Saturday night, the Washington Spirit will host the Boston Breakers. It should be a beautiful night at the Maryland SoccerPlex, and the team is celebrating a “Night of Kindness.”
Also, both teams will have incentive to lose.
Not that they’ll try to lose. Both teams are honorable. Both teams have a lot of injured starters and a lot of players hoping to make an impression and stick around next year. But at the club level, the incentive is there.
The Spirit is ninth place in the 10-team NWSL. The Breakers are 10th. If Boston wins, they’ll switch places in the standings with one game left.
The last-place team in the NWSL gets the top pick in the draft. That’s expected to be Andi Sullivan, a Northern Virginian who has played for the Spirit Reserves and its predecessor team, D.C. United Women. If the NWSL had a “homegrown” rule like MLS does, the Spirit would happily claim Sullivan no matter who finishes where in the draft order.
Frankly, the Spirit will probably move heaven and earth to get Sullivan home anyway. But if Boston has that top pick, they can extort a nice reward for finishing last.
You may object to this not-so-hypothetical scenario being listed as a “pro” of promotion and relegation. It’s really the draft system, which is becoming less and less relevant in MLS, and we will eventually talk about the “cons” of how pro/rel affects last-place teams in the next entry. But we’re going to use a generous definition here. If something is better with promotion/relegation, it’s a “pro.”
Pro #1: No tanking for draft picks.
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Pro #2: Folklore.
One of my favorite books is the Rough Guide to English Football. I have the 1999-2000 edition, so it’s hopelessly outdated by now. But I hang on to it because the club histories are so colorful. And every once in a while, I have to remind my self how Preki and Robert Warzycha fared at Everton.
The cover photo is of Carlisle goalkeeper Jimmy Glass, who had just scored a goal at the other end when he raced forward in desperation. Glass was on loan to the fourth-tier side from Swindon Town.
A few years later, Carlisle United did indeed drop out of the Football League. But by then, the fifth division had been shored up — a process that took decades. And they immediately went back into the League, where they’ve spent some time in the fourth tier and some in the third.
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Pro #3: The lower divisions become much more interesting.
The appeal of the NASL, USL and any other league right now is that it gives people a local team to follow. I enjoyed being an idiot supporter of the A-League’s Carolina Dynamo back in the day.
On a national level, despite the NASL’s delusions of grandeur, there’s no reason to follow the league. It’s like living in England and watching the Belgian league without any ties to Belgium.
Put an MLS berth on the line, and you suddenly have national interest.
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Pro #4: Parity.
This is why most amateur leagues that have more than 10 teams have multiple divisions. The really good teams loaded with former college players can all play each other. The teams scraping to grab a few officemates to fill out the roster on Sunday can play each other without getting crushed 15-0 by the really good teams.
In pro leagues, of course, this only works from the second division on down. Pro/rel isn’t going to make anyone competitive with Barcelona or Bayern Munich. That’s another issue. But the lower tiers should work as well as the amateur leagues.
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Questionable pro #1: Academy investment. A couple of EPL clubs have cut or are thinking about cutting their academies. German clubs are forced to have them by the federation, in the interest of developing German players. A lot of the top clubs in the world don’t turn out good youth prospects.
A lower-tier club may have a good academy for reasons other than pro/rel. Maybe a club in an isolated area wants to give its local players a shot at playing, and they sell their best prospects to other clubs for the money to keep the lights on and the grass mowed. As long as you have training compensation and solidarity payments (yes, that’s another rant in U.S. soccer), you can benefit.
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Questionable pro #2: Incentive for the players. We all know the story of Eric Wynalda having a shoe thrown at him for being insufficiently miserable in a German locker room. But now we also know the story of Bobby Warshaw seeing his relegation-threatened teammates in Scandinavia keeping an eye on the door and trying to get out without taking any of the blame. There’s a difference between those two experiences that pro/rel cannot explain.
And if you saw Aston Villa play last year, you know those players weren’t motivated.
That brings us back to the Spirit-Breakers game. These teams are reloading for next year. They’re evaluating players. Those players, like players at D.C. United, Colorado and any other lowly MLS club this year, are playing for future employment. That’s more motivation than anything else.
That said, it would be cool to be Jimmy Glass, wouldn’t it?
So the pros and cons aren’t so simple. In the next entry, we’ll look at the cons.