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Jurgen Klinsmann is never afraid to upset the consensus opinion in American soccer and he ventured into new territory last week when he said that he favored the system of promotion and relegation.
How promotion/relegation could work in the American system
Jurgen Klinsmann

Simon Evans (@sgevans

Jurgen Klinsmann is never afraid to upset the consensus opinion in American soccer and he ventured into new territory last week when he said that he favored the system of promotion and relegation.

“I’m a deep believer in the promotion-relegation system,” he said during the press conference before the United States’ friendly against Ecuador on Friday.

To most soccer fans around the world that view would be entirely uncontroversial of course – for over a century football has been organized on the principle that the worst teams are punished for their failure and the best teams are rewarded for their success.

But in the American soccer landscape, Klinsmann’s stance is radical. Soccer in North America is organized on different principles, closer to those used by the established sports in this part of the world. MLS follows the ‘closed league’ model of the NFL and NBA, rather than the open system preferred by global soccer.

You buy into MLS by purchasing a franchise (the current going rate appears to be around $100 million) and this entitles you to be part of the single entity league. The eventual return on investment is tied in closely to the success of the collective rather than the playing fortunes of the club in question. The risk of relegation and the related loss of revenue that usually brings in other league, is removed.

Not surprisingly those who are part of MLS have no desire to see that risk introduced. It shouldn’t be a shock either that the league’s leadership has no incentive at the moment, with the ‘entry fee’ having risen impressively, to dissuade future investors by bringing in that risk.

And there is no real pressure on either Don Garber or his clubs to make the change. MLS continues to grow – two new clubs, New York City FC and Orlando City FC, join the league next season bringing fresh markets for sponsors and television.

The situation might be different if there were a truly thriving second division with clubs drawing big crowds and television audiences and teams playing a level of football close to that of MLS. But while the second-tier North American Soccer League (NASL) has itself grown nicely from the days when it was a small split off from the United Soccer Leagues (USL) and there are clubs, such as Minnesota United and Indy Eleven, making progress in potential future MLS expansion markets, the league is, on most levels, substantially inferior to MLS.

Like Klinsmann though, I believe there are great benefits to a pro/rel system which punishes failure and rewards success. Klinsmann of course views the issue through the prism in which he views almost everything – how to push American players to work harder and improve themselves. There is no doubt that players with poorly performing clubs are more motivated if they know they are going to face relegation rather than merely miss out on the playoffs, as is currently the situation in MLS.

There is another reason though that makes promotion and relegation a superior system to the closed-league: the opportunity to rise through the ranks from regional leagues to the top of the national tier is an incredible incentive for people to invest in the game at lower levels. While pro/rel is an alien concept in American sports, where there is no chance for a minor league baseball team to ever play in the majors, isn’t there something very American, in the classic sense, of a small club from, say Kentucky, being able to work hard, achieve and then rise to the very top? In other words, isn’t promotion through a pyramid system, the essence of the American dream in the soccer context?

The current system had roadblocks at every level. The NASL cannot complain about the lack of opportunity to move up to MLS when it too is a closed league, offering no path to the second tier for USL teams. USL in turn does not have a system of promotion and relegation with the NPSL or regional competitions.

Whenever MLS or US Soccer officials are asked about the prospects of promotion or relegation being introduced they scoff at the idea and, for all the reasons already outlined, they note that there is a fundamental difficulty in marrying the franchise system with a meritocratic rewards based pyramid.

But while MLS will continue to progress using the ‘buy in’ expansion method, what happens when the league starts to reach the size of other North American sports leagues? The scale of North America means that a European sized 18-20 team league is too small to have a truly nationwide spread of clubs and there is a reason why the NFL, NBA and MLB have settled at around 30-32 clubs. MLS is already heading towards 24 clubs by 2020 and it is surely not unreasonable to imagine that in the following decade another eight clubs could be added.

Does MLS have to stick to an Eastern and Western Conference? Would it necessarily have to mimic other sports and have a ‘divisional’ system? Or could the expansion to optimum size in the next 15-16 years offer the opportunity for promotion and relegation to be introduced?

There is no escaping the fact that franchise owners will not want to see their clubs lose their MLS status, but what if a 32-team MLS was organized in such a way as to allow for movement between two tiers?

Could the owners and U.S. Soccer eventually see the benefits in introducing the dangerous thrills of relegation and the inspiring excitement of promotion, within a single entity closed league? The most obvious solution would be for an MLS1 and MLS2 structure.

That wouldn’t solve the problem of the small-team from Kentucky not being able to rise to the top but it would be a first-step in introducing meritocratic movement within the system.

Perhaps it would still be a step too far for franchise owners to countenance their team being ‘downgraded’ to second tier but with the wonders of American marketing there is surely a way to present the two divisions in a way which did not turn MLS2 into just another minor league.

The fascinating aspect about the growth of soccer in North America is that there is no road-map, there are no limits and there are no signs of the growth of the game slowing down or reaching a plateau. Promotion and relegation may be off the agenda for many more years, but it might just be a part of the bigger and better American soccer of the future.

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