Stop Worrying About MLS Promotion and Relegation

Promotion and relegation advocates of US Soccer want you to believe that MLS is everything that is wrong with our sport today. If MLS would just stick it to the owners, make all clubs open and free, and (most importantly) install a promotion-relegation system we can achieve our soccer utopia right here in America. I don’t belittle their advocacy and genuine beliefs on how to make professional soccer better. I think they make some compelling points. If a promotion-relegation system was installed tomorrow, I would welcome it. But using that system to gripe about MLS ignores our current reality and culture here in the US. In short, undermining MLS is not the way to move forward.

Stop Worrying About MLS Promotion and Relegation

Let’s start with the obvious: MLS is far from perfect. They insist on having conferences and let a laughably large amount of teams into the playoffs. But for all their mistakes and missteps MLS has been with us for 20 years and is as stable and exciting as ever. TV contracts, full stadiums in many markets, expansion, and committed supporter groups all speak to that stability.

Promotion-relegation advocates misunderstand why MLS has survived this long and, by extension, they overlook the unique American sporting culture that prevents soccer from being the number one sport in this country. If you recognize these particularities it seems a bit naïve to think that US soccer would be significantly improved merely by adopting practices employed by European leagues.

No other sports league in the US or Canada operates under a system of promotion-relegation. They utilize minor league teams and the NCAA to nurture and hone their talent. The original owners of MLS were making a considerably risky investment in committing to back a club. Their investment was to start a viable Division 1 soccer league in this country. Some, like New England Revolution owner Robert Kraft, are still at it. These incredibly wealthy people would not have invested their money in clubs if they thought that a bad year would put them in the minor leagues. Soccer in the US did not have strong enough roots in 1996 to uphold a structure like that and it very simply was not on their radar. Whatever the benefits of promotion-relegation, the US system is not set up to handle it, not just in soccer, but in any sport.

Above all, promotion-relegation won’t work in this country because the people in power do not want it. I know this will infuriate the grassroots and activist nature of the promotion-relegation folks on Twitter but I’m just explaining how it is. Take for example Kraft again. He lets the team play in his ridiculously large Patriots temple, Gillette Stadium, year after year as every new team makes sure to have their own soccer specific stadium. As a long-time Revolution supporter this is deeply frustrating. But he is also worth billions and has owned the team for twenty years in the same place. Could any other person in New England have pulled this off and still remained committed? I doubt it. I do know that every time you ask Mr. Kraft or Commissioner Don Garber about promotion-relegation they say say openly and repeatedly it is not being considered. Advocates have every right to keep pushing them but for me it seems to be a losing cause at the moment.

Ultimately, though, the promotion-relegation movement loses for me because it doesn’t see MLS for what it really is: ours. I was 11 in 1996 when the first MLS season began. I watched Eric Wynalda score the first goal in league history. I decided my local team, the Revs, would be the one I would support and I was hooked. I know the Premier League and La Liga and the Bundesliga have a better quality of play, and more money, and more pizazz. That’s obvious. But I can go down on the weekend and watch the Revolution play competitive and professional live soccer in my own backyard. MLS, warts and all, has been America’s (and now Canada’s) top soccer league for 20 years now. By all means let’s keep trying to make it better, but the way to do that is not by burning it down and starting over. Maybe one day promotion-relegation will be a reality in the US. But I refuse to let the “perfect” be the enemy of the good. MLS is our league and we should embrace that.

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  1. Kraft knows what pro-rel is. He learned that when he was interested in possibly buying a Prem team. Once he was briefed on pro-rel, he backed away like a camper from a skunk.

  2. The last two sentences of this write-up are so telling. Classic “Be American, Buy American” mentality right there. Never mind that there are other leagues outside of MLS in the US (and Canada), to say nothing of the thousands of clubs — not franchises, but clubs — that play in them.

    US and Canada must be the only countries on the planet where existential questions have to be asked about soccer leagues. Fans in every footballing nation take it for granted that there will be a simple, streamlined, bottoms-up pyramid will exist forever. That’s revealing in and of itself.

  3. Complete nonsense. “Let’s keep doing it the wrong way, because that’s the way we have done it for 20 years” is the worst argument you can make. Without an open system, only the upper class can afford to make it to the top level. Our best youth players are left behind because they can’t afford the path to USMNT or MLS franchise “academies”. My local “academy” costs 30k per year. ODP more than a thousand on top of already overpriced clubs. We will never be more than mediocre with our closed system. Let clubs develop players and give them the path to D1.

  4. Couldn’t agree more. Nothing is more American than a single entity/federation controlling the availability of goods and services. We really needed Matt’s support for Blockbuster a few years ago. We had video rentals for 20 years with owners making significant investments in local franchises. It was how we did things. We weren’t set up to handle digital media. It was good enough. Who was there to protect Blockbuster owners from their risky investments? If only we had a national federation controlling media distribution, eliminating all competition to a single corporation, all those Blockbuster owners could have been saved.

    Matt, please don’t hold back and limit yourself to MLS. Radio Shack needs your help. Sears needs your help. America needs your help.

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