Why U.S. soccer’s future is pro-rel, smaller markets and... muffins?!

MLS will stop at 28 teams, leaving the rest of the landscape to leagues at lower levels.

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Discussions about the future of soccer in the United States usually start with Major League Soccer. That’s understandable: the top professional league is as linked to the development of the sport as any other entity in the country. But even when MLS expands to 28 markets, it will not come close to blanketing a huge country with an increasing appetite for soccer.

The future of professional soccer in America is not solely in the packed stadiums in Orlando, Portland or Seattle, but also in small venues in places like Kingston, New York, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Dayton, Ohio.

At least, that's the way some people envision the next frontier in the rapid growth of American soccer.

As we sit here today and try to guess what the landscape is going to look like in five to 10 years, my guess is whatever we wrote down in our predictions is probably going to be off.

- Peter Wilt

In a country as vast as the U.S., no single league can cover every corner, reach every market and discover every prospect. It is why companies like the United Soccer League and people like Peter Wilt and Dennis Crowley are betting on the lower divisions of American soccer as a place ripe for investment – and one that doesn’t need backers with billions in their bank account.  

Their argument is simple: You can build a sustainable lower-division model for clubs that don’t aspire to MLS, but can be successful and eventually profitable in the same way minor league baseball teams are in this country. If they're right, expansion of the lower divisions may be the next "most important moment" in the history of the sport in this country.

“If you’d tried to predict the soccer landscape 10 years ago, you’d have been way off on what’s actually happened,” said Wilt, a former MLS and NASL team executive who recently announced his intention to launch a Division 3 league called the National Independent Soccer Association. “You would have fallen short with your projections, and the same is true now. As we sit here today and try to guess what the landscape is going to look like in five to 10 years, my guess is whatever we wrote down in our predictions is probably going to be off. And I don’t think it’s going to be off because we overestimate.”

With the USL and Wilt both announcing dueling Division 3 leagues to be launched in the near future, the race is on to reach into those untapped markets and capitalize on that growth potential.

The biggest winner of that competition, however, might be the sport itself.

One only needs to look around the other major sports to understand why expanding the lower divisions makes sense.

The NFL has 32 franchises, but its rosters draw from the 128 NCAA Division I schools and 124 FCS programs. In baseball, MLB’s 30 franchises are stocked by the minor leagues, which have 244 teams across multiple leagues. The NBA covers every corner of the U.S. through the NCAA and its hundreds of Division I basketball programs.

MLS commissioner Don Garber has stated the league will stop expansion at 28 teams. Those clubs will cover some of the biggest markets in the U.S. and Canada, but they won’t come close to reaching many areas in the country. As it stands now, the second division of professional soccer adds only another 38 teams. The NCAA, which has a short fall season, has 205 teams, though few of those produce true pro prospects and an even smaller percentage create the same strong community connections as NCAA football and basketball programs.

Many of the top 100 markets in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau, don’t have any professional soccer, including El Paso, Texas, Las Vegas, and Baltimore on the top end and Boise, Norfolk, Virginia, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on the bottom. Others, like Detroit, Nashville, Memphis and Milwaukee, have teams in the NPSL and PDL, which are semi-professional leagues. Smaller markets like Greenville, S.C., Dayton, Ohio, Grand Rapids, Mich., and Albany, N.Y., are considered just as valuable, and just as ready for professional soccer.

There is, in other words, massive potential for growth in the lower divisions of American soccer, an expansion that would reach into markets with a robust taste for professional sports and yet no connection to the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. In theory, that would have a trickle-down effect where kids in those markets eventually have a clear pathway to go from the youth soccer fields to the pro ranks, making it easier for the next Clint Dempsey to find his way from a town like Nacogdoches, Texas, to the U.S. men’s national team.

NEXT: Focus on small means large numbers of markets