Money (MLS)

Before MLSNP, MLS was giving out first team contracts, commonly referred to as “homegrown contracts”. Now, with MLSNP, clubs are very reluctant to go straight to homegrown contracts for academy players. They want to mitigate risk, spend less, and see how these young kids perform in a more professional environment before investing more resources into these players. This makes sense from the club’s perspective, but it raises some questions for the players and their families. 

Initial MLSNP contracts and USL contracts are comparable from a financial standpoint. MLSNP contracts are usually in the 25-40K range and if housing isn’t included then there might be an additional monthly stipend of 750-1K. USL contracts are typically in the 30-40K range for a similar level player. It’s clear that the two entities are directly competing for the same type of player. 

The caveat is, a player on a MLSNP contract can get converted to a first team deal quickly. A typical homegrown contract is somewhere around 75K in year one, 90K in year two and 110K in year three, so the potential of a first team contract is a big differentiator.

Contract Terms (USL)

While the money is the same, the contract terms are not. MLSNP contracts are usually two years guaranteed with an additional option year that can be activated by the club. This is  commonly referred to as a “Club Option.” There is usually a term in the contract that enables MLS clubs to change the contract after one year, if the club is happy with the player’s development. That is their carrot. 

USL offers one year guaranteed with an additional year of club option. USL offers a shorter contract because they know most players coming to their league do so with the goal of going to Europe when they are eligible at 18. For most kids who want to go to Europe, the 1+1 contract is much more attractive. 

MLS contracts are typically 3+2. Three years guaranteed with two club options, and while the money is good, that is a long time to be in a club’s control at the beginning of a person’s career.

Playing Opportunity (MLSNP)

MLSNP was created for a lot of reasons, but one of the main reasons was to compete with USL. Before MLSNP, USL had a distinct advantage in being able to offer professional minutes to players at an earlier age. Unless you are a top prospect, it was unlikely that you were going to get as much of an opportunity to play in MLS as you would with USL. With MLSNP, MLS clubs can offer “professional minutes” to 15, 16 or 17 year olds, oftentimes more rapidly than they would at a USL club. 

Level of Competition (USL/MLS)

Amount of playing time is important, but the level of competition you're playing against is also an important factor. Most experts would agree that USL is a better level of competition than MLSNP. The competition is more mature, physical and has more tactical experience. While the technical differences might be negligible, USL is still considered a stronger league. For prospects that have the opportunity to play in MLS quicker, it's a different story. MLS is still at a much higher level than USL. For the majority of prospects, the opportunity to play in MLS at 15, 16 or 17 is unlikely, so USL is the better choice if level of competition is your highest priority. 

Flexibility (USL)

Flexibility is the biggest reason for a player to go to USL over the MLSNP/MLS pathway. There is flexibility in what club you can play for, for example. In MLS, there are Homegrown priority rights and only one club can hold those rights. In order for another club to purchase those rights, the going price is usually 75-150k. Some clubs ask for more which makes it more difficult for the transfer of rights to even happen. These rules make it more challenging for players to go to the MLS club that might value them the highest. USL does not have these same restrictions, so the player can go to a club that delivers the best offer and plan.

USL is also much more flexible when it comes to taking time away to trial in Europe. Trialing is a critical part of creating demand in Europe and while MLS teams allow it, the timing is much more rigid. USL is not as rigid and oftentimes prioritize trials over training with their team because their primary goal with young players is to sell. That is not always the case with MLS. This is one of the biggest reasons why prospects go to USL. 

Transfer flexibility is another feather in the USL’s cap. As I stated before, a USL club’s primary intent is to sell, so the contract terms, playing time and trial schedules are all based around optimizing a transfer out. For players that are focused on getting to Europe as quickly as possible, USL has proven to be a faster route. However, that doesn’t always mean it’s the best route. There's a significantly higher number of players who have succeeded in top European leagues, after being transferred having played considerable minutes in MLS. All USL transfers to Europe have been to reserve or academy levels and we have yet to see a case study where a player has had significant success within a first team, in a top league. 

Development (USL)

USL coaches have the same licenses and accreditations as MLS. MLS coaches are paid more and attract bigger names with more impressive resumes. MLSNP coaches on the other hand are not necessarily experts in player development. Many are in MLSNP to try and get a MLS job. How they are evaluated may not always be tied to player development, which means they may not create the best environment for individual development. 

USL offers these young players the opportunity to train and operate within a professional first team environment sooner than they typically would going the MLS route. Additionally, a player going to the USL is forced to mature quicker. When a player stays at a MLS club they have been at for years and there is a level of comfort and protection that exists. For many players, they are close to home and everything is very convenient. If a player goes to a USL club, they are usually far away from home and they are treated like any other player. They aren’t given special treatment and they have to earn their way. 

For most 16 to 18 year olds, this is a dose of reality that better prepares them for Europe, where they will be even further away from home, in an even more competitive environment.


After taking a look at the critical factors that players, agents and parents must consider when making this decision, my conclusion is that there is not a universal better pathway. Each pathway offers different advantages and disadvantages and the right decision is contingent upon the player’s ability, aspirations and opportunities. 

It is critical that USL continues to provide a different option to MLS. It keeps MLS honest and forces them to rethink how they can be attractive to top young talent. For people like me, USL’s strategy makes it a more interesting product to engage with. The USL pathway must start to produce first team players at bigger clubs and leagues in Europe. If they don’t, the perception of the league and the pathway will be weakened and they will struggle to remain an attractive option for young players. 

The other path that is starting to become a little more prevalent is going from an MLS Academy to USL to MLS. Diego Luna and Fidel Barajas are recent examples of this. Diego Luna is showing that this can be a viable sequence. If he gets a move to Europe in the next year or two for a decent fee and has success, I think more and more agents and players will take this path.