Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Great Divide - The Promotion and Relegation debate in the USA - Part 1

Nothing is ever easy, all things can be achieved!
By: James Cormack

The great Pro/Rel debate within supporters of US Soccer can almost be compared to the two party system of US Politics. Both sides want to prove that they are right, but mostly bash their opponents to win votes or sway opinions.

Somewhere in amongst that, are sensible and intelligent people who are very interested in the discussion surrounding the pros and cons of having promotion and relegation. You have to filter your way through it all to find the realistic chatter from both sides.

The discussion can be intense and usually simmers down to an impasse. As soon as you make your stance known, you are usually deemed a buffoon by one side or the other as is the fashion of the keyboard commissioner!

When you mention promotion and relegation among supporters the the first thought is usually that of the single entity MLS, and how if a team were to be relegated from that it will probably finish them. Obviously, this can't be proven for sure, but under the current structure of US Soccer and MLS it may well be true. 

It's apparent that MLS Commissioner Don Garber does not support the idea of Pro/Rel in this country. He prefers to equate MLS to NFL even though Soccer is the most international sport that the country supports. Chattanooga FC supporters are all too aware of his opinion on promotion/relegation.

I am sure there are many supporters of MLS teams who would like to see a Pro/Rel system, but MLS as an organization doesn't want it and so be it! There are also many MLS supporters who have no interest in Pro/Rel and that's fine too.

Do all parties even have to be involved in a Pro/Rel system?

Why do we automatically have to think of MLS when considering Pro/Rel? Not that I am against the idea of all divisions being involved, but promotion and relegation to or from MLS is something that may never happen. That doesn't mean Pro/Rel cannot exist within the structure of soccer in the USA or North America.

Fig.1 A proposed structure that could be implemented in USA or North America, will discuss in Part 2.

MLS could benefit even if they don't want to engage in Pro/Rel.  It would be in MLS's and USSF's best interest to observe and assess a possible promotion and relegation system for the purposes of researching development in the US game. 

It's easy to say we can observe it in other countries already, because of course almost every country uses promotion and relegation. However, the only way to discover whether Pro/Rel could be popular in the USA is to initiate it in the USA. Merely theorizing about how something may transpire, produces no honest result.

The United States of America is a proud nation and one where if someone tells you something cannot be done, it can and inevitably will be done! If you don't want the people here to do a thing, the worst thing you can do is tell them they can't!

With the continued annual increase in new teams joining all lower divisions, US Soccer is rapidly approaching a point where the structure of lower league football needs to be reformed.

USL Pro and PDL aligning with MLS, and NASL and NPSL apparently building relations is like changing pieces of a puzzle so they can never fit back together again. There really is nothing positive that can come of such separation within one sporting federation›. 

I think it is of great harm to the sport, and to future supporter's of the game in this country that all those involved cannot sit around the same table and work towards a single structural goal.

Earlier this year, NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson went on record  as saying he will work to bring about a system of promotion and relegation in this country. P
lease bear in mind the report linked is not necessarily exactly how Mr Peterson phrased his comments.

Although I agree that it can work under one organization i.e. NASL, I don't agree with everything referenced in the Telegraph article connecting NASL and NPSL. I think it would be more realistic for the NASL to create a two division system of their own, inviting clubs who have outgrown the NPSL or other divisions.

Ideally I would like to see all teams outside of MLS compete in the same pyramid and under one single governing body. I think independent teams at professional level should only play other independent teams. I can't imagine enjoying USL Pro and supporting my team knowing they could get knocked out in a playoff by a reserve team from the MLS. USL Pro is a reserve league with affiliates and a few independent teams in it.

USL chasing D2 status is about as flawed to me as NASL chasing D1. Unless they USL plan on leaving all the reserve teams behind in a D3 division created for reserve teams. Between teams in the NASL, USL and teams that have outgrown the NPSL or PDL, there is an opportunity to produce a quality league with D2 status, and a pro/rel divisional system at D2, D3, and D4.

All professional reserve teams should be placed at D4, at the developmental level. The top three divisions in North America should only be for independent professional teams (explained in part two).

The US Open Cup made one of the most progressive amendments I have seen in US Soccer so far, by changing the rules so that a professional team owned by another professional entity may not compete in the Open Cup (e.g. Sounders II, Galaxy II, Whitecaps II).

As much as it would affect even my own local NPSL team, I personally would take that to be taken further and not allow any reserve team professional or amateur from competing in cup competitions unless it is one specifically designed for those teams.

Of course I am not naive enough to think that any kind of reformation to US Soccer that could incorporate promotion and relegation, can be implemented any time soon. If it was approved and supported it would have to be done in stages.

The first stage would be the NASL, alone or with the help of others forming two divisions accepting of the system, and in time the second stage would be to introduce a third level. I would venture to say this could even be a "ten year plan" or even longer!

Of course I am not going to hide the fact that I believe if a system like this went into action, it would not be long before the D2/D3/D4 pro/rel system would become hugely popular and MLS at some point may want to rethink their position if they end up on the outside looking in. If that ever were to happen by that time it would be something much easier to merge than the current sprawling mess we have now.

Does US Soccer need reform? What are the recent game changers?

Without even discussing or considering promotion and relegation my answer to this question would be "YES" for sure. There are many things that could be done better or enhanced to facilitate professional development within the USA or North America.

One of the most significant talking points recently were the proposed amendments to USSF's D1 Status league policies. Until recently part of the policy was that at least 75% of a D1 league's teams must be in a metropolitan area of 1,000,000 people or more. Apparently a proposed amendment is to bump that figure by 100% to 2,000,000.

There are some other changes proposed but this one is perhaps the most perplexing, so much so supporters and people within the game itself can't really explain the need for this gargantuan jump. It has also led to an NASL complaint of foul play and threatening the USSF with a litigation. (further reading at World Soccer Talk - by Kartik Krishnaiyer).

You will not find a copy of any amended policy online if you try to look for it, these amendments as far as I know have been suggested and approved, but possibly because of the litigation by NASL no updated policy documents have been forthcoming, you can review the current policy here at Kenn.Com .

Other changes that have rattled the cage of the NASL are increasing the minimum amount of teams in D1 from 12 to 16 and all teams having a minimum stadium capacity of 15,000 without exception.

Further to points about strengthening the monopoly of MLS and causing a potential loss of revenue the NASL could have achieved after successfully gaining a D1 status I feel there is a more sinister reasoning behind these proposed changes, other than what has been alluded to so far.

If the USSF and MLS really wanted to kill off the NASL they could have made sweeping changes to D2 status, the NASL has until some time this year (2016) to fulfill D2 requirements which they still have not done (failing to have a team in each required time zone is just one shortfall).

What these amendments achieve is to pretty much make it impossible to even contemplate promotion and relegation between MLS and any other division, or between any D1 and D2 status league that should come into existence. It is a once and for all pro/rel nullifying amendment.

Just consider twenty team MLS which currently I think Columbus and San Jose may be the only two who fall under 2,000,000 metro figure (please correct me if I am wrong). If MLS were to have two divisions with pro/rel and 5 of their teams had less than 2m metro population and the team winning promotion from D2 also had less, then they would not get promoted unless MLS relinquished it's D1 Status.

They would have to accept the highest placed team with a 2 million plus metro population into the top division or not promote or relegate anyone. Add to that the current conference style of MLS does not lend itself well to a system of promotion and relegation.

So to consider any talk or chance of there ever being a pro/rel system involving a D1 league in the USA under the USSF's suggested policy is just futile, that is more than just my opinion, it's now the way it is.

It is the reason I say "YES" there needs to be reform in the USA because ridiculous situations like this should never arrive, and people within the sport should not have to tolerate this kind of nonsensical political goalpost moving. The USSF are winning at failing for now in my opinion!

In my mind having an achievement based pyramid below MLS can also be of benefit to them. As we know Don Garber will continue to look for new franchises to join in the top flight. In the future teams could be chosen based on not only on MLS financial feasibility, but also by their popularity and their achievement at the levels below D1.

I think there would need to be policy and rules surrounding the movement of teams between a pro/rel division system and a single entity D1, but I think this could be easily achievable. Think of a scenario with say a St Louis team at D3 who have gained promotion to D2 by merit and built a strong following and an adequate stadium. I see no reason why this team cannot be accepted into D1 and then allow an extra team to be promoted from D3 and D4 in the same season and introduce a new team at D4 in the following year. (will explain that further also)

Furthermore, if at some time an MLS team in the future were to run into difficult times and no longer feel they can operate at the financial and skill level required for D1, rather than simply disappearing like Chivas USA, the team history and structure can be preserved and apply for a league berth back in at D4 and start from scratch.

As shown in Fig.1 I think all divisions outside of NCAA and below D1 can be combined into one administrative league system that operates cooperatively and alongside MLS under USSF for mutual benefit. I will discuss how this structure could be designed and implemented in Part 2 (please give me some time with that).

Finally, I do not claim to be any kind of expert when it comes to US Soccer, I love the game and ultimately I want to see the survival of all leagues and teams and I want to see continual professional growth at domestic and international level for the benefit of all.

Most importantly I don't want to see supporters suffer at the hands of incompetent bureaucracy, the game is nothing without those who support it. All feedback and comments welcome, please pick apart my thoughts because it helps me to learn. I will do my best to answer all questions here or elsewhere.


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  1. James, I appreciate you've given some thought to this, but I wonder what rationale you see for D1 status retention by MLS. It's equally feasible- and certainly fairer- to exclude a closed-shop league from divisional sanction and use divisional sanctions they way that they are intended. Because the way you have it, you're essentially baking in corruption into the system when that fictional STL team effectively purchases promotion into D1 rather than earning it through sporting merit. With MLS still perched at the top of the "pyramid" (more of a ziggurat in this configuration) and reaping the benefits that derive therefrom, I think a half-measure like this is doomed at the outset.

    1. Also something I did not press upon is that proposed amendment really should be squashed, it's ludicrous and completely unfair, if NASL litigation does not achieve it someone else needs to take it to task. In an ideal world I think there should only be one professional D1 in any country, but if USSF is going to pull crap like that, I think if a pro rel system can be implemented and go forward under the existing unchanged policy then in the future the top layer should apply for D1 and aim to be the best. the fact there can be two D1's or two D2's is something very abnormal and bizarre to me.

  2. D2,D3,D4 would actually be the pyramid, MLS would be a separate venture. I agree with what your saying and it shouldn;t be like that, but that is the part I accept cannot be changed. As long as MLS is allowed to dominate USSF procedure it's not going to change unless someone decides to go to FIFA or a court of arbitration for sport, is there a case?

    If MLS has D1 status now, and the amendments go through to help make sure they can be the only one, what can you do? I think the most important part of the structure I am proposing is it get's things started and puts the majority of teams in the USA within a proper system, it would only be a matter of time before it became so popular that it would be the games controlling point of interest for supporters and USSF would have to concede to the fact that it needs to be billed as the top league system in the country, if it ever came to that.

    Even if it was decided that MLS would be included, the current structure would take a long time to reverse, they are just not going to accept it and USSF won't either. So it is better to do it without them, and start to stack odds in your favor.

    I'll explain in part two but I would place a rule that under this structure MLS would not be able to take a team from it unless that team had made it to the top of the pyramid by merit, and only then by agreement by both associations. MLS under ruling from USSF would not be able to pluck an existing team from D3 for example, not could they circumvent by slapping a team on their doorstep. However if there was a populous area in the country where there was not a D2 or D3 team then they could go ahead and add their fat cat to their single entity.

    I can see it looks like a compromise as a structure, but the intent of it would be to prove that pro/rel can work and then grow and strengthen from there and win supporters. Where else could I put them in this picture, USSF deems them D1 and nothing is going to change that.

    Even without the new amendments, it would be a long long time before NASL could even get close to being a D1, I really would like to see them just stop with the occasional soundbytes and just get on with their effing work ;) They need a proper TV deal and although some might think USSF D statuses are not worth worrying about anyway, if tey are going to spout rhetoric about D1 they need to show they can fulfill the D2 requirements before it looks bad for them, it needs to be done this year.

    The hardest part of this whole things is getting independent teams outside of NASL to support it, and not just roll over and accept the fact that they will never get MLS so will settle for playing the reserves from here to eternity instead.

    Also corruption is already baked into US Soccer, at all levels.

  3. I think once NASL adds a few more successful teams, especially on the West Coast, lawsuits will be filed and and formal complaints will made to FIFA. D1 status and better access to the CCL and the Club World Cup is too important not to challenge MLS and USSF in the appropriate legal venues. If there are two D1 leagues, then give MLS a birth, NASL a birth and two births to the Open Cup winner and runner up. Or make it the top 4 teams in the Open Cup get CCL births.

    1. Announcing one west team would certainly be a good start, it seems like it is taking forever.

  4. Comprehensive work! It's managed to depress me quite thoroughly

  5. The highly visible rise of Leicester City and the tumble of Chelsea show the kind of excitement and drama that relegation & promotion bring to the game. Mid-season last year Leicester City had 19 points on 29 games, but they made a *remarkable* turnaround. Chelsea started this season in the basement, but the mid-season games were exciting -- was it possible that last years top team might end up in a relegation battle? If the NASL & USL can't put together a strong argument for pro/rel on the back of those two stories, I doubt it can ever happen.

    And I want it. Badly. I want the excitement of my team being promoted, I want the middle and late season bottom of the table games to be more than just scrimmage matches. I want the gifted amateur team and players to have a path into professional level play and exposure, and gifted coaches pulling teams from the brink of relegation. I want to be able to say I was with my team when they were scratching their way all the way from the depths.

    NASL & USL need to institute it, promote the top three teams from USL (yr 1: 2 up/0 down; yr 2: 2u/1d, onward: 2u/2d). Then start yearly promotion/relegation between the two (with the occasional division rebalancing as needed). After that establish a Tier 4 from the NPSL and PDL. Once they can see a promotion path to Tier 3, would they not jump at that chance? Money? Initially give the promoted teams the option to stay down (1st year, second in promotion standing is forcing), and maybe (for the first few years) let the wealthier teams pay those promoted teams to avoid relegation (I'm looking at you MLS). Maybe give the lower league teams a vote on whether to allow it for the specific teams. It's a way to battle the "we just got [un]lucky" complaint.

    Just make it happen, please.

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