Soccer vs. Football

April 18, 2021
With the NWSL Challenge Cup and 26th MLS season underway, we’re in your inbox on this fine Sunday to compare football soccer in North America to soccer football elsewhere.
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Soccer vs. Football
Source: The Late Late Show With James Corden/ Giphy


I’m coming there to play football. I’m not saying me coming over to the States is going to make soccer the biggest sport in America. That would be difficult to achieve. Baseball, basketball, American football, they’ve been around.

Posh Spice’s husband, David Beckham, speaking about his flashy move from Real (pronounced rey-AL) Madrid to the MLS’ LA Galaxy in 2007.

📖 History

Although professional soccer arrived in North America later than most places, its beginnings actually came in the 1920s with the creation of the American Soccer League (ASL).

  • However, due to the Great Depression, the league was forced to dissolve, and with that came a lull in North American pro soccer.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that soccer would re-enter the pro sports realm in North America. The United Soccer Association and the National Professional Soccer League were both created in 1967, with the two leagues eventually merging to form the North American Soccer League (NASL) by the end of the year.

  • This was the league that saw Brazilian phenom Pelé — one of the greatest, if not the greatest, soccer player(s) of all time — come out of retirement to sign with the New York Cosmos in 1975. A BFD.
  • Unfortunately, Pelé’s three seasons weren’t enough for the league to maintain momentum throughout the ’80s, resulting in yet anotherNorth American pro soccer league ending.

But in 1993, Major League Soccer (MLS) was born as part of the U.S.’s bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup, and with the new league came great interest in the sport once again. Twenty-eight years later, and men’s soccer is here to stay.

🔢 How it works: points, promotions and relegations

Before the inaugural MLS season in 1996,an organizational structure was created that set it apart from the more-seasoned leagues around the world. Arriving fashionably late, if you will.

  • For starters, the MLS doesn’t relegate and promote teams (same as the NWSL, BTW). In other words, when a team finishes last, they aren’t at risk of moving down into a lower division for the next season, and top-ranked teams in lower divisions don’t move up.
  • Why the difference? One is growth plans. MLS plans to expand to 30 teams (from the current 27) by 2023, and investors may be discouraged from joining if there’s a chance their club could get knocked out of the league.
  • Another challenge is the lack of depth, funding and interest in lower-level leagues. If a team were to be relegated, the second tier league is the USL Championship (USLC) and the disparity in play and fandom between the two leagues is substantial.

One similarity between the MLS and other leagues is the points system. In soccer, teams earn points based on the outcome of the match and these totals determine who is crowned the regular season winner.

  • The points break down like this: three points for a win, one for a tie and none for a loss. And when there are ties in the rankings, it gets down to the nitty-gritty, including differences in things like yellow cards.

🔀 Same same, but different

While European soccer begins in the fall and ends in the spring, North American soccer is played during the exact opposite time of year. Of course, this is so both the NWSL and MLS don’t have to compete too often with the NFL, NBA and NHL and helps avoid outdoor winter matches in places like Salt Lake City and Montreal.

  • Unlike many top European leagues, but similar to other North American sports structures, the MLS also holds a playoff style tournament at the end of the season to determine the MLS Cup Champion.

📈 Started from the bottom

Let’s talk about opportunities for young athletes. In North America, talented players, and their families, need to have some sizable pockets: Families have to travel for tournaments and showcases (both domestic and international), and some even have to pay to train with private clubs.

  • On the other hand, many top clubs in other countries have free youth academies for young prospects. Some of the biggest names in the sport have come from low-income backgrounds and their talent grew thanks to this model.

And this type of setup may contribute to the fact that, when it comes to men’s soccer, the MLS can’t hold a candle to the European Leagues like the English Premier League (EPL), Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga. Say it like it is.

🏆 Women on the world stage

Women’s pro soccer was propelled by the 1999 FIFA World Cup finally bringing attention to the game. Held at the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California, the 90,185 (!!!) fans who saw the USWNT beat China in the final still mark one of the largest crowds to ever witness a women’s sporting event. Can you say iconic?

  • Following the tournament, 20 members of the USWNT squad — including Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm and Briana Scurry — assembled to find investors and create a league. In 2000, the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) arrived.

Similar to the men, women’s pro soccer in North America had its ups and downs: the WUSA folded in 2003. After that, the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league was formed in 2008...and then, you guessed it, dissolved in 2012 due to organizational issues.

  • But on its heels came the current National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), which was founded the same year. Thank goodness.

Internationally, however, women’s soccer had roots in the early 1900s, but many countries enacted bans soon after. Countries like England, Germany and Brazil didn’t lift them until the late ’60s and ’70s. *eye roll*

  • Although European and Latin American men’s soccer programs have history on their side, the women’s clubs began much later (the FA Women’s Super League started in 2010) as did investment in their programs, resulting in a gap in competitiveness.
  • While women’s European leagues are also now thriving (and arguably boast better teams than the NWSL), it’s important to remember that the USWNT’s success on and off the pitch laid the groundwork for successful pro women’s soccer across the globe.