Promotion and relegation in MLS is a topic that arises quite often in conversations among fans. Does the MLS need to join with the lower-level NASL to create an American system of ups and downs? Quite simply: no, it doesn’t.
Pro/Rel is an unheard of topic in American sports. For those of you who don’t know, the worst teams in the top division would be demoted to the next lower-level league, while the top teams from the lower-level will be brought up to take the upper-level vacancies. In most of the world, soccer leagues use the Pro/Rel structure, however the MLS doesn’t.
I’ll use baseball as an example to better clarify what I’m talking about. This past season the Houston Astros were the worst team in MLB, going 51-111. If we were using Pro/Rel, having only one team getting the boot, then Houston would become a Triple-A team, the next level down of the baseball structure. In their place, the Durham Bulls would be promoted, becoming the 30th MLB team of the 2014 season.
There is little doubt that the current structure and size of the MLS and NASL are suited for promotion and relegation. With twenty-one teams soon to be in the top-flight American league, a person could argue that we now have enough teams, but
a problem lies in the size of the country. The entire country of England is smaller than the state of Wyoming. When a team in the English Premier League changes leagues it causes very little change in their travel distance.
Imagine if Chivas USA was replaced by a NASL team like the Atlanta Silverbacks, it causes the conferences to be altered, possibly moving Houston or Kansas City into the Western Conference. Although those changes would not insurmountable, let’s pretend the following year sees the New York Cosmos promoted in place of a failing Vancouver team. It could become a lop-sided mess if in certain situations. The size of America and the conference alignments present the MLS with a problem that other countries don’t encounter.
Teams can experience bad years. In the preseason, two of the club’s best players collide while contesting for a low cross; they rupture their spleens, ending their seasons early. It puts the club in a tailspin for the rest of the year. The following year sees the return of the injured players, the team wins their conference in style, as one of the returnees becomes the Golden Boot winner. With Pro/Rel in effect, the story does not happen. To make matters worse, let’s say the club goes into the NASL and dominates, returning to the MLS.
A problem arises during the next season as both of the club’s talented players transfer to Europe. The club does not have the resources to repurchase the players because the success of the previous season came while in the lower-level, which diminished the monetary profit they would have seen in the MLS. The club falters in year three, falling back into the NASL and never finds a way out. The rich stay rich, and the poor get poorer.
One of the best parts of the MLS is the parity. The topic of parity is being pushed to the point of annoyance to me, but it is a great feature nonetheless. In all the top European league, there are teams that consistently dominate their leagues, Juventes, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona are just a few. The rest of those league strive to be conclude the season as average, holding a position somewhere in the middle of the standings, avoiding relegation. How uninspiring.
In 2013 we watched as the Portland Timbers became one of the most entertaining and exciting teams in the MLS, but with Pro/Rel, Portland would have been removed from MLS contention as the 2012 season saw them finish as the third worst team. The amount of publicity and entertainment that the Portland club, and their fans, produced this season would not even be a talking point had they been replaced by the San Antonio Scorpions.
The MLS should not make promotion and relegation a priority right now. There are too many factors that make it a bad solution to a growing league. Travel distance alone set the U.S. league apart from the geographically smaller European leagues. The league also prides itself on parity, which may very well go the way of the dinosaur when historically great teams like D.C. United are relegated. (The 2014 season already looks like a comeback waiting to happen for the United.)
Maybe the promotion and relegation system can work in the future, but right now the MLS should stick with what it’s doing, which is growing into a great American sports league.
Topic was based off of discussion featured on American Soccer Morning (December 30th), a very good soccer radio/livestream show. I highly recommend it.