PDL vs. NPSL: Where is the Division?
The fourth division of U.S. soccer has grown profoundly over recent years, corresponding with the growing admiration American citizens have for the sport of soccer. Housing 168 teams from California to Maine, the PDL and NPSL have shown the world that the American soccer system is becoming one of the biggest in the world. Despite that, there is a visible split between the two leagues that has been there since the NPSL's founding in 2003, and it becomes more visible with each passing year, but where is the line, and what caused such a gap between two leagues in the same level?
The Premier Development League, founded in 1995 as the USISL Premier League, has seen its playing field grow to 72 teams over its 22 seasons. Owned and operated by the United Soccer League of the second tier, a number of great talents have passed through the PDL ranks, including Graham Zusi of Sporting Kansas City, Alec Kann of Atlanta United, DeAndre Yedlin of Newcastle United, and even former German and U.S. Men's National Team head coach and VfB Stuttgart, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, and Tottenham Hotspur great Jürgen Klinsmann played a season for Orange County Blue Star in 2003. The PDL has been a breeding ground for talent in soccer around the world, however the rise of the NPSL has led to some competition between the two leagues.
The National Premier Soccer League, founded in 2003 as the Men's Premier Soccer League as a result of the success of the Women's Premier Soccer League, houses 96 teams all around the country, including Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Detroit. Beginning with just six teams, the competition and standard of play has grown immensely over the fourteen seasons. The NPSL has its own list of talent to boast, including Kofi Opare of D.C. United, Kwadwo Poku of Miami FC, and U.S. International and San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski.
In what has been an important part of American soccer recently, the fourth division has helped develop young talent and prepare them for the professional levels, however the leagues within the division have been competing to be the best, with the PDL clearly being the dominant force over the past ten years, but why? Well, it all starts with the way each league is set up. The PDL is very financially demanding, asking $75,000 for a startup fee, with subsequent annual league fees to be paid before each season, compared to the NPSL that only asks $15,000. Teams that cannot afford to maintain participation in the PDL due to finances either fold or defect to the NPSL or lower division leagues. In terms of rules and restrictions, the NPSL has none, thus allowing any team to have any number of players from the different college systems, as well as high school talent and former professionals. All the NPSL asks of their teams is that they be able to seat at least 500 fans in their stands, have a working scoreboard, and locker rooms for both teams and officials. The PDL, however, limits rosters to eight players over the age of 23, and three below 18, with a focus on developing collegiate athletes into professionals. Stadiums are required to seat a minimum of 1,000 spectators, and fields must be at least 106 yards by 66 yards. The NPSL prides themselves on being an independent league owned and operated by the teams, while the PDL is operated by the United Soccer League, with executive committees elected by each division. The Premier Development League also boasts an intricate scouting network for professional teams and has been seen as a "shopping window" for the higher ranks in the United States. The NPSL is undoubtedly working its way up to being an amateur league with professional organization, however that is still a ways off.
Reading United AC (PDL) take on Clarkstown SC Eagles (NPSL) in a 2nd round
cup tie of the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup
One of the best ways to compare the two leagues is through their head to head meetings, and over the years, the U.S. Open Cup has been the best way to view this. Since 2014, fourth division leagues have met 37 times in the first, second and third rounds, with the organization of the cup changing each year. During those 37 cup ties, victories were fairly split between the two sides, with the PDL winning 19 times and the NPSL taking 18. Looking as though the sides are fairly matched, the true split between the two is seen when they take on higher level teams. Since 2012, the PDL has seen four of its entries reach the forth round by beating professional teams, including Michigan Bucks shocking upset of Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer by a score of 3-2 in the 2012 third round. As a matter of fact, three PDL teams defeated professional sides during the 2017 second round alone, as Reading United beat New York Cosmos (NASL), Michigan Bucks knocked of Indy Eleven (NASL), and Chicago FC United stole victory from Pittsburgh Riverhounds (USL) (Just a side note, Christos FC of the fifth division Maryland Major Soccer League defeated Richmond Kickers (USL) in one of the most surprising road upsets in Open Cup history during the 2017 second round). The NPSL, in comparison, has never made it past the third round, with Brooklyn Italians and Chattanooga FC making it to the third round in 2014 following second round victories against PDL side Jersey Express and USL-Pro side Wilmington Hammerheads FC, respectively. That is not to discount the talent within the NPSL, as the Atlanta Silverbacks, Chattanooga FC, Brooklyn Italians, and Clarkstown SC all have shown great promise during the last few season, with Chattanooga FC drawing massive crowds throughout their NPSL tenure, including 18,227 showing up to Finley Stadium as they took on New York Cosmos B, setting a U.S. fourth tier record.
Over the 22 seasons of fourth tier football in the United States, the division has been spearheaded by the PDL, with 200 PDL players from 2016 playing at the professional levels in the U.S. and Canada. In 2003, a new player was welcomed into the fold, and ever since, rivalry has built up within the ranks to be the best. As it stands right now, the PDL still rules the pack, however with the growth of the NPSL recently, there is no telling what may happen in the future. Perhaps the PDL, due to financial pressure, will see their playing field reduced to 50 teams. Perhaps the NPSL will raise their entry fee and annual fees in order to build a more permanent structure. Only time will tell for sure, however as it stands right now, both leagues are doing wonders to help bolster American Soccer and make it a driving force in the world.