Full question submitted by Alex H.: “With such a large disparity in the number of teams in each respective USL men’s league, how do you foresee the breakdown of teams across each league looking, say, 3, 5, and 10 years from now?”
Thanks for the question, Alex!
As it stands in 2022, the USL Championship fields 27 teams, League One fields 11, and League Two fields a whopping 114(!). The latter division underwent explosive growth after a return to play following the COVID-19 cancellation in 2020, but the other two higher-level leagues have downsized.
The Championship shrunk from a 36-team high in 2019 and League One has struggled to rise above the dozen mark since 2019. Part of that is due to MLS affiliates exiting USL, a trend that will drive the Championship down to 24 teams next season. You can see the historical trends graphed below.
Looking ahead, the Championship is adding Queensboro FC next year and an Iowa club in 2024. That said, contraction is never off the table in the still-tumultuous lower-league landscape. Meanwhile, League One is confirmed to be adding three teams for 2023, although that division’s clubs aren’t bullet-proof either.
Considering those announcements, I’ve mapped the current reach of both professional USL men’s leagues, some possible expansion markets without professional sides, and a few poachable markets if the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) was to implode.
To get to the gist of the question, I think that the second-division Championship sticks loosely to 2023’s 24-team tally. That leaves room for plenty of expansion in League One, which ultimately aims to approach parity with its big brother. Jake Edwards, the head of the USL, regularly states that third-tier growth will be the driving force for the league’s future, calling for a future two-conference alignment when the proper size is attained.
Three-to-five years from now, then, I see both the Championship and League One around the 20-to-30 club mark, and I think that persists into 2032 if all goes well. I don’t even have a guess as to how League Two might expand, but its highly regional nature and low barriers to entry could lead to a total near the two-century point.
I don’t want to be that guy, but I think the point of rough equivalency between the second and third tier is the moment when promotion and relegation come to a head for the USL. If League One’s growth comes from large markets like Baltimore, New Orleans, and Cleveland, that pressure is only going to grow. The topic has been written about to death, but the competitive difference between the bottom of the Championship and top of the third-tier is negligible, and the financial calculus isn’t insurmountable in the same way as it is between MLS and the lower leagues.
Still that’s speculation; I see USL’s professional leagues solidly in the mid-20s for team count in the decade to come.