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Lower League Clubs

So Many Clubs..so Many Leagues 

Lower leagues refer to the divisions that are below the top professional league in a particular country’s football hierarchy. Below those, most countries also have many non-leagues (or semi-pro/amateur clubs).

For Example:

  • in England, below the Premier League (the top level) are four tiers with 72 clubs: the English Football League (EFL) Championship, League One, and League Two, followed  by many non-league clubs. (see all 11 English tiers)

For most countries outside the United States, these lower leagues are typically organized in a tiered system, with each tier representing a different level of competition and skill. (See other club pyramids)

Promotion and Relegation

In almost all countries outside the United States, teams have the opportunity to move up to a higher league (promotion), or drop down to a lower league (relegation) based on their performance in a given season. This open pyramid allows for upward mobility for successful teams and ensures that the lower leagues remain competitive. (See Pros and Cons of Promotion & Relegation).

This is not the case in the United States.

Lower Leagues in the United States

In the United States, there is no open soccer pyramid.  As a result, the system is disconnected, and there is no ability for clubs to move from tier to tier.  The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) sets the standards for Division 1, 2 and 3 leagues.

The lower leagues are defined as the leagues below the Division 1 and US Soccer sanction professional clubs that fulfill the pro standards for these three divisions.  Below that are semi-professional or amateur leagues, sometimes called Division 4. The USSF does not recognize distinctions between amateur soccer leagues in the United States

US Men’s Leagues
US Soccer has sanctioned Major League Soccer (MLS) as the top level of men’s soccer.  US Soccer has sanctioned other lower divisions, but they are completely separate entities.

The US Men’s Lower Leagues include:

US Women’s Leagues
US Soccer has sanctioned National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) as the top tier of women’s soccer. The USL Super League has also been sanctioned as a D1 league and plans to open in 2024.

The US Women’s Lower Leagues include:

  • Women’s Independent Soccer League (WISL) (Division 2)
  • Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL PRO) (Division 3)
  • various other regional and amateur leagues, such as Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL), USL W-League, and United Women’s Soccer (UWS)

In the US, the lower leagues have many challenges to keep up with MLS.  Despite these hurdles, there is an important role for these leagues to grow soccer in this country and to give players opportunities they might not have if only MLS existed. Connecting the leagues in one open soccer pyramid would create an even more opportunities for players, financial investment and player development.

( Shout out to Zack Leischner for this comprehensive map )

Map of MLS+Non-League teams 2024
MLS Teams + All Lower League Teams (as of 2023)

General Lower League Characteristics

Level of Players

Lower leagues often feature a mix of amateur and semi-professional players and teams. Players in these leagues may have other jobs outside of football and may not be fully professional athletes. In the United States, many players are given the opportunity to showcase their abilities in these lower leagues if unable to sign for a MLS team.  Because of the growth in quantity and quality of the lower leagues, clubs outside the United States are looking for those “diamonds in the rough” and taking a greater interest in the lower leagues players. 

Player Development

Lower leagues serve as a crucial platform for developing young talent and providing playing opportunities for aspiring footballers. Adopting an open pyramid and solidarity payments would open up investment for development in youth clubs across the country.

Local and Regional Focus

In 2024, only 29 cities (see map below) in the United States have the opportunity to play at the highest level. That means 95 cities over a population of 200,000 people do not have a MLS team.  Half of the states do not have representation in MLS. 

The lower leagues usually have a local or regional focus, with teams representing smaller cities within a country.  This can create a strong sense of community and local pride within these leagues.  

Currently, none of these cities and towns have zero opportunity to compete int he top league in the country.

You can see how many communities are represented by additional leagues on this comprehensive map courtesy of Zach Leischner. 

Map of MLS teams 2024
MLS Teams Only
Map of MLS+Non-League teams 2024
MLS Teams + All Lower League Teams

Community Engagement

Lower leagues play an integral role in engaging local communities and fostering grassroots support for the sport. The draw behind “Welcome to Wrexham” was not only the nail biting promotion battles, but the engagement of the community in the team’s success.  The real stories are about the people of Wrexham.

Lower leagues contribute significantly to the overall football ecosystem, providing opportunities for both players and communities to engage with the sport at various levels of competition.

Opportunities for Lower League Soccer Clubs

Until the US soccer pyramid fully opens up, the lower leagues do have challenges but, being grassroots organizations, they also some opportunities for them to succeed.
  1. Develop partnerships with youth soccer organizations to increase grassroots support and talent development.
  2. Emphasize community involvement and local ownership of teams to build a loyal fanbase.
  3. Increase media coverage, including television and radio broadcasts, to increase visibility.
  4. Develop rivalries and traditional matchups between teams to create excitement and interest.
  5. Increase investment in coaching education and player development to improve the level of play.
  6. Expand marketing efforts to attract casual sports fans to lower league soccer matches.
  7. Host events and promotions to engage with the community and build a sense of loyalty.
  8. Develop relationships with local businesses to secure sponsorship and increase revenue.

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