A relegation push and CBS: USL’s quest to become America’s go-to league

NFor the first time, American soccer is approaching a crossroads, and given the landscape in which this latest rumble in America’s turbulent soccer history will play out, this could be one of the most defining moments yet.

The organization that runs professional leagues in the second and third levels of soccer in the US, the United Soccer League (USL), could play a major role in shaping the future. With the new league season kicking off this month, it hopes to become a more visible and authentic alternative to Major League Soccer.

The arrival of Lionel Messi on American shores means that there is more attention than ever before about the sport in the US – what it looks like and how it is played, governed and structured. But there are many other catalysts, including the 2026 World Cup, the 2024 Copa América and the newly expanded Club World Cup in 2025.

Naturally, much of the initial attention will be on the MLS. But any lasting legacy could depend on how the benefits spill over to soccer outside of MLS.

Dan Rutstein, president of USL Championship club Orange County SC, believes Messi will provide an edge in the US competitions.

“MLS will provide the biggest reward, but I think for clubs at all levels, more people will want to come to games, and you can bring your whole family to one of our games for less than the cost of parking at an LA Galaxy game” , says Rutstein. “America is a big country and there should be enough football. The more people love football, the more people want to come to our games, the more people want to play football and the more kids in the system want to participate. I think it’s great for everyone.”

USL is not part of an open football pyramid. There is no promotion or relegation between the leagues – from the semi-professional regional League Two to the professional League One and Championship – but the breadth and national coverage could make it more like football in other parts of the world.

It now has the chance to become an even bigger part of the game in the US. A new TV deal announced ahead of the 2024 season is a big part of its increased availability and visibility. With the majority of MLS games now behind the Apple TV+ paywall, USL could become the go-to league for TV viewers, especially in most local markets where it will be freely available on local, linear channels.

On Saturday, CBS broadcast Louisville City’s 5-3 win over Indy Eleven. The game was the first-ever USL match to air on network TV and is part of a broader deal to show more than 100 games on CBS platforms this season. The competition could not have wished for a better showcase than a goal celebration in a quiet period in the sporting calendar.

“We want to be the most available soccer league in the United States,” said USL Championship President Jeremy Alumbaugh. “That means people can turn on the local television and watch their club play. The expansion of our relationship with ESPN, our new relationship with CBS, and the availability of matches to be broadcast through all of our partners – to be accessible – that’s a big part of the game’s growth.

“I think the availability of the Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A, the EFL and Premier League has had a huge impact on the growth of the game here in the United States. Our ability to be widely available and not just be behind a paywall is a big part of our growth and something we are focused on.”

Some of the USL Championship is still behind a paywall on ESPN and CBS’ subscription channels, but even in those cases it ranks alongside some of the European leagues Alumbaugh mentions, plus the UEFA Champions League and other sports. Being on the same channels that soccer fans already subscribe to to watch other leagues could also help USL become the American soccer league of choice for TV viewers, both in sports bars and at home.

This increased visibility is a core goal, but another theme that emerges when speaking to people involved in the competition is authenticity.

Detroit City FC boasts a vibrant fan culture, popularized by the unusual position of the supporters section on one side of the pitch. Photo: Detroit Sports Org

Although there is a shared broader purpose, teams have an individual character and culture, which gives them the feel of clubs rather than franchises. For example, Orange County SC opened up to fan ownership and investment last year and has done just that strategic partnerships with Rangers and Feyenoord to provide a potential route to Europe for young players coming through from the youth or college football world. One of their former players, Korede Osundina, is now on the books of the Eredivisie side.

Another prominent team in USL, Detroit City FC, boasts a vibrant fan culture, popularized in part by the unusual position of the supporters section on one side rather than behind a goal, meaning the section takes center stage in TV broadcasts . The team plays at historic Keyworth Stadium in the Detroit enclave of Hamtramck – a densely populated area surrounded by homes. Again, this is unusual for an American team, but it is something different that adds to a sense of authenticity and individuality.

“The whole system in America is not set up for clubs like us,” said Sean Mann, co-founder and CEO of Detroit City. “I think we’ve defied the odds every step of the way. There is no clear promotion mechanism, so we had to jump between three different competing legal entities to get where we are today.

“USL is a great fit for us because it is professional in every facet of its structure and organization. We have been able to expand our reach, not only from a broadcast perspective, but we also have the stability to do community efforts that we have never done before, from events to regular programming to the development of our youth system. All of those things have grown exponentially in the last three years.”

In USL circles, Welcome to Wrexham and Ted Lasso have been as important to the growth of the game as the arrival of Messi, if not more so. They introduced ideas like promotion and relegation and pyramid-wide cup competition to a broader American sports audience accustomed to closed league systems and the Major League mentality of other sports.

The historic instability of professional soccer in the country has always led to a reluctance toward open competitions involving promotion and relegation, but as stability has slowly arrived in professional soccer in the U.S. through the MLS, especially over the past two decades, these increasingly favored by those outside the MLS bubble.

“We’ve been pretty vocal that we’re exploring what that might look like,” Alumbaugh said of its potential introduction to USL. “It’s a big task. It’s a big change for our leagues, our owners and our clubs. If we do it, we have to be very calculated and strategic in how it is put into play. We still do that work. A lot of it happens behind the scenes, but we don’t hide the fact that we think it could be something unique in the American landscape.”

USL team owners will have a say in the progress of these types of cases, and as a result, will have a major say in the future of American soccer. Introducing promotion and relegation at the professional level, even just within the closed entity of USL’s three divisions, would be a huge change.

Several USL club owners say they are in favor of the introduction of promotion and relegation. Photo: Liza Rosales/Orange County SC

“Our club is very supportive of it,” says Mann. “I think generally there is a lot of interest and willingness to get it together among the clubs in this competition. And so there’s an ongoing conversation going on. I think we’re at a point of figuring out the pragmatics of it, but I think this is something we should strive for.

“Football is becoming more and more popular in this country. The question is: can American football actually accommodate that growth, or is it the case that more and more people are focusing on the Premier League, Serie A or even Liga MX? Broadcast statistics indicate it is the latter. We have very sophisticated, well-informed football fans in America, and I feel like they are more attracted to the global product than the American product. I don’t think we should ignore that.”

While there is a lot of optimism about the future of USL, there is also pessimism about the future of the country’s domestic cup competition, the US Open Cup. MLS withdrew 18 of the 26 eligible teams from the tournament this season, and the 113-year-old league’s future through 2025 remains uncertain.

There is frustration within USL over the actions of MLS in the cup episode and its attitude towards American soccer as a whole.

“I don’t think our owners should have been put in a position where they had to make a choice,” Alumbaugh said of the decisions surrounding the 2024 Open Cup. “It’s special. It’s unique. This tournament has been around for more than 100 years, so I am pleased that all our clubs have decided to participate. Unfortunately, I am not positive about what the future looks like, but it is a competition that is a special part of the sport. It’s disappointing that some of that specialness is gone (this year).”

“USL teams beat MLS teams in the US Open Cup every year, and that’s part of the reason why MLS teams don’t want to play in it anymore,” says Rutstein, while Mann adds: “MLS interests are not inherently the interests of sport in this country. I think the MLS would really like to own the sport. With those two things together, I don’t know if this bodes well for the direction of the sport in this country.”

For the USL Championship itself, the positives far outweigh the negatives. The character of the clubs and the opportunity to showcase them through a TV deal that exponentially increases reach has led to excitement about the new season. The fact that the owners are curiously considering promotion and relegation, and are fully behind the US Open Cup, could also work in their favor in the eyes of many football fans.

The USL is still experiencing growing pains, but in a pivotal three years for American soccer as the global game takes hold, the USL appears to be the American professional soccer league that most closely represents the game as the world knows it, while at the same time time remains distinctly American.