What Is The Difference between MLS And USL?

Major League Soccer (MLS) and United Soccer League (USL) are two professional soccer leagues in the United States and Canada that are often compared and contrasted. 

Both leagues aim to provide high-level competition for soccer players and fans alike, but they differ in several key ways. In this article, we will explore the main differences between MLS and USL, including the level of competition, structure, and player development opportunities.

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MLS: The Top Tier of American Soccer

The Major League Soccer, commonly called the MLS, was founded in 1993 and is the top-tier professional soccer league in the US. It comprises 26 teams, with the newest addition being Austin FC, who will join the league in the 2021 season

The MLS has a strong reputation for its high-quality play, world-class facilities, and high-profile players worldwide.

Some of the biggest names in the sport, such as David Beckham, Thierry Henry, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, have played in the MLS. The league also boasts several highly regarded academies and youth development programs, helping to nurture and develop young talent in the US.

USL: The Path To The MLS

The United Soccer League, commonly referred to as the USL, was founded in 2011 and is the second-tier professional soccer league in the US. It is comprised of 33 teams, divided into two leagues: the USL Championship and the USL League One. 

The USL is the largest professional soccer league in North America, strongly emphasizing player development and helping aspiring professionals reach the MLS.

The USL is unique because it operates as a partnership between its clubs, players, and fans. This collaborative approach allows for a more intimate experience for fans and helps to build a strong connection between the clubs and their local communities.

Key Differences Between MLS and USL

  • Size and reach: MLS is a larger and more established league, with 27 teams across North America, while USL has over 100 teams across multiple divisions.
  • Level of play: MLS is considered the top professional league in the US and is highly competitive, while USL is considered a step below MLS and is seen as a development league for up-and-coming players.
  • Player salaries: MLS has a higher salary cap and offers higher salaries to its players, while USL is more focused on player development and offers lower salaries.
  • Competition format: MLS operates a single-table format, with each team playing every other team in the league twice, while USL operates a multi-tiered competition format, with teams competing in different divisions based on their level of play.
  • Broadcast and media coverage: MLS has a larger media presence and is widely broadcast across North America, while USL has a more limited media presence and is less widely broadcast.

What Are The Benefits Of Playing In MLS Or USL?

Both MLS and USL offer unique benefits to players, depending on their goals and aspirations in the sport. For example:

  • MLS offers a high level of competition and a platform to showcase their skills to top teams and leagues worldwide.
  • USL offers a development platform for up-and-coming players, focusing on player development and helping players reach their full potential.

Level Of Competition

The MLS is widely considered the top professional soccer league in North America and has a higher level of competition than the USL. MLS teams comprise seasoned professionals and international stars, many of whom have played at the highest levels of club and international soccer

The MLS has a well-established reputation for attracting top talent and providing high-level competition for both players and fans.

On the other hand, the USL is considered a league for up-and-coming players and is often seen as a stepping stone to the MLS. The level of competition in the USL is lower than the MLS, but it still provides a high level of play for its players. 

The USL is often considered a more developmental league, providing opportunities for players to improve their skills and potentially earn a spot on an MLS roster.


The structure of the MLS and USL also differ in several ways. The MLS has a more centralized structure, with a single governing body overseeing the entire league. This centralized structure allows for a more consistent approach to league rules and regulations and a more streamlined process for player transfers and acquisitions.

The USL, on the other hand, has a more decentralized structure, with multiple individual teams, each having its ownership and management. This structure allows more local control over teams and provides greater opportunities for local investment and community involvement. 

However, it also means there needs to be more standardization across the league, with each team operating independently and having its own unique approach to player development and competition.

Player Development Opportunities

One of the key differences between MLS and USL is the player development opportunities available in each league. The MLS strongly focuses on player development, with many teams operating youth academies and providing opportunities for young players to train and compete at a high level. 

The MLS also has a well-established player development system, with many teams participating in the MLS Reserve League and offering players opportunities to gain valuable playing experience.

The USL also provides opportunities for player development, but on a smaller scale. Many USL teams have partnerships with local youth clubs and academies, providing opportunities for young players to develop their skills and potentially earn a spot on a professional roster. 

The USL also has a strong focus on player development, but the resources and opportunities available to players are more limited compared to the MLS.

Comparing MLS and USL

When comparing MLS and USL, it is clear that the two leagues serve different purposes and have different structures. MLS is designed as the country’s top-tier professional league and focuses on expanding the sport and bringing top-level soccer to cities throughout the United States and Canada. 

USL, on the other hand, operates as a second-tier league and is focused on providing a pathway for players to reach MLS and providing competitive soccer to fans in markets where MLS teams are not located.

MLS vs. USL: Fan Base and Attendance

The MLS and USL also have different fan bases and attendance levels. MLS is more popular and attracts larger crowds than the USL. This is largely due to the higher level of competition and the fact that MLS teams are able to attract the best players in the world.

The USL, on the other hand, has a smaller fan base and lower attendance levels. However, the league is still popular among soccer fans, and the teams are still able to attract large crowds to their games.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is The MLS Better Than The USL?

It depends on what you mean by “better.” The MLS is considered to be a higher level of competition and attracts top talent from around the world, while the USL is considered a stepping stone for players looking to move up to the MLS.

How Many Teams Are In The MLS and USL?

The MLS is composed of 27 teams, with plans to expand to 30 teams in the near future. The USL is composed of 36 teams.

What Is The Average Player Salary In The MLS and USL?

The average player salary in MLS is around $345,000, while the average salary in the USL is around $70,000.


In conclusion, both MLS and USL have their own unique strengths and weaknesses, and both provide valuable opportunities for players and fans alike. The MLS is the top professional soccer league in North America, providing high competition and a well-established player development system. 

The USL is a more developmental league, offering opportunities for up-and-coming players to improve their skills and potentially earn a spot on an MLS roster. Whether you are a player looking to take your skills to the next level, or a fan looking for high-level soccer competition, both MLS and USL are worth considering.

Manuel Esposito

Hello everyone! My name is Manuel and I've recently got my PhD in Sport and Excercise Science at the University of Portsmouth. I'm raised and born in New York, and I've been a big fan of soccer my whole life. Soccer is the reason why I got my PhD in Sport and Excercise Science, and my goal with this blog is to help you improve your soccer techniques, strategies, and knowledge!

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