Amid other lunacy on Twitter today, someone alerted me that the man whose Twitter ID rhymes with “locker deform” brought me into a conversation about the topic that has consumed most of his 70,000-plus tweets: the prospect of promotion/relegation and “open systems” in U.S. soccer.
We don’t have good discussions about such things in this country for a couple of reasons:
1. Soccer fans who have been on the Internet since the mid-90s have been discussing it since the mid-90s.
2. “locker deform” and a handful of others have dominated the conversation for the past five years, doing so with a conspiratorial bent that would make Alex Jones say, “Whoa, wait a minute, let’s be reasonable here.” The cycle goes as follows: Someone attempts to have a rational conversation with him and point out the logistical and financial hurdles facing a pro/rel plan, and he labels that person as a lapdog (or perhaps surreptitiously paid agent) of a USSF/MLS plan to undermine what would otherwise be a thriving multi-division ladder in the United States. As another journalist once put it — if anyone took him seriously, we’d have to sue him.
That’s a pity, because I think we’re getting closer to the point at which we could actually discuss such things.
MLS now has 19 teams. Orlando has made substantial progress toward being the 20th, even as the league is focused on a 20th team in New York. In a country of this size, a 24-team league with two geographical divisions is reasonable — each team plays its division-mates twice (22 games) and plays each other team once (12, for a total of 34). But once you get beyond 24, it’s time to talk about the options.
And so for those who have not been kicking this topic around for nearly 20 years and 70,000 tweets, here’s a quick guide to the issues as described in past posts:
December 2011: For all the talk of MLS as a “closed system” that imposes “limits” on its teams, MLS owners have no shortage of ways they can invest money. They can invest in youth academies (and some are doing so with eight-figure outlays). They can use their Designated Player slots to sign three of the world’s best players. The salary cap has about as many loopholes as the NBA’s.
Also, as you’ll see in other posts, no one with money or the hopes of raising money has backed a promotion/relegation league in the USA.
May 2011: A commenter on this post reminds us of something: This is a huge country. Geographic divisions make more sense here than they do in England. (Yes, Russia is also huge and manages the Moscow-Vladivostock trip, but do we really want to start following Russia’s lead on anything?)
October 2011: Plenty of teams are moving up the pyramid without official promotion/relegation in place.
February 2012: Along those same lines, I think this is the most succinct way I’ve summed it up to date:
– You can move up the ladder in American soccer if you have the capital and facilities to do so.
– Most clubs choose not to do so.
And that’s the issue. From a practical (and legal), you are not going to see U.S. Soccer force the Carolina Railhawks to move up to MLS if they win the NASL title. Nor can it force the Columbus Crew into what certainly would be a death spiral with a relegation.
Pro/rel fanatics never admit this side of the equation. They think pro/rel and open markets are great because they’ll encourage owners to build superclubs. That’s plausible. They also see second-division teams enthused by the possibility of promotion, which is less plausible — at least at the moment, when teams can compete in the NASL or USL Pro without risking a ton of money.
They don’t address this part of an “open market”: What happens to the crowds in Columbus if everyone knows that the Crew, like Stoke or QPR, will be doing little more than battling to stave off relegation? Or if they’re Fulham, which might not be relegated but isn’t likely to snare the prizes at the top of the table?
You can’t see a crowd of 78,000 for a couple of touring European giants and say, “See? The USA has deep soccer support!” It’s one thing to travel one hour or five to catch a one-time glimpse of a European team. And I have no doubt that the Sounders and Galaxy could keep up or even improve upon the crowds they get today if they were able to field eight Robbie Keane-level players.
The question is whether fans will turn out to see a team that is fighting relegation this year and doesn’t have the market size/ownership to to compete for the league title.
So to those of you who want to see MLS move away from its “closed” system, all I can say is this: Be patient. And understanding. Since 1996, MLS has moved away from its gimmicky tiebreaker and substitution rules, brought in the Designated Player, and issued all sorts of exceptions for “home-grown” academy players. Who knows what will happen in the next 17 years?
But what do I know? I’m just too busy counting all the money I’ve received from my closed-system overlords.