April 22, 2011

Promotion and relegation: U.S. Soccer controls that fate, not MLS

In case you missed the latest American soccer news, or were not logged on to Twitter, a bit of news was broke that was likely more circulated than expected: Major League Soccer President Mark Abbott said that MLS had no plans or intentions of having promotion and relegation, nor do they have plans to ever switch to the international calendar.

Clearly this is revealing that MLS was only having ideas of "simulated" promotion and relegation, along with a season switch out of hope that FIFA would buy into their semi-conformity, as well as give the United States the World Cup bid. And, of course, that did not happen, and Qatar will be hosting the 2022 games. In that sense, the fact that Abbott has publicly stated that MLS now has no immediate nor long term plans to conform, is hardly a surprise.

Unfortunately, it looks like the only inevitable change for 2012 will be that MLS moves back to an imbalanced schedule and further promote depreciated conferences. Reason? The promotion of regional rivalries. To many, this likely sounds outrageously tacky and unneeded.

However, while the news that the league is going to retain a closed shop model will depress non-Chivas USA fans, MLS is in no position to declare how the American soccer pyramid is structured. That power, lies within the United States Soccer Federation, as MLS is a league sanctioned under U.S. Soccer, meaning that the structures of the league and how their assembled is decided by the federation, not the league.

Examples include the United States' births into the CONCACAF Champions League. U.S. Soccer decides which four of their affiliated clubs can qualify, not MLS. It just so happens that three MLS clubs are guaranteed a Champions League spot since MLS is the premier soccer league in the United States. Those three MLS clubs guarenteed a spot in the champions league are the winners of the MLS Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup, as well as the MLS Cup runner-up. The U.S. Open Cup champion also qualifies. 

The same principal applies for the U.S. Open Cup. Only eight American MLS clubs are allowed in the tournament. The way the qualification is structured is strictly by MLS standards. Other examples of U.S. Soccer's power over MLS include referees, field approval as well as club and league approval.

Most importantly, at least in regards to promotion and relegation is how USSF structures its affiliated leagues. Right now, it's structured in this order: Major League Soccer, North American Soccer League, USL Professional Division, USL Premier Development League, NPSL, and then USASA. In this essence, if USSF wanted to, they could make the NASL the top league in the country, and demote MLS to second-tier status. Now, that wont happen, but USSF has the power to do so. 

And that includes the power of how club promotion and relegation works. USSF can decide that the weakest MLS clubs go down to NASL, being replaced by the top NASL clubs. Now, the leagues would heavily resist it to a point they refuse to abide, and should they do so, they'll lose sanctioning. Consequently, all MLS clubs would lose out on the chance to play in the U.S. Open Cup as well as the CONCACAF Champions League.

So theoretically, if Sunil Gulati and USSF Board made this decision, Chivas USA (presuming they resume their dreadful play) would have to be relegated to the North American Soccer League, if not, a relegation playoff. Likewise, Puerto Rico Islanders (again, presuming they continue their strong start) will be playing MLS ball, or playing Chivas in a promotion playoff. If either the leagues resist, well, then so much for their USSF and FIFA sanctioning. 

The sigh of relief (if you're in favor of a closed league model) is that USSF will probably never institute this system, or at least as long as Gulati is charge.

About the Author

Tyler Walter

Author & Editor

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