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How wide is the skill gap between the USL Championship and MLS?

There's a gap between MLS and USL...but just how wide is that gap? Let's talk about it.

2 min read

This question was submitted by Benton N.

By the numbers, discussions with players, and the eye test, it’s clear that the top end of MLS is head-and-shoulders above the USL. However, there is a consensus that the players who occupy the last few spots on an average MLS roster are fairly equivalent in quality to players on USL Championship rosters. I spoke to three players with experience in both leagues that all echoed this sentiment.

The most pertinent data points at a team level come from the third round of the U.S. Open Cup. We hadn’t seen true competition between the leagues in a long while thanks to COVID-19, so 2022’s matchups were instructive. MLS sides, mostly using lineups with a mix of starters and substitutes, won seven of nine matches against USL sides. The combined margin was 17 goals for the first division and eight for tier two. However, if you throw out the shellacking of Orange County SC by Los Angeles FC, the average margin was only 0.7 goals per game.

There’s an edge, but it’s not massive or insurmountable. Indeed, Tampa and San Antonio largely controlled their matchups against Orlando and Austin, respectively.

What about the gap for individuals? Among current USL players who appeared in MLS last season, the average Goals Above Replacement (a measure of player performance and value) lands in the 66th percentile. That means that someone who drops down is usually a top-third performer. Many of the names here had prior experience in the USL Championship and had proven themselves elite at that level, but the point remains.

Still, the drop down isn’t a walk in the park. MLS players like Cubo Torres and Juan Agudelo have been about replacement-level in their moves. Going the other way, you’ve seen success in the USL-to-MLS transition via players like Mark Anthony Kaye or Miguel Berry.

International roster limits and American soccer’s weirdly closed market limit the number of players we’ve seen make the jump, but between the player sample and recent team results, the conclusion is pretty clear. MLS is a step above the USL, but things are fluid at the lower end of the first division and upper echelons of the second. I’d invite anyone who disagrees and thinks MLS is vastly superior to watch a USL match and note the real quality on display. Likewise, I think any skeptical USL fans should re-watch the Seattle Sounders in the Concacaf Champions League to gain a dose of realism.

The eye test is informative on both ends, and it ultimately paints a picture of two healthy, if distinct, leagues.