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US Pro League Standards

What are the Pro League Standards?

The Pro League Standards (PLS) have been an instrumental set of guidelines established by the US Soccer Federation (USSF) that all professional soccer leagues operating in the United States must adhere to in order to maintain their official status. The PLS covers a broad spectrum of areas, including financial stability and transparency, market coverage, player welfare and safety, coaching standards, stadium and infrastructure requirements, and fan experience, among others.

For example, the PLS mandates that top tier Division 1 professional soccer leagues have:

  • a minimum number of 12 teams to provide a competitive season schedule
  • must have teams in all three US time zones,  
  • must have at least 75 percent of the league’s teams must play in metropolitan markets of at least 1,000,000 persons, 
  • must have stadium capacity of 15,000 seats, 
  • adhere to a salary cap for player compensation, and 
  • maintain high standards for medical care and facilities. 

Compliance with PLS enables professional soccer leagues to gain official sanction from US Soccer, resulting in access to resources and support from the national governing body. 

Although high standards for thriving and sustainable soccer leagues is necessary, these existing PLS standards have a questionable impact on the overall growth and sustainability of professional soccer in the United States. 

Many would argue that the closed system favors Major League Soccer and its owners and, without a true system of promotion and relegation, the PLS standards limit the incentive for investment in smaller communities. 

– See the 2023 Pro League Standards from US Soccer website.

Major League Soccer Standards

Major League Soccer (MLS) has established itself is the highest level of professional soccer league in the United States. Currently, the league boasts a total of 30 teams within the US and Canada. 

This top-tier status is not earned through merit from a lower tier,  but it is awarded through a huge financial franchise fee, as well as a set of rigorous standards and regulations, which all MLS teams must abide by.

Some examples of these additional standards focus are player salaries, transfers, a designated player rule, youth development programs, and the introduction of a video assistant referee (VAR).

Financial Standards

Financial Standards for pro league rules in US soccer are policies and regulations aimed at ensuring the financial stability of professional soccer leagues in the United States. These standards are enforced by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) and are based on a set of guidelines established by the FIFA Club Licensing Program.

The financial standards cover several areas, including financial reporting, budgets, and the management of financial resources. Clubs are required to submit financial statements and audit reports to the USSF, as well as provide regular updates on their financial performance throughout the season. They must also adhere to specific rules on player salaries, transfer fees, and other financial transactions, to ensure that they operate within their means and do not engage in financial mismanagement.

The financial standards are vital to maintaining a sustainable and competitive professional soccer industry in the United States, helping to ensure that clubs are financially stable and able to invest in player development and other essential areas of their operations. 

Standards for Stadiums

Professional soccer stadiums must adhere to various requirements established by the governing body for soccer, FIFA, and the USSF.  These requirements include dimensions for the field, seating capacity, and amenities for fans and players.

Generally, the field must be a minimum of 70 yards wide and 110 yards long for professional games and each division has a minimum seating capacity. 

The playing surface must be able to withstand the rigorous demands of soccer and allow for proper drainage. The facilities for players must include locker rooms, training areas, media centers, and medical facilities. Additionally, the stadium must have adequate concession areas and restroom facilities for fans, as well as accessible seating for those with disabilities.

Overall, these requirements ensure that professional soccer stadiums in the US provide a safe and enjoyable experience for both players and fans, while also meeting the standards set by the USSF. 

Do the Pro League Standards hurt investment in Lower Soccer Leagues?

The question really is:  Are these standards designed to favor the MLS and limit other leagues from getting sanctioned at a Division 1 level? 

Without an open system, without the opportunity to move to highest levels, it does seems to create a disincentive to invest in the lower leagues. 

While professional soccer needs certain standards, the USSF Pro League Standards has been criticized for potentially hindering investment in lower league soccer due to several reasons:

  • Financial Barriers: The stringent financial requirements set by the USSF Pro League Standards may pose significant financial barriers for potential investors in lower league soccer. These standards often demand substantial financial backing, which can be challenging for clubs in the lower tiers to meet, thus deterring potential investors.
  • Limited Flexibility: The standards may lack the flexibility needed to accommodate the varying financial capacities and operational models of clubs in lower league soccer. This rigidity can create obstacles for investment and growth, as clubs may struggle to meet the prescribed standards.
  • Restrictions on Expansion: The standards may limit the expansion and development of lower league soccer by imposing strict criteria that clubs must meet to attain professional status. This can restrict the growth of the sport in local communities and regions where resources are limited.
  • Lack of Incentives: The standards may not offer sufficient incentives or support for investors to engage in lower league soccer. Without clear pathways for progression and success, potential investors may be dissuaded from committing to the development of lower league clubs.
  • Reduced Competition: The stringent requirements may limit the number of clubs able to meet professional standards, resulting in reduced competition within the lower leagues. This can lead to a less vibrant and competitive soccer landscape, which may deter potential investors looking for opportunities in thriving and competitive environments.

Overall, the USSF Pro League Standards, while aiming to ensure stability and professionalism, may inadvertently create barriers that impede investment in lower league soccer, potentially limiting the growth and development of the sport at the grassroots level.