Does the MLS have a second division?
The USL Championship, the second tier of the American soccer pyramid, will feature 27 teams in the 2022 season, its 12th since foundation in 2011.
The 2022 MLS regular season, which will be the 27th league competition in the history of the US top flight, is scheduled to begin on 26 February and run until 9 October, with the MLS Cup final slated for 5 November, just two weeks before the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is due to kick off. The new season will see the addition of expansion team Charlotte FC, taking the number of teams in MLS to 28 after the 2021 addition of Matthew McConaughey-backed Austin FC, who finished 12th in the Western Conference in their inaugural season.
Charlotte was awarded an expansion team by MLS in 2019 following a process that began as far back as 1994, when the city put itself forward to join MLS in its inaugural season. Historically, the city has always been involved with the lower tiers of US soccer, dating back to the Carolina Lightnin’ side of the early 1980s. Today, there are two lower-league affiliates in Charlotte: Charlotte Independence, founded in 2014 and who play in USL League One, and Charlotte Eagles, who were founded in 1991 and play in USL League Two, the fourth tier of the American soccer pyramid. Several Independence players signed for Charlotte FC ahead of the 2022 MLS season.
Foundation of USL Championship
The second tier of US soccer is the USL Championship, whose inaugural season took place in 2011. The winners of that campaign were Orlando City Soccer Club, the precursor to MLS side Orlando City SC, who now play in the Eastern Conference.
The USL Championship is the division directly under MLS but with no promotion or relegation due to the fixed membership structure of MLS, teams tend to come and go as they move to other leagues, relocate, or join MLS. Only two have been ever-present in the USL Championship in its current guise (it was previously known as the USL First Division from 2005): Orange County SC (the reigning USL Championship Final winners) and Charleston Battery.
Other USL Championship teams to have been granted MLS expansion status alongside Orlando are FC Cincinnati and Nashville FC.
Traditionally, USL Championship teams have had an MLS affiliate, and for the 2022 season there will still be several: Atlanta United 2, Loundon FC (D.C. United), New York Red Bulls II and LA Galaxy II, which are all owned by their parent club, and Las Vegas Lights FC, an affiliate of LAFC. In total, there will be 27 teams in the 2022 USL Championship.
MLS Next Pro
The US soccer pyramid will also feature a new league in 2022, MLS Next Pro. The new league will rank one rung below the USL Championship (on a par with USL League One and the National Independent Soccer Association) and is scheduled to kick off in March as a Division III professional league, operating at the same level as the USL League One and the National Independent Soccer Association. The inaugural league competition will feature 20 MLS reserve teams and former USL side Rochester New York FC.
The goal of MLS is that every franchise will have a second team in the MLS Next Pro by 2023, providing opportunities for homegrown talent and players from the MLS academy system. This will also bring an end to the affiliate system in the USL Championship at the end of the 2022 season.
“The key missing piece for us was this place where our young players could get meaningful minutes in high-level competition,” said MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott when the new league was announced in June. "This will also create more job opportunities for young coaches to start their professional careers at the lower levels.”