Just about every soccer league in the world has a tier system built into the league. What this means is that at the end of every season, the bottom few teams are knocked down a flight to the lower division for the following season. Meanwhile, the top few teams from the league below them move up a flight, taking the spot of the teams who are leaving the top flight. This process is referred to as promotion and relegation. It is commonplace for this process to take place in European and South American soccer leagues, yet it is not a component of Major League Soccer in the United States. It is not something that can be simply added overnight but it is something that MLS should begin to think about in the near future to really grow soccer in the US.
I mentioned that it is more complicated than it seems, and that’s for a long list of reasons. At the moment, the biggest obstacle is the continual shifting of the MLS playing field. This past season the league had 19 teams. With Chivas USA now defunct and NYCFC and Orlando City SC set to join at the beginning of 2015, MLS will have 20 teams. There are also a handful of other expansion teams in the works. The cities that could end up with expansion teams include Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and San Antonio at the moment. Atlanta and Los Angeles are set to kickoff for the first time in 2017 and MLS Commissioner Don Graber has made it clear he wants to have 24 teams up and running by 2020. The MLS wants to have a top flight of 24 teams, which would be the largest worldwide.
With the league filling up so quickly, it is obvious that some of these expansion projects will fall outside of the 24 team cut off. This would be a perfect reason to begin a promotion and relegation system. Yet, MLS seems like it does not intend to implement the system any time soon. The format for the system is in place though. The US has three division of soccer already, though the lower two are largely unknown. The second division is the North American Soccer League (NASL), which actually mirrors the original North American soccer league that existed during the 70s and 80s with revival franchises. This division only has eleven teams the moment but is looking to add two more, which could be where these extra MLS teams come into play. The third division is known as USL Professional Division (USL PRO). This league is substantially larger with 23 teams but a very short history spanning back to only 2011. At the moment, USL PRO is being used as a training ground for many MLS reserves and in many ways as a feeder system for MLS.
Technically, all three leagues are independent but the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) sanctions them all. This makes linking the three leagues significantly easier because they have the same format and rules. Sure, at first these teams that are getting promoted will have a large gap in talent but over time they will even themselves out and eventually be able to compete. Some of these teams can already salvage a couple of wins over MLS sides. The MLS Open Cup offers the only opportunity NASL and USL PRO teams get to play MLS clubs and in a few instances we have seen upsets by NASL sides. There might be a gap but it will shrink over the course of the first few years the system is in place.
I am not going to pretend that I understand the financial issues that could arise from the situation but if the MLS officials are truly serious about raising US interest in soccer and promoting player development, this would very easily be the way to do it. It would expand soccer all over the country. It would be a perfect way to develop talent in the US. US soccer would much better resemble how the rest of the world plays the game. It would add a new excitement to American soccer that would make almost every game meaningful as teams not only seek to win the championship but also struggle to remain in the league. It would likely lead to an increase in attendance and would increase MLS popularity. The more teams that exist that have a chance to play for something meaningful will draw more fans and spread the influence of soccer much further in the US.
The argument stands that no other American sport uses relegation but soccer is not like any other US sport. In the Big Four sports of hockey, baseball, basketball and football, North America gets to set the rules on how these games are played because they were all invented and popularized here. With soccer though, this sport was developed overseas and has always been something that the US has been trying to catch up to the rest of the world at. Europe set precedent with the idea of promotion and relegation. I do not see why the US should be any different from how the rest of the world plays the sport. America did not invent the sport; it should not be up to them to determine how the format proceeds. Yet, MLS continues to resist the change. I do not think this should happen immediately and certainly, the league will need some time to settle after annexing the next round of teams in 2020. It is something that MLS should start planning to integrate into the US system once the league is set though. I understand that I am speculating in some ways as to how this could benefit American soccer but I feel that this is the best way for MLS to be taken more seriously on the world stage. It could only up the level of play pushing players to improve and contend with the youth who are developing in the lower leagues. It also promotes staying in the system rather than fleeing to a different country if riding a team to promotion is possible. I think it is the next logical step for the MLS. Let me know what you think though.