An Introduction to the United Soccer League, the Must-See “Minor League” of U.S. Soccer

By Jonas Shladovsky

The United Soccer League (USL) is a rapid-growing and
lucrative project, planting the seeds for the development of
premier fan cultures and talented young players in cities and
regions previously untouched by United States professional
soccer. I have never committedly followed soccer in the
United States, however, the youth and ardor of the USL have
enticed me to learn more about the league.

The USL comprises three constituent divisions: the USL
Championship, USL League One and USL League Two,
respectively forming the second, third and fourth tier of US
pro soccer (League Two is semi-pro). The league has grown
from 15 teams competing in one second-tier division in 2011
to 127 teams, including expansion teams, Major League Soccer (first tier) reserve teams, and former members of now-defunct lower-level professional leagues, competing across three divisions. Across all tiers, 34 US states and 3 Canadian provinces are represented, and the USL Championship alone features clubs in 23 cities without a Major League Soccer team.

Undoubtedly, USL teams in these areas are bearing life to
some sleeping hotbeds of soccer fanaticism. I have watched
clips of entire stadiums chanting away their vocal cords under
a sea of smoke bombs at New Mexico United (Albuquerque)
and Phoenix Rising games, two Championship clubs founded
in the last decade. On the ESPN+ stream of Sacramento
Republic FC’s recent encounter versus Phoenix, chants led by
Republic supporters’ group The Tower Bridge Battalion were
matching the noise produced by the mic’d up commentators.
These cities have finally been given teams of their own to
rally behind, and the resulting euphoria is creating special

The USL is not only bringing new opportunities to fans but
is also doing so for players in areas who now have academy
systems affiliated with USL teams. The USL divisions are
youthful––in the 2021 season, the average of all Championship
players is 24.8, and the average for League One players is just
23.1! The creation of new professional pipelines, coupled
with the exploding popularity of youth soccer in the States,
is the perfect storm for strengthening the U.S. Soccer talent
pool and creating competitive lower-level pro leagues starring
young prospects hungry to make it to Major League Soccer
and beyond.

This summer I will be keeping an eye on the USL, focusing
particularly on Championship sides Sacramento Republic
FC and the newly-founded Oakland Roots. I’ll be reporting
on their games and expect to learn something about their fan
communities in the process!

All Championship and League One games are streamed
on ESPN+ (subscription is $6/month, $60/year). Select
Championship games are also aired live on ESPN2.

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