Apologies for misleading people with the headline. I’m not saying promotion/relegation is going to happen because of popular demand. The growth in MLS and other “closed” leagues is a rather powerful argument against that argument.
No, I’m doing a post by popular demand. Also because MLS is growing too much, moving up to 30 teams and a Leagues Cup competition with Mexico.
So yes, it’s time to reconsider. First, I’ll need to sum up the thousands of words I’ve written on the topic, much of it on my own blogs but also occasionally in outlets like The Guardian. Bear in mind that if you want a good synopsis of how U.S. soccer arrived at this point, I wrote the book on the subject:
It only mentions pro/rel in passing, but the “historical and cultural reality check” is relevant. People often say “pro/rel works everywhere else, so why not here?” without considering what makes the USA unique and difficult.
A quick look back at the issue:
- A little outdated: A look at the major players in professional and elite amateur soccer.
- The pros of pro/rel
- The cons of pro/rel
- A refutation of the idea that pro/rel necessarily leads to better player development
- A 2017 promotion/relegation plan (along with a look at pro/rel myths)
- A 2018 plea for a reset of the discussion
Yes, I’ve written plans for pro/rel in the past. And given the Leagues Cup and growing intermingling with Mexico, I think these plans need a rewrite.
I already wrote a suggested league(s) calendar to accommodate the Leagues Cup. It’s at Soccer America.
So let’s go farther. This might seem unusual, but bear in mind that a lot of countries (see England, Japan and the Netherlands) have historically had narrow gateways between amateur and pro divisions. Also, Brazil had one year in which the final 16 teams included qualifiers from the lower divisions.
The goal here is simple: Maximize opportunity, minimize risk.
Start with a licensing requirement based on facilities, staffing, academy and competitive criteria. Instead of joining MLS as an expansion club, an existing club obtains a MLS license, with which they’re guaranteed a place in either the first or second division. Other clubs can get an MLS associate license, which guarantees a place in either the second or third division. The third division can grow almost indefinitely through independent leagues with their own competition rules. If you really want to have pro/rel within a third-division league, fine.
So here’s the deal:
Late July (as soon as practical after World Cup or other international tournaments) to mid-December, 20 weeks plus playoff final. Also note CONCACAF Champions Cup.
MLS Division 1: 16 teams, all with full licenses. East/West divisions. Top four in each qualify for Leagues Cup and cannot be relegated. Top team in each division qualifies for single-game MLS Cup at warm-weather neutral venue just before Christmas.
MLS Division 2: 16 teams, full or associate licenses, with room to grow. Four teams qualify for Leagues Cup. Those with full licenses are promoted.
Third division: Independent leagues that govern as they see fit.
February to mid-May (finished in time for World Cup/other international tournament). Also note Open Cup.
Leagues Cup: 12 MLS, 12 Liga MX. Four-team single-elimination playoff.
MLS Promotion Cup: All full-license clubs that aren’t in Leagues Cup play for spots in MLS Division 1.
Third division: Independent leagues continue, with associate-license teams rejoining. National tournament of qualified teams determines which teams play in Division 2 the next season.
CONCACAF Champions League (really Cup): Knockout tournament in fall but give byes to quarterfinals to Leagues Cup, MLS, Liga MX and CONCACAF League champions. Play-in round spots go to runners-up of those competitions, CONCACAF League third-place finisher, Caribbean champion, U.S. Open Cup winner and Canadian champion. (If someone qualifies for the play-in round by two different routes — say, Open Cup winner and MLS runner-up — that team gets a bye. If any other spaces remain, go to third place finisher in Leagues Cup.)
U.S. Open Cup: Local leagues and third division play qualifying rounds in fall. In mid-January, surviving teams face MLS teams (excluding League Cup teams) in 20 four-team groups at warm-weather sites. That takes us to 32 teams for knockout tournament culminating in May final.
Existing MLS clubs face little risk to the nine-figure investments they’ve made. Every year, they have a chance at the Leagues Cup. They’ll either have a chance at MLS Cup or promotion.
Up-and-coming pro clubs get a new pathway that could see them reach the second division and even the Leagues Cup, in addition to the Open Cup. Over time, they may solidify and earn a full license.
Other pro clubs can play in regional leagues. Over time, they may earn an associate license.
Youth players will have opportunities with local clubs that cannot lose pro status unless they collapse. You won’t see an entire state’s kids lose their pathways to the pros just because the senior team had injury problems and got relegated.
And it’ll be fun.
And it’ll never happen.