Below MLS; American Soccer Culture Runs Deep

While MLS deservedly gets much of the spotlight, beneath it there’s an entire world of soccer in America that goes largely unnoticed
by Herb Scribner   |   Wednesday, April 18, 2012

San Antonio Scorpions (NASL) already have numerous supporters groups

I still consider myself to be a new soccer fan. Sure, I’m in my 12th year as a fan, but I don’t exactly call myself an expert or an all-knowing guru of the game. And during those 12 years, and especially the last four-to-five when I’ve been writing about the sport in America, I’ve considered myself to be quite familiar with American teams, players and coaches.

That was until I did my recent BigShot Q&A interview with Adrian Heath, manager of Orlando City Soccer Club in the USL PRO. I had heard of Orlando City, and I even watched its title-winning match over the Harrisburg City Islanders, but the interview reminded me just how much soccer is actually going on in the United States that many might not be aware of.

It’d be hard to find someone in the U.S. who hasn’t at least heard about MLS, as it soaks up the majority of the American soccer spotlight – and deservedly so. The league is home to a handful of the world’s top tier soccer players and is continually growing and progressing. MLS is American soccer’s top dog, it’s where all the talent goes and the cream of the crop rises to. It’s got the money, it’s got the fortune and it’s got that pristine and attractive look that a top tier soccer league should have.

And recently, MLS has been drawing decent crowds. The killer Beckham benders, the Henry hot shots, the smooth skills of Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC are all working in bringing in newbies and its doing quite well. MLS is getting the marketing deals and finally moving up and up the ladder of American sports fandom. For all the work the league has put into building itself since its inception in 1996, it deserves to be at the helm of the American soccer pyramid.

But while MLS is at the top and is bathing in glory, there’s an entire world of soccer culture going on below it.

Technically, the second division of U.S. Soccer, the NASL, also had a tremendous fan base with historical clubs with read-made rivalries which created fierce competition on the pitch. The NASL is packed from top to bottom with clubs that not only have supportive fan bases, but also have quite the Twitter following. From the Carolina RailHawks (2,300 followers) to the Atlanta Silverbacks (1,600 followers), the NASL is loaded with competitive teams that are just getting started with their new seasons. More than anything else, the NASL offers cities that aren’t represented in MLS a chance to catch live soccer nearby and a local club to root for. It gives Puerto Rico representation in the United States soccer culture, as well as even more exposure for Canadians clubs with expansion Ottawa due to begin soon.

Fans interested in getting involved with the NASL, and maybe learning a little bit of history about the league that dominated American soccer from 1968 to 1984, the NASL website offers a substantial history page on the former league and its modern incarnation.

So while the NASL is USSF’s defined second division of American soccer, many look to the United Soccer Leagues (USL) as their outlets for local minor league soccer. It’s full of different leagues that offer different choices for soccer fans. It’s got the W-League that, after Women’s Professional Soccer cancelled its 2012 season, is one of the two premier women’s soccer leagues in the country. It’s got the MISL too, which gives families affordable entertainment as well as fans of indoor soccer and possibly even hockey nuts an avenue to enjoy the game. It’s also got beach soccer and an extensive amount of youth soccer as well.

But while the USL has various leagues for all sorts of fans, its crème de la crème is the USL PRO. It’s got the aforementioned Orlando City, the historical Rochester Rhinos and the perennial Charleston Battery and Richmond Kickers too.

I’m not trying to be a salesman for the league, but rather pointing out even more areas of the country that aren’t represented in MLS and give fans a chance to watch the world’s game, locally.

This is the beauty of soccer in America – there are just so many different leagues, with so many different teams and so many different rivalries. If one gets bored and tired of MLS, one can just simply find something else in the USL PRO or the NASL. Or if you rather something completely different, there’s beach soccer and indoor soccer.

It’s unfortunate that outside of a USL PRO or NASL run in the U.S. Open Cup, these leagues go completely unnoticed, and that the only league seen by the majority of soccer and casual fans is MLS, because there is so much more soccer out there. There are so many other leagues for newcomers to the game to get invested in.

On a bright note that helps develop minor league soccer culture, the NASL and USL PRO are offering fans the opportunity to catch their games live, online for FREE this season!

Like I said, I’ve been a soccer fan for 12 years and I am only now getting to know some of these lesser-known leagues. For those new to the game, I recommend checking out some of these other leagues, especially if you have no local MLS club in driving distance. It’ll give you an entire new outlook on American soccer and the ability to raise your scarf above your head in a stadium, instead of your couch. And it’ll show you that even though the States has one, big-time league, there’s an entire soccer culture happening under the radar.


UMass Amherst
Club Domestic:
Club Foreign:
FC Barcelona
SN managing editor and award-winning journalist, Herb has always been known as "The Soccer Guy" wherever he goes. He's a leftback in most outdoor and indoor leagues. He also writes for Deseret News National.