Minnesota United announced its affiliation with Forward Madison FC a little over two weeks ago. The deal will allow MNUFC to more freely send players on loan to get minutes outside of the first team. This, along with the recent overhaul to United Soccer Leagues (USL), sets up a more competitive environment going forward and sets up clear channels to help teams, like Madison, develop MLS-level talent.
Let’s take a look at that new setup for USL in 2019, and see how it can benefit the Loons and other clubs around North America.
USL is a series of leagues stretching down the U.S. pro soccer pyramid grouped under one organization: USL Championship (Division 2), USL League One (Division 3) and USL League Two (Division 4). The organization has had a variety of names and has had many different structures over its 32-year history. For much of the 1990s and 2000s, the organization was set up similarly to how it is today with leagues at multiple levels of the pyramid. For the past eight years though, the USL has just been just one professional league (USL) and one amateur league (Premier Development League). The new tier will once again help bridge the gap between big-market professional teams and small-market amateur ones.
Here's how the leagues break down:
At the top is the USL Championship. The second-division league has been the organization’s top competition for many years, growing the game in many major markets throughout the country. The league has expanded to 36 teams in 2019, 16 of which are either affiliated with or directly managed by MLS clubs.
Forward Madison will play in USL League One, the third division of U.S. Soccer. It is joined by nine other clubs from across North America, stretching from Toronto to Tucson. Madison will be one of four MLS-affiliated teams in the league, including North Texas SC (FC Dallas), Orlando City B and Toronto FC II. Two expansion teams are already set to join in 2020, as Penn FC and Rochester Rhinos will return from hiatus after previously playing USL. USL League One’s main objective is to grow the game in smaller metropolitan areas that have not had a professional soccer team, have former USL teams in smaller markets or have had former PDL team make the leap to the professional level.
Formerly known as the Premier Development League, USL League Two is an amateur league that has been a proving ground for many young players over the years. Seventy-four teams are split into four conferences and subdivided into 11 total regional divisions, with national playoffs at the end of each season. The main focus is on development and giving players high-quality competition while retaining their college eligibility. This allows college-aged players to play in League Two over the summer and return to their school teams during the rest of the year.