Not long after my wife and I were first married she came into the living room to find me watching a game of football on the TV.
She stood there, staring, confused by what she saw. Then she finally dared to ask the question that was on her mind.
“What are you watching? I thought soccer was over.”
She still complains about how hard I laughed at her for this.
What she didn’t know at the time is that football never ends. The season had ended here in America, but the leagues in Europe had only just begun. This is one of the joys of being a football fan in America; between the domestic leagues and the European leagues, there is pretty much always a game worth watching every weekend.
Unfortunately, I get the impression that most English fans don’t pay much attention to football in the States, but you really should. If for no other reason than it can provide some distraction from worrying about what’s going to happen to Wilf this summer.
So for anyone who’s thinking about giving it a go and watching some American soccer this summer here are a few basics you should know:
1. We’re still really new at this (but we’ve been doing it a very long time). When FIFA awarded the 1994 World Cup to the United States there was still no professional league in the country. But, thanks in large part to the success of that World Cup there was finally the impetus to launch Major League Soccer. MLS officially started in 1996, five years after the founding of the EPL and some 100 years after the birth of professional football in the UK. Americans were playing long before the MLS. The Oneida Football Club was founded in Oneida, New York in 1862 and the American Football Association was formed in 1876. However, the inability of different organizations to cooperate meant that the sport did not develop and remained an amatuer sport until the birth of the North American Soccer League in 1967. The NASL went all out on big stars like Pele’ and Beckenbauer but could not manage to stay in business and the league folded in 1985.
2. We have playoffs. Americans love playoffs, there seems to be something fundamental to our culture that requires them. This means that often time the best team doesn’t win the title, but it does usually result in some exciting games to end the season. We also have divisions. Our leagues are typically split between the East and the West. Each league handles this split a little differently but it usually means playing each team in your division, home and away and then playing a selection of games against the other division. The playoffs are then bracketed so that the East and West each make up one side with the winner of each division meeting for the final.
3. We have a pyramid (but not really). Most people outside of the US are aware of MLS. Names like Beckham, Zlatan, and Rooney have helped to make sure of that. But many people may not know that there are leagues below MLS that play some real quality football as well. The next tier in the pyramid is the USL Championship. The final professional league is ULS League One. In the amateur ranks, there is USL League two and the National Premier Soccer League which both occupy the 4th Division of men’s soccer in the US. Below them, there are a myriad of other leagues, regional and local, which comprise the 5th and 6th Divisions. The biggest difference between the US pyramid and pretty much the rest of the world is that there is no promotion and relegation in the States. For the last decade or so when MLS has expanded it has done so by picking successful teams from lower divisions to award a franchise to. This is sometimes referred to as a “promotion” but their rise in the leagues has very little to do with performance on the field and a whole lot to do with the money in the bank.
4. We have a Cup. One of the things USSF actually does right is the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. A cup competition with a format almost identical to that of the FA Cup the US Open Cup is the one chance for lower league teams to get seen by the rest of the country. And with the new partnership with ESPN’s streaming platform ESPN+, all Cup games will be available to watch online for the first time ever. And unlike a lot of US soccer, there’s history to the Cup. Starting in 1914 it is one of the oldest Cup competitions in the world and has been won by teams like St Louis Central Breweries, New York German-Hungarian S.C., and the Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals.
5. We’re still growing. With real professional football only getting started in the mid-’90s in the US there are still new teams coming into the leagues every year. Major League Soccer started with only 10 teams in the league. For the 2019 season, there are 24 teams, with 3 more teams already scheduled to join in 2020 and 2021, bringing the total of MLS teams to 27. League commissioner, Don Garber, recently announced a plan to expand by yet another 3 unnamed teams by 2022. The lower level leagues are growing even faster. USL Championship fielded 14 teams in 2014. Five years later USL Championship has 36 teams for the 2019 season. While not every expansion team has been a success, there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight for growth. To provide a little perspective England currently has 92 professional football teams and a population of about 56 million (or 1 team for every 60,000 people) . The United States on the other currently has 70 professional teams and a population of around 370 million (or 1 team for every 525,000 people). With 4,000,000 kids registered with US Soccer and millions more playing at thousands of youth clubs around the country the growth of the game doesn’t look like it’s stopping any time soon.
6. We call it soccer (sometimes). Yes, most Americans call it “soccer”. And yes, we got that word from England. But, most people aren’t confused by calling it “football”. Even about half of our clubs here use “FC” in their names.
Now that you’ve got a basic understanding of the football ecosystem you may be wondering which teams to watch. With MLS dominating the football landscape in the States so I’ll give a quick snapshot of the teams in each conference. But, stopping with MLS would be just starting to scratch the surface, so I’ll also mention a few teams from lower leagues as well.
● Atlanta United FC. Only in their third season, Atlanta United finished each of there first two seasons in the top 4 in the East. Under New coach Frank de Boer, Atlanta got off to a rocky start to the 2019 but have climbed back into a top 4 spot. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Atlanta has been the overwhelming fan support. They have an average attendance of over 53,000. This makes them the 10th highest attended team in the world, above teams like Manchester City and Newcastle.
● Chicago Fire. Named after one of the biggest disasters in the city’s history, the Chicago Fire have done their best to live up to that legacy. Despite winning the MLS Cup in their inaugural season, and the US Open Cup 4 times, the team has been on a precipitous decline for the last decade. And a move out of the city to a stadium in the suburbs has only furthered the discontent among the fans. Even with the addition of Bastian Schweinsteiger in 2017, the team has struggled to find renewed success.
● FC Cincinnati. One of the newest teams to join MLS, 2019 is FC Cincinnati’s first season in the league. Founded only in 2016, Cincinnati played their first three years in the second division USL Championship before being awarded an expansion slot for the 2019 season. They ended their run in the Championship by winning the league, really making their move feel like a real promotion. Thus far, they’ve struggled to replicate that success in MLS and find themselves at the bottom of the table, and being very glad that there’s no relegation in the US. Palace fans may remember Cincinnati from the club’s 2016 US tour which saw Palace defeat Cincinnati 2-0.
● Columbus Crew SC. The Crew are one of the original MLS teams. While the team has only seen limited success on the field, they seem to be most people’s second favorite team. Viewed to be one of the more “traditional” clubs in the States fans here were outraged when the former owner proposed moving the club to Austin, Texas. The hashtag #savethecrew was born and thanks in part to fan and political pressure the league decided to offer the owner an expansion team in Austin if he would agree to sell the Crew to owners who would keep the team in Columbus.
● D.C. United. Another one of the original MLS teams DC United are also one of the most successful. They have won the MLS Cup 4 times, only one less than the Los Angeles Galaxy. And they were the first MLS club to win the CONCACAF Champions League. Most of their success came in their early days, but they have not suffered the same decline as did Chicago. For most of their existence, they have played in the cavernous RFK Stadium. With the team averaging under 20,000 in attendance the 45,000 seat stadium would swallow them. In 2018 they moved to the 20,000 seat Audi Field.
● Montreal Impact FC. Montreal are one of the 3 Canadian teams that play in MLS. They are two-time winners of the Canadian Championship (Canada’s version of the FA Cup) and runners up in the 2014-2015 CONCACAF Champions League. But overall the team under current manager Remi Garde has failed to make much of an Impact on the league.
● New England Revolution. The Revolution have been around since the beginning yet have failed to win the MLS Cup, and failed to make the playoffs for 10 of their 22 seasons. Revs fans place most of this blame on the team’s owner, Robert Kraft, who is much more interested in his Highly successful NFL team, the New England Patriots. Unlike DC United, the Revs continue to play in the massive Gillette stadium, only filling about 18,000 of it’s 65,000 seats. Talks of a new stadium have been ongoing since at least 2004 but no real progress has been made thus far.
● New York City FC. AKA Manchester City, New York. NYCFC is owned by the City Football Group. They started in 2015 as the American branch of City’s attempt to create a football empire. Despite having fielded such legends as David Villa and Andrea Pirlo, and also Frank Lampard, NYCFC have struggled to come close to replicating the success of their English big brothers.
● New York Red Bulls. They began their life with the overly complicated name, New York/New Jersey MetroStars. Mercifully the team quickly decided to drop the “New York/New Jersey” portion of their name and just went with MetroStars. In 2006 the team was bought by Red Bull GMbH and rebranded as New York Red Bulls. Much like their Big Apple rivals, they became a part of a global football empire along with the likes of Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig. Also like NYCFC, Red Bulls have failed to claim the MLS Cup even once in their 22 years, although they have seen more success in the regular season, reaching the playoffs 19 times. Of particular interest to Palace fans is that both sons of Ian Wright, Bradley and Shaun Wright-Phillips, have played for the club with Bradley still there. Other notable players that have played for the team over the years are Tim Ream, currently at Fulham, Tim Howard, formerly of Everton and Manchester United, and Tim Cahill, formerly of Millwall and Everton.
● Orlando City SC. Orlando City joined MLS in 2015, bringing the league back to the state of Florida for the first time since 2001. The team has yet to find success, however, failing to make the playoffs in each of their first 3 attempts. With coach James O’Conner in his first full year at the helm and the addition of Portuguese star Nani the team is hoping to change that for 2019, but at this point still find themselves in 10th, but only 3 points out of the final playoff spot.
● Philadelphia Union. The Union are a true success story, just not on the field. Philadelphia is one of the country’s largest cities but did not have a team until 2010. In 2007 a group of local fans was fed up with this situation and established the Sons of Ben. A supports group without a team. They worked to show that the fan support existed in the city and thanks in large part to that work Philadelphia was awarded an expansion franchise in 2009.
● Toronto FC. Another Canadian club, Toronto joined the league in 2007 and languished towards the bottom of the table for 7 years. In 2014 the team began bringing in players like Jermain Defoe, Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco, and Michael Bradley. This saw the team’s fortunes quickly turn around, winning the MLS Cup in 2017. However, the 2018 season did not go as planned and they failed to make the playoffs, finishing 19th in the East.
● Colorado Rapids. The Rapids are owned by Stan Kroenke, the same Stan Kroenke who owns Arsenal. Perhaps the worst owner in all of professional sports. Despite him, the Rapid did manage to win the MLS Cup in 2010. Aside from this one blip, the Rapids have predominantly been a middling team, finishing in the bottom half of the playoff spots most years, and missing the playoffs entirely the other years.
● FC Dallas. Dallas started as the Dallas Burn in the league’s inaugural season. In 2005 they rebranded as FC Dallas and moved from the Cotton Bowl to Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. Dallas are another team who have yet to win the MLS Cup, but they have one the Open Cup twice.
● Houston Dynamo. The Dynamo joined the league in 2006 when the owners of the San Jose Earthquakes moved the team to Houston. The move to Space City was a success as the team preceded to win the next two MLS Cups. Since then the team has failed to replicate that success but did manage to win the Open Cup in 2018.
● L. A. Galaxy. The most successful club in the league, the Galaxy have won the MLS Cup 5 times and played in the finals 9 times. They have won the Open Cup twice and are the only MLS club, besides DC United, to win the CONCACAF Champions League. The thing that brought the club, and the league, the most notoriety was the signing of
David Beckham in 2007. At that time the team also changed their uniforms from the multi-colored, gold and green uniforms to a new all-white design. This new look was intentionally created to connect the Galaxy to the Galácticos of Real Madrid. The Galaxy continued to sign big-name players, bringing in Robbie Keane in 2011, Steven Gerrard in 2015, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2018.
● Los Angeles FC. LAFC joined the league in 2018. Having two teams in Los Angeles seems like an obvious move to anyone. So obvious that it took the league almost 10 years to try it. In 2005 Chivas USA became LA’s second team. The team only lasted 9 years and was pretty much a disaster from day one. But, it did become clear that a second team in the city could be a success if it was properly managed. The ownership of LAFC is unlike pretty much any other. The massive ownership group includes people like Cardiff owner Vincent Tan, actor Will Ferrell, Women’s World Cup winner Mia Hamm, NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, and motivational speaker Tony Robbins. LAFC have tried to place themselves as the anti-Galaxy. They forgo the superstars and shiny white uniforms and embrace the black and gold.
● Minnesota United FC. The Loons came from the reborn NASL in 2017 to join the Western Division in MLS. Despite having one of the best looking uniforms around, Minnesota have struggled to make their mark in MLS, finishing outside of a playoff position in each of their first two years.
● Portland Timbers. Like Minnesota, Portland came to MLS from the second division on US Soccer in what was then known at USL-1. The Timbers’ history goes back far beyond even that period. The first iteration of the Timbers was born into the original NASL in 1975. That team ended up folding in 1982, two years before the league folded in 1984. The Timbers were reborn in 1985 to play in regional tournaments. The team then continued to join a series of leagues until joining the United Soccer Leagues in 2001. This long history gives their fans to claim that the Timbers are the oldest team in the United States. Since joining MLS the fans have continued their boisterous support of their club. They pack out the 20,000 seat Providence Park. Nestled into downtown Portland, Providence Park is renowned for the Timbers’ Army’s impressive tifos and for Timber Joey who cuts a slab of wood with a chainsaw each time the Timbers score.
● Real Salt Lake. Salt Lake joined MLS in 2005 and failed to make the playoffs in their first 3 years. In their fourth year, they made it as far as the Western Conference finals before managing to win the MLS Cup the following year. They also finished as the CONCACAF Champions League runners-up in 2011. After their run in the CONCACAF Champions League, they have struggled to find similar success, missing the playoffs twice.
● San Jose Earthquakes. The Quakes were one of the league's inaugural teams in 1996. At that time the team was known as the Clash, changing names to the Earthquakes in 1999. But, in 2006 the team was relocated to Houston to become the Dynamo. The Earthquakes returned in 2008 as an expansion team that season. Despite being a new franchise, the league allowed the Earthquakes to retain all the records and titles of the original Earthquakes.
● Seattle Sounders FC. When the Sounders joined the league in 2008 they were able to show the potential future of the league as they averaged over 30,000 in attendance in their first season. With the addition of local rivals, the Portland Timbers, they were able to blow away previous attendance records with over 66,000 for their first matchup. Along with their impressive performance in the stands, the Sounders found a lot of success on the pitch. They made either the conference finals or semi-finals in each of their first 7 years before finally managing to win the MLS Cup in 2016. They followed this up by falling just short to Toronto in the finals the following year.
● Sporting Kansas City. The birth of MLS came in an odd time in our culture. It was a time when teams thought that rainbow neon was a good look and “The Wiz” was a good team name. And that’s the world the SKC was born into. The Wiz, as they were known then, began play in Arrowhead Stadium where the Kansas City Chiefs make their home. The mostly empty 76,000 seat stadium swallowed any potential atmosphere. Even the team changing their name to the Wizards the following year did little to change this. But, despite this massive failure off the field, the team was able to reach several conference finals and semifinals before finally winning the MLS Cup in 2000. In 2011 The Wizards changed their name to Sporting Kansas City and moved into the far superior 18,000 seat Children’s Mercy Park. And almost overnight SKC became one of the hottest teams in the league as fans packed the new park. The rebrand seemed to work on the field as well, winning the MLS Cup again in 2013 along with the US Open Cup in 2011, 2015, and 2017.
● Vancouver Whitecaps FC. Another Canadian team. They won the Canadian Cup in 2015. And, most importantly they took Jordon Mutch on loan in 2018.
● Sacramento Republic FC. Sac won the second division title in their first year. Since then they have remained a perennial Western Conference Power. Given their early success on the pitch and an average attendance that set the standard for the league made the team an early contender for an MLS expansion franchise. Despite being passed over for expansion thus far, they are favorites for the next round of expansion.
● Saint Louis FC. Likely to join Sacramento in the next round of expansion St Louis is often referred to as the birthplace of American soccer. Lack of local business leadership meant that despite the city’s esteemed history they remained without a professional soccer team until 2010 when AC St Louis joined the re-launched NASL. Due to financial mismanagement, this team folded after only one year, but it served to unite the fanbase and prove that the city was excited for professional football. In 2015 Saint Louis FC joined the USL Pro, then the 3rd division of US Soccer. Soon USL Pro was granted Division 2 status and rebranded as USL Championship. For the first three years, the team struggled to find any success on the field, finishing near the bottom of the table each time. For the 2018 season, the club hired Anthony Pulis Jr., son of Tony Pulis, as manager. Pulis was able to take the team to their first playoff appearance in his first year and has had the team near the top of the table for the start of the 2019 season. The biggest mar on the 2019 season thus far has been mother nature. The team has already had to reschedule one game due to lightning and another due to flooding. Their 3rd round cup tie against MLS side Chicago Fire had to be moved to a local university’s football stadium due to flooding. Postponed games have seen them drop to 8th in the table. But with as many as 3 games in hand on some teams, they can climb back up to 4th by maintaining their 1.9 points per game standard.
● Louisville City FC. The reigning, back to back champions of the Championship have been a force to reckon with ever since entering the league in 2015. They made the conference finals in 2015 and 2016 before claiming the title in 2017 and 2018. The biggest struggle the Lou City has faced so far is their home stadium. Slugger Field is primarily a minor league baseball stadium so the pitch is a combination of natural grass and artificial turf that is used to cover the infield. A new stadium is on the way and scheduled to open in 2020.
● Nashville SC. Nashville began play in 2018, after MLS announced that Nashville will be awarded an expansion franchise. The MLS team is scheduled to begin play in the 2020 season. Because of the structure of MLS the team currently playing in the USL Championship will cease operation and a brand new organization will begin playing in MLS. This transition will see the team switch to a new (and much worse) logo, and move from First Tennessee Park to Nashville Stadium, but little else will change. Like teams promoted in the rest of the world they may try to overhaul their roster or try to keep some of the team together, but the team in USL Championship this season will for all intents and purposes be promoted at the end of the season.
● Phoenix Rising FC. Starting as Arizona United in 2014 the team struggled on and off the field. Before the 2016 season, the team was purchased by a group of musicians and artists that included Diplo of Major Lazer and Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy. For the 2017 season, the team rebranded as Phoenix Rising and signed Shaun Wright-Phillips, Didier Drogba, and Omar Bravo. This influx of talent helped propel Phoenix to the conference quarterfinals in 2017 and the USL Championship Finals in 2018.
USL League 1
● Forward Madison. 2019 is the first year of play for Forward Madison, and the Flamingos are off to a good start. Currently, they sit at 4th in the league and made it to the third round of the Open Cup. Most impressive is the fan support they’ve gotten, averaging just over 4,000 fans per game, almost twice the league average.
USL League 2
● Des Moines Menace. The Menace have been a menace to every over amateur team for 25 years. They have won the national championship once in 2004, and their division 6 times. And, they are regular giant killers in the Open Cup. The menace routinely draw several thousand fans for home games, astounding numbers in the amateur game. Nearly as soon as they began play there has been discussion of the Menace moving up. The team has resisted this temptation and not risked stretching their finances by moving to a higher league. The new league structures have renewed this call however and it looks ever more likely that Des Moines could be Menacing League 1 very soon.
National Premier Soccer League
● Detroit City FC. In 2012 Detroit looked like a dying city. It was hit harder than most cities by the economic recession of the previous few years. In that climate, a group of football fans wanted to do something to promote the city and decided to start a team. Their efforts paid off in spades. Fans flocked to the team. Averaging over 5,000 fans per game they draw far more than many professional teams.