teams, reducing the overall level of attention given to them.

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