January 18, 2011

Promotion and relegation in MLS: My model of how it can happen

One of the most hotly discussed topics involving Major League Soccer is something that MLS has no business of doing: promotion and relegation.

People's ideas are very polarized when it comes to the concept.

Some, such as the Westerveltists at Soccer Reform, believe it will be the savior to American soccer, as it will create instant gratification among the American soccer fans—both hardcore and casual.

Others, take an extremely pessimistic approach, claiming that it would kill the league in a heartbeat.

Now, if in some bizarre parallel universe, if Don Garber decided to claim that MLS would adopt the system, that either one would happen, it's always fun to imagine what it would be like, and how it would be structured.

Yet, it seems that there's never much thought about how to change to that system—if we were to scrape out the squeaky-clean, somewhat communistic, franchise model and navigate towards an open-league model.

First thing's first, and everyone will come to an agreement here: my plan will have flaws, and no one will perfectly agree with this plan. No one ever does, people have their own ideologies and biases. Fair enough.

I should probably add this in as well: as much as I would love to see this appear in MLS, I have nothing against the current set-up. However, I believe the league will need to seriously look into this option—and eventually implement the system one day.

Removing Sunil Gulati As USSF President

First and foremost, if we ever want this open-league model system installed, United States Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati needs to leave the USSF and just focus on being a professor at Columbia University.

Obviously there's more to it other than the path to promotion and relegation, but that's a different story for a different day.

Three words perfectly describe why this is needed: World. Cup. Bid.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter could not have made it anymore obvious that he wants USSF to establish a promotion and relegation system in MLS, USL, etc. It wasn't solely his little announcement claiming that FIFA will play favorites to World bidding nations who at least have plans to adopt the system.

Because of that, we have Australia looking into the open-league model.

Evidently, that wasn't going to be enough to push USSF. Neither were Blatter's public remarks.

But when Blatter's first words to U.S. President Barack Obama are nothing more than a question asking when the U.S. is moving towards this system, you wonder why this is hitting them in the head.

Are they that closed-minded towards changing? Are they worried more about appeasing a handful of owners?

Sadly, it is what it is. But, hey, the GOUSABID did include a last minute salvage...that MLS would look into the idea of moving to the International calendar! Of course though, this would never happen anytime soon.

Let's be real though, that will never happen.

A last-minute attempt to appeal to FIFA, and as pathetic as it was, is how pathetic FIFA saw it.

Almost as lousy as the whole Qatar rigging nonsense. Sacrificing the chance to host a World Cup, just to make sure a few owners are...less irritated.

Eliminating MLS Conferences

People would think that, along with Sunil Gulati, Don Garber should leave MLS as well.

It wouldn't hurt the progress towards an open-league model, but Garber has not been dismissive towards the possibility of an open-league model.

If anything, he probably wants that to occur someday in the future.

The next thing that would need to happen is for MLS to shed some of the final Americanizations that plague the league's competition.

No, it isn't the playoffs, they can stay. God forbid how much of a heart attack it would give Garber if the Supporters Shield winner was given the league title.

I'm talking the removal of conferences and progression towards a single table.

Now, here it comes...the collective groans, the same old debate about how it makes so much sense to have a single table, how we now have a balanced schedule, how no one gives a damn about the Conference Semifinals and the Conference Finals.

And until (if) that actually happens), we will continue to see the same forum threads, the same comments, the same blog posts, as well as the same stories highlighting how the conferences are nothing but corny features that Garber's married to.

If we were to move to a single table, it would be the ideal setup to structure Major League Soccer for relegation: removing the weakest clubs.

Revamping USL and NASL

If we actually want to see MLS clubs relegated for playing like D.C. United played last year, we're going to need a legitimate second-tier for these MLS clubs to get knocked down into.

In case you don't following minor league soccer, which I'm sure many of you don't, it's unorganized chaos. Then again, it has always been—clubs coming, playing for a few years, going bankrupt, folding.

Disagreements between certain United Soccer Leagues clubs resulted in a few clubs breaking away to form the new-North American Soccer League.

The controversy got so horrible that USSF had to step in and create a tentative second-tier league.

Makes you wonder how it would be humanly possible for any second division team to reach MLS with such instability or expect a relegated MLS club to survive USL-hood.

Promotion and relegation, however, is likely an anecdote for the ailing minor league soccer teams.

Presently, these clubs have nothing to play for, other than the U.S. Open Cup, which is sadly dominated by MLS teams who couldn't give a damn about the tournament altogether...yet continue to win by fielding reserve squads.

The handful of minor league soccer supporters all want to have an MLS franchise in their market one day, and some have been successful (Portland, Vancouver, Seattle, Montreal). Others? Well, not really (Tampa, Miami).

If they had a realistic stab at going into MLS by winning their minor league, it would really make the fans more connected to their teams. They would see MLS as more of an accomplishment by sport, and earning your right of passage by effort...and not by how much money an investor can fork over to Don Garber.

It could be an incentive that causes minor league soccer clubs to, well, last more than three years.

R.I.P. Franchsing

The U.S. Soccer Federation assembles a tiered structure, which would look most like this:

  1. Major League Soccer
  2. North American Soccer League
  3. USL Pro League
  4. Premier Development League
  5. USASA

Once that's said and done, they will then need to discuss the new ambitions with the owners. So that the owners don't massively sell their clubs away, the USSF would need to tell them that this would need to be in a certain year's time.

Further, so that it doesn't breach contracts between the league itself and the owners, this de-franchising will need to happen as soon as the contracts expire.

I see American owners acting in three ways:

  • They'll be so appalled by the system, and flustered that they cannot file lawsuit, they will put their club for sale as soon as the hear the announcement.
  • They will find the ambitious idea thrilling, and they want to be apart of it. At the moment, I only see the Sounders, Whitecaps, Timbers and Sporting KC management under that category.
  • Unaware of what that type of system is, they will look it up on Wikipedia and stay apart from it, because they will still be confused. I say that half-jokingly.
  • Yes, I get it. The worry would be that with a massive sell-off, it will bankrupt the leagues and will slain the ex-franchises.

I disagree.

In a world with many owners willingly putting their money into leagues across the world with this model, there will always be someone willing to buy the clubs from the disgusted owners.

The Start of Semi-Relegation

Should the Amurican franchise owners leave and new club owners come in, the de-franchsing can end and the actual process will be assembled.

Now, USSF would never immediately start off an open-league system by saying that the three-worst MLS clubs each season will go down to NASL, and vise versa.

The number will start low, very low.

Actually, it will be assembled that the worst club is not exactly guaranteed to be relegation nor is the best club guaranteed promotion.

It will most likely be along the lines of the Scottish Premier League: stadia requirements.

The USSF will likely allow each league to set its own policies for the minimum stadium size. Taking a wild guess, here's what I believe the numbers would be in this scenario:

MLS: 16,500
NASL: 9,500
USL-1: 4,000
USL-2: 2,000
PDL: 1,000

Obviously, these are extremely rough, but these numbers are chosen based upon the current soccer-specific stadium capacities in each of the leagues.

For instance, most MLS clubs that have an SSS generally have stadium sizes ranging from 18,000 upwards to 30,000. The next closest non-MLS clubs (presently) are Montreal Impact, who will be moving to MLS in 2012, with a stadium capacity of 12,000. The Rochester Rhinos are the next closest, with a 13,000 seater.

For awhile, this will be the way the system is assembled—and it will prevent the new owners from remotely worrying about relegation.

Lets take a moment to ponder though...what if the Rhinos, in hopes of promotion one day, increase Mariana Auto Stadium up to about 17,500 seats?

In this situation I created, they would then be able to pass stadia requirements. So promotion is good and, well, sucks for the team that's sent south to the NASL.

Not so fast.

Sure, you may have won the NASL title, and have the stadium requirements met, but you will not get to play MLS ball the following season. Not unless you beat the worst MLS club in a home-away leg, aggregate play-off series.

The sole idea of this type of playoff would benefit the leagues greatly. I have no doubt in my mind if USSF sanctioned this type of policy it would be a win-win situation for the fans—and for TV contracts.

Think about it: Should there be a play-off series like that, they would market it as a play-off series. And you know how much America loves playoffs. They'll gobble it up.

Plus, you would be drawing large crowds to the arenas for these matches. A do-or-die situation: The lower tier club wins...they go to MLS. The upper-tier club loses—say hello to the NASL.

Could you imagine the drama?

It might actually cause more fan loyalty to their clubs, something that all the American soccer leagues lack to a great extent. With such loyalty, however, it might actually keep relegated American clubs from tanking in debt of being relegated.

But then again, if you're in an open-league system, that wont be a worry. The club can decide how much money they will spend, without their league regulating how much they have to spend.

It might not be the prettiest, and it may not satisfy soccer purists, but having a system such as this is the most realistic and could develop from there.

About the Author

Tyler Walter

Author & Editor

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