It may be the de facto men's second division in a closed American professional soccer pyramid, but don't assume that the USL Championship is simply another "lower league" in the sport's landscape.
Beginning its 13th season last Saturday (select matches on ESPN2/ESPN+ all season), the 24-team competition boasts highly promising talent, national team representation across countless clubs, structural growth through team expansions, and most famously in 2022, stunning results against more prominent opponents in the U.S. Open Cup.
Now embarking on a year where it is fully independent and without the influence of MLS reserve sides that once populated it, the USL Championship has an opportunity to carve out its own and unique path. As 2026 World Cup that will be co-hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada nears, the league could play a vital role in developing some of the players for that tournament.
Road to U.S., Mexico stardom via USL
What do all of these teams have in common? These clubs and more had recent representation for the finalists in February's CONCACAF Under-17 Championship. In an ensuing title game that Mexico won 3-1 against the United States, the USL Championship didn't just have players that earned appearances in the competition, but also key starters.
For the United States, there was 16-year-old goalkeeper Duran Ferree. After quickly working his way through the academy setup at San Diego, Ferree became the club's youngest ever player to earn minutes in the USL Championship after debuting in net last October. Eventually gaining the attention of the U.S. youth national team, Ferree then clinched four starts as the U.S. made their way to the U17 CONCACAF final and booked their spot in this year's U17 World Cup.
Looking at Mexico, 16-year-old Fidel Barajas thrived on the wing with three goals and five assists in the tournament. Before helping Mexico lift the CONCACAF title and also secure their own place in the U17 World Cup, the dual-national from Sacramento, California was a member of a San Jose Earthquakes academy who was yearning for more in his young career. He took a chance after signing with Charleston last September, collected an assist in his professional debut in October, and by February, he was then able to capture a CONCACAF trophy.
The examples of Barajas and Ferree aren't isolated incidents. Across the extensive USL branch for men's competitions that extends through the Championship and into USL League One (a 12-team third division) and USL League Two (122 semi-professional teams organized in 18 divisions), a total of 28 USL players were called up to youth national teams in 2022. In one exceptional case, Louisville City FC's 17-year-old defender Joshua Wynder was a finalist for the 2022 U.S. Soccer Young Male Player of the Year after excelling with his club and the USYNT.
All of this is a testament to the league that is spending more on infrastructures like training facilities, talent development and stadiums.
"To now step back in and see where it's gone, is tremendous," said Jeremy Alumbaugh, a former general manager in the league with Saint Louis FC who is now the Senior Vice President of the USL Championship. "The stadiums, the investment, the full pathway from youth to pro and just the stability that clubs now have...I think we're a really vital piece of bringing the sport to a number of communities in the [United] States."
Through that, recent high-profile and record-breaking transfers have followed.
According to MLSsoccer.com's Tom Bogert, Real Salt Lake reportedly spent $250,000 (a record fee from USL to MLS) last June to sign the then 18-year-old USYNT midfielder Diego Luna from El Paso Locomotive. In the same month, fellow USYNT player Kobi Henry, an 18 year-old defender from Orange County SC, was transferred to France's Stade de Reims for around $700,000 --- a USL transfer record that was broken in October with Colorado Springs Switchbacks forward Hadji Barry moving to Egypt's Future FC.
As part of a bigger plan to have a more meaningful role in the global transfer market -- spearheaded by the hiring of Mark Cartwright as the league's first-ever sporting director in 2021 -- it's no coincidence that there was a sudden uptick in record fees and moves into other leagues.
"There's been a change and I think that's something that you're gonna continue to see as we continue to invest more into the player side and invest more into the player development side," Alumbaugh said. "I don't think this is gonna go away. I think it's going to continue to be a point of emphasis for the league and a point of emphasis for the clubs."
Part of that involves an evolution for clubs to not only see these young stars and others as simply players, but also valuable resources that can benefit teams and help elevate careers.
"I'll be the first to admit, previously in the player recruitment side as a former GM in the league, oftentimes we looked at players as an expense, but around the world and the global game players are looked at as assets and now that's come into the USL."
USL alums making inroads in Europe
Alongside an expanding list of promising domestic options, the USL has also become a home for an increasing number of senior national team players.
With many earning recognition on the international level from CONCACAF sides, a total of 63 current USL Championship and USL League One players were called up to senior national teams last year. Although no current players were on any of the 2022 World Cup squads, three nations (USA, Canada and Cameroon) had a total 22 players who previously played under the USL umbrella.
With the amount of Mexican-American dual-nationals in the United States, it's also only a matter of time before the next El Tri star could be discovered in the USL. His experience was brief in the league, but before moving to Barcelona and being given a call-up to Mexico's senior team for matches this month, right-back Julian Araujo was a kid making his professional debut in the USL Championship back in 2018.
"I do think that a lot of young players are continuing to receive opportunities in the USL," Araujo said to ESPN in an interview last year. "I know that national teams will be aware of the USL and how players are performing."
Looking towards the current USL Championship season, the league wants to raise that bar even further and showcase more examples of what teams are capable of beyond the shadow of MLS.
"We have to continue to put a product on the field that people are going to tune-in and watch," said Alumbaugh about the goals he is setting for teams in 2023. "Pushing the clubs to look outside the box at opportunities to make sure that we are putting talent on the field.
"Both talent from our communities that we're developing and growing through the academy system, but then also looking at other partnerships and other ways to continue to raise that talent, that has to be the first thing."
Keeping up with MLS
Even in a nationwide competition like the U.S. Open Cup that has a long history of upsets and shock results, few, if any, could have predicted what the Sacramento Republic would go on to do last year.
In a stunning run to the cup's title game, Sacramento defeated three MLS clubs to become the first non-MLS finalists since 2008.
"I still sometimes can't believe it," Sacramento captain Rodrigo Lopez told ESPN last year before the final. "Not that I'm saying we don't deserve it. We definitely deserve it...I'm just saying, for a USL Championship team or any lower division team to be in the final of a cup, that is definitely very rare."
Although Lopez and his teammates would go on to lose 3-0 to Orlando City in the title match, Sacramento proved that they could not only keep up with MLS teams, but also beat them successively. Elsewhere in the 2022 competition, other USL Championship teams like Detroit City FC and San Antonio FC added additional victories over MLS clubs. Even Union Omaha and the Northern Colorado Hailstorm, who both play in USL League One, were able to clinch wins against MLS clubs.
Despite the fact that most of those in MLS didn't have much trouble with lower league sides in the Open Cup, 2022 was a reminder of the high level of play that exists within the lower division teams that don't have a route for promotion up to the top flight in American soccer.
A pro/rel system in American soccer?
"Stability" isn't the most flashy or dramatic word associated with a sport that relies on entertainment, but it's an important one nonetheless for the health of the USL Championship. In a competition that has had more former teams than seasons (due mostly to clubs moving to other leagues, such as MLS Next Pro, or folding altogether), there are signs of stronger foundations literally being built in recent years.
Teams like Louisville, Colorado Springs Switchbacks, Phoenix Rising, Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Rio Grande Valley FC can point to their soccer-specific stadiums that they've helped open in the last decade. A handful of other clubs are also currently working on plans of their own to build new stadiums.
On the expansion front, things are looking promising. Even though the USL Championship has ebbed and flowed between its number of clubs, they're set to debut Rhode Island FC next season in 2024. In 2025 or beyond, franchises in Des Moines, Iowa; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Jacksonville, Florida are expected to have their inaugural seasons. The USL Championship is also working with a group in New Orleans for a possible franchise, and looking ahead, there's at least three other potential markets that have yet to be announced.
"I don't think there is an exact number," Alumbaugh said when asked if there's an ideal number of USL Championship teams. "I think the biggest thing is communities and ownership groups that are committed to having proper training facilities, and we used to say stadiums before we would say training facilities, but now you're seeing clubs in the USL invest in training facilities and you see how that can really help that player development."
Through that player growth, investment in infrastructure and independence away from MLS -- although, technically speaking, Loudoun United still maintain a connection to D.C. United -- added stability can lead to something that has become a great white whale in American professional soccer: Promotion and relegation.
USL president Jake Edwards hasn't shied away from the topic in the past, often stopping just short of officially confirming that pro/rel will happen.
"As we build out League One and we build out the size and scale and we build out the level of the clubs, it's absolutely something that we're doing the work on," said Edwards to ESPN's Futbol Americas last year.
Alumbaugh affirmed the idea that the USL is still looking into bringing in pro/rel.
"We're not there yet, obviously, because if we were I'd be telling you about it and discussing it, but the research, the exploration of what can that look like and how can we put that together is definitely something that we're working on," he said. "We have been pretty bullish in terms of our willingness to look at it and see if it makes sense."