The failure rate of American soccer clubs in the United States is the worst in the world. It’s abysmal, both on the men’s and women’s side of the game. From 1992 to present, the United States has seen more than 150 men’s and women’s professional soccer teams go out of business.
However, listen to any press conference in the United States where a question is posed to a visiting soccer coach or player from overseas. You’ll always hear the same defacto question regurgitated, year after year. “What do you think about the growth of soccer in the United States?”
We’ve been hearing about the growth of American soccer since the early 1990s. We hosted the 1994 World Cup (and are set to be the main host of World Cup 2026). We’ve established a men’s first division that has grown to 30 teams. And the lower divisions have somewhat stabilized and continued to grow.
However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. American soccer clubs have failed during this modern era, just as they have in the past. The harsh, cold reality is staring us in the face.
The USA: a paradox of soccer history
The history of the game in the US goes back almost as long as anywhere else. The first clubs popped up in the second half of the 1800s, and professional leagues appeared late in that century. The U.S. Open Cup dates to 1913. But messy feuds in the early 20th century, a fractured league system, and the rise of other sports has helped deliver a club collapse rate that is certainly the highest in the world.
The oldest, continuously operating, team playing in a US league is the Vancouver Whitecaps (known as the Vancouver 86ers from 1986-2000). The oldest US-based teams are the Charleston Battery and Richmond Kickers, both born in 1993. The Seattle Sounders (1994) and CF Montréal (né Impact, 1992) are the only other existing teams that predate the formation of Major League Soccer.
While there are teams that utilize branding from the NASL or other leagues, the originals all folded at one point. You can find some teams that actually had as many as four separate, unique iterations over the years.
While the outdoor game might seem more prosperous and stable in the last 30 years, that’s not entirely the case. We’ve lost more than 150 men’s and women’s professionally sanctioned clubs since 1992. So not even counting the myriad of other clubs that disappeared before the 1990s, there are more dead American professional soccer clubs than existing ones. That includes three MLS teams: the Miami Fusion, Tampa Bay Mutiny, and Chivas USA. Three entire professional leagues have also disappeared – the WUSA (2000-2003), WPS (2007-2012), and NASL (2011-2017).
As a comparison, only 31 professional clubs from the top four divisions in England have folded since 1888. And of those, only six are completely gone – the rest were succeeded by phoenix clubs who still play to this day.
Failure of American soccer clubs: Why does this continue to happen?
Just this year, Rochester NY FC, formerly the Rhinos (the only non-MLS team to win the Open Cup since 1996), folded weeks before the MLS NEXT Pro season. Austin Bold, Fresno FC, Bethlehem Steel, Reno 1868, Saint Louis FC, Lansing Ignite, Bay Cities FC, Atlanta SC, Valley United, and Stumptown AC are some of the other clubs we’ve lost in the past four years alone.
At the end of the day, like many things, it usually comes down to money.
Even at the top level of the game, many clubs aren’t profitable in and of themselves, and lose a significant amount of money each year. But why do clubs in other nations survive, and even thrive, for generations while American sides struggle? There are plenty of reasons.
HIGH UP-FRONT COSTS
One thing we do, at least in MLS, USL, and NWSL, that many countries don’t is charge expansion fees for new clubs. This isn’t a licensing fee paid to the federation to operate, but a payment to a league entity to secure an exclusive place in that division. The most recent MLS addition (San Diego) cost $500 million. USL (division 2) will run you about $20 million, and the NWSL (women’s D1) is now over $50 million.
That’s just for your team to exist. These fees don’t include staffing, player contracts, or infrastructure. So when starting a professional club in America, you’re in a big financial hole before you even start to pay for the things you actually need to operate. This high entry barrier can stop clubs from forming in the first place.
If you do manage to get started, it can be a tough go. If you can’t find someone to sell the club off to, you’ll likely never recoup that initial investment.
NO UPWARD MOBILITY OR OWNERSHIP FLEXIBILITY
We often (sometimes famously) see investors purchase lower division clubs in other countries. Particularly if a club runs into trouble, either a new owner, or sometimes a group of supporters, will purchase the club, allowing it to go on.
But clubs are attractive investments overseas because they can be purchased for relatively cheap. And then, if you win, the value, and revenue, in the club grows as you move up divisions. In the US, there’s not much financial incentive to purchase an existing lower division side. So when a club owner gives up, clubs often disappear with them.
In addition, the USSF professional league standards (PLS) effectively makes majority supporter ownership or similar setups impossible. That means, even if they had the will and the resources, a group of dedicated supporters could not keep a team around.
For decades, soccer has been presented as “the next big thing” in America. Since the days of the first NASL, owners have jumped in with new teams, hoping to cash in on a surefire wave of profits as the sport explodes in the country. Of course, that has never actually happened. Well, at least not with the domestic game anyway.
When, for some strange reason, sub-par quality soccer doesn’t immediately pay big dividends, owners bail and clubs flash out of existence as quickly as they came.
Since, as noted above, there is no possibility of winning your way into a higher division, there is little incentive to spend big on your roster. Likewise, since there is no risk of relegation, there are cheaper ownerships even at the top level who don’t do everything they can on the roster side of things to try and win.
So oftentimes player contracts are of the short-term variety. And when a desirable player does come along, another club will just wait out the contract to sign them with no fee. It’s gotten a little better, but the transfer market involving lower-division US teams is slim to none.
In addition, few US teams receive solidarity payments of any sort. Around the world, clubs that contributed to the development of a player will get a cut of transfer fees when that player is sold. But even if a professional team in the US has an academy, they don’t get this source of revenue.
PERCEPTION IS REALITY
Obviously the inability to win your way up by merit hinders both initial investment in clubs and “stick-to-itiveness” from owners.
But on top of that, there’s a general attitude towards the sport in the US that can easily stifle interest, revenues, and therefore, sustainability.
For lower division teams, shaking the “minor league” image is difficult to do – even though most clubs are independent and aren’t affiliates of teams in a higher division. When it comes to getting media coverage and drawing fans, this can make it hard to cultivate a sustainable level of interest around the team. And when people don’t care, they don’t spend money, and it’s a downward spiral.
But even for major league teams it’s a different side of the same perception issue. Mainstream media often places MLS teams behind NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, plus college and individual sports, in the pecking order. This is especially true in larger markets. Couple American sports media indifference with competition from higher-level international leagues, and you’ve got a recipe for clubs that struggle to become self-sustaining.
The three MLS teams that folded, Chivas, Fusion and Mutiny, all suffered from ineffective branding and other missteps that definitely didn’t help. But being fourth, fifth, or in Chivas’ case, eighth fiddle in a crowded major sports market made it extra hard to gain and retain relevance.
The USA is by far the largest country when it comes to its sports leagues’ footprints. Other nations such as Brazil, China or Russia are also massive, but have more concentrated population zones that host most of the teams.
Every one of our professional men’s and women’s leagues spans an entire continent. Whether it’s division one or division three, cross-continental travel is a common occurrence. Especially for the lower division teams, travel costs can get out of control very quickly.
Because our professional leagues are not connected in any way, they compete with each other for markets and owners. Since clubs don’t earn their place in the pyramid on the field, you can simply purchase a spot at the top of a local soccer ecosystem. In some cases, this can cause existing clubs to quickly become irrelevant in their own town. This fate has befallen clubs in Austin, Atlanta, south Florida, and other locations in the past twenty years. One has to wonder if doom is also the destiny of San Diego Loyal and Albion San Diego, both pro clubs facing the arrival of a division one MLS team in their market.
Stay of execution? Don’t count on it.
It’s unlikely, short of relocation, that we’ll see another MLS team fail anytime soon. That’s a very good thing. However, at the division two and three levels and on the women’s side, losing a club, or clubs, remains a very real threat each year. The teams outside of MLS make up the majority of professional clubs in our country. Sadly, with the way our league system works, the cemetery of American soccer will almost certainly be adding more graves in the future.
As the World Cup returns to our shores, the game is undeniably in a better place than it was in the early 1990s. However the facade lined with new teams and fancy stadiums masks a still shaky foundation and future. One where your club existing next season is still not a sure thing.
Rest in peace US soccer clubs
Take a look at the following list of former US soccer clubs to see which ones ceased to exist (from 1992 to present). List is courtesy of @reformUSsoccer
AC St. Louis
Ann Arbor Elite
Austin Bold FC
Austin Lone Stars
Bay Cities FC
Boca Raton Sabres
California United Strikers
Cape Cod Crusaders
Central California Valley Hydrea
Cleveland City Stars
Coral Springs Kicks
Crystal Palace Baltimore
East Bay Red Riders
East Los Angeles Cobras
El Paso Patriots
F.C. New York
Fort Lauderdale Kicks
Fort Lauderdale Strikers
Gwinnett County Screamers
Hampton Roads Hurricane
Harrisburg City Islanders/Penn FC
Kansas City All-Stars
Lansing Ignite FC
Las Vegas Quicksilver
Lehigh Valley Steam
Lexington Bluegrass Bandits
Milwaukee Wave United
MLS Project 40
Montclair Standard Falcons
Myrtle Beach Boys
New Mexico Chiles
New Orleans Storm
New York Centaurs
New York Fever
North Bay Breakers
North Jersey Imperials
New York Cosmos
Oklahoma City FC
Oklahoma City Slickers
Oklahoma City Warriors
Orange County Waves
Permian Basin Mirage
Puerto Rico FC
Puerto Rico Islanders
Raleigh Capital Express
Real Maryland Monarchs
Reno 1868 FC
San Antonio Pumas
San Antonio Scorpions
San Diego Flash
San Diego Top Guns
San Fernando Valley Golden Eagles
San Francisco Bay Diablos
San Francisco Bay Seals
San Francisco Deltas
San Francisco United All Blacks
San Jose Hawks
Santa Cruz Surf
Silicon Valley Firebirds
Sioux City Breeze
South Florida Flamingos
St. Louis FC
St. Louis Knights
Staten Island Vipers
Syracuse Salty Dogs
Tampa Bay Mutiny
Tulsa Roughnecks (1993-2000)
Valley United FC
Virginia Beach Mariners
Virginia Cavalry FC
VSI Tampa Bay FC
Former Professional Women’s Clubs:
Los Angeles Sol
FC Gold Pride
FC Kansas City
New York Power
Saint Louis Athletica
San Diego Spirit
San Jose CyberRays
Western New York Flash
Former Professional Men’s, Currently Amateur:
Chicago House AC
Long Island Rough Riders
New Amsterdam FC
Reading Rage/Reading United
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