Call it a beautiful pipe dream for the beautiful game. Or “Make Soccer Right,” with no “Again” tagged at the end, because the model has never been right since Major League Soccer’s first season in 1996. Whichever way you phrase it, it’s time to change the structure from a championship end result to a relegation/promotion system. It’s a narrative of traditionalism vs. “the American way” that continues to be brought up every season, from pro-restructuring arguments citing competition, to the opposite end arguing parity, and everything in between. To all of those points, here’s the catch: the further away MLS gets from that inaugural season 22 years ago, the more the American model will begin to feel like the tradition for fans and teams. As another season is welcomed in, the pipe dream becomes smaller.
To avoid sounding fatalistic, nothing is set in stone. Although the window is diminishing, it can never disappear entirely. Why? Because the lifeblood of this debate is that different alternatives exist. MLS was built upon an American foundation, but its game is not native to the United States. It’s not baseball, basketball, or football, where the concepts were conceived in this country and everybody else followed suit. No player or coach is coming into MLB and saying “let’s do things differently”–there’s nothing different to be done.
However, that’s exactly what’s happening in MLS. An influx of high-profile proponents for change are arising, from foreign imports (like Andre Pirlo) to domestic sources (e.g. Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch). On a more anonymous level, a recent ESPN poll revealed that 63% of MLS players were in favor of instituting a relegation/promotion system, up from 54% in 2017 and 49% in 2016. From that poll, quotes were provided that gave a glimpse into how divisive this complex debate truly is. I will break the quotes into three sides (and attempt to cover other perspectives that umbrella under them).
Do It Now: MLS Will Benefit Immediately
“To play on a team that’s fighting against relegation, it makes games mean something. In MLS, where we haven’t made the playoffs, those games are dumb at the end of the year. Because people just tune out. Fans tune out.”
“It’s something underneath you, a spark always on your butt. It makes every point so much more meaningful.”
A good point made by one nameless player is that, towards the end of the season, teams that have no shot at the postseason have very little incentive to compete. That’s different than, say, the NBA where teams have incentive to not compete–aka the black eye that is tanking. That method (which is noticeable in the NFL, and to far lesser extents MLB and the NHL) is not a priority for MLS cellar dwellers because the talent that will redefine the franchise and raise their marketability will not be found in the draft. And while tanking may kill competitiveness, and the absence of tanking might be construed as a positive to someone looking on the outside-in, the fans of losing MLS teams have no reason to go to games. From this, there’s a trickle-down effect: when fans don’t go to games, players take notice, their end-of-season performances suffer, and most importantly, it’s an undesirable reflection on the losing teams. Then come the offseason, if teams don’t look good to the players they are courting in the transfer market (the main source of franchise-defining players), then those teams won’t improve and they will remain a middling side.
A lack of competition breeds static teams, and static teams make for a static league. MLS has been countering the continued mediocrity of many of their teams by expanding rapidly (more on this later). This ensures that, if teams can’t change their position like the Chicago Fire did last season (10th to 3rd in the East), the League is still remaining active. The reality behind this is that they cannot expand forever. They’re dressing the symptoms when they need to address the disease.
What 63% of MLS players polled want is the introduction of consequences. If a team can get relegated, and the owners lose money as a result of going down, then that will cause the entire organization–fans, players, and front office–to get on board for an entire season. The League reaps competitiveness from the first kick to the last, along with a guaranteed new look every season.
Not Worth It: Change Will Only Do Damage
“It unstabilizes ownership groups and creates [a similar issue] for players.”
Speaking of owners losing money–they don’t particularly like that, do they? For something as radical as a structural change to happen, ownership would have to get on board (despite MLS being league-owned). While the introduction of pro/reg would heighten the game itself, it would turn the business model upside down. The guarantee of a certain amount of money that comes with the (more or less) revenue-set system that MLS currently has in place would be gone.
Think of this change, in the mind of an owner, as going from a sure thing to a gamble. Currently, they receive X amount of money distributed by the league, factoring in market size and fan support–two things that remain constant. However, the lucrative windfall of a tv payout (the biggest chunk of change) differs in a pro/reg system. Currently the tv payout from MLS is equitable, but if the system changes, the highest-placing team would make the most money, second place would make second most, etc. Not to mention how drastic the financial loss would be if a team was relegated and missed out entirely on tv profits.
Below on one slide are the 2016 regular season standings (Fox Sports), on the next are the teams ranked by revenue that season (compiled by statista.com):
The team that would’ve made the most money in a new system, FC Dallas, ranked 10th in revenue that season. How about the Colorado Rapids? They would’ve had the second highest pay-day if pro/reg was introduced then; rather, they made the least amount of money–$44 million short of the LA Galaxy, a team who finished six points below them in the table.
MLS has shown in the past that they are not receptive to noticeable changes. They have been asked to adjust their league calendar, which clashes with international breaks, and refused. The introduction of a new system would be the biggest alteration to soccer this country has ever seen. It would likely dissolve the conferences into one big table (due to payout), get rid of the MLS Cup (or turn it into the equivalent of the FA Cup, which would then change the role of the US Open Cup), and uproot the entire foundation of the American soccer pyramid.
The Neutral Side: It’ll Take Time and Effort
“Fundamental changes need to happen in the league before pro/rel is feasible. A viable second division doesn’t exist yet. Relegated teams would fold.”
Uproot the entire foundation? Absolutely. Just like plants have to be re-potted elsewhere to survive, so too do MLS teams need to be moved around for balance. Here is the current state of the American pyramid: 24 confirmed teams (23 active), a possible 25th and 26th on the way to fill out the first tier, or MLS. The second tier is composed of the USL (a whopping 33 teams) and the currently inactive NASL (4 teams), who failed to acquire Division II sanctioning criteria for the 2018 season.
Basically, it’s a big hornets nest. American soccer has the most teams in their first division (the second most is a four-way tie with France, Italy, Spain, and England all having 20). They also have the most teams in their second division (England is second with 24). The largest difference between first tier and second tier, outside of the United States, is 4 teams.
The USA, with 9 more teams in the USL than MLS, is at an imbalance. Their setup is more of a farm system than a second division, with 20 active teams in the USL acting as affiliates to MLS (and more expansion teams to come). However, that’s a non-issue, and MLS only needs to look to Spain and its pyramid as the reason why. There are many feeder clubs throughout the lower levels (Segunda Division and Segunda Division B) that aren’t permitted promotion into first tier, yet the system works. It’s proven, and I doubt many can name more successful “farm systems” than Real Madrid’s La Fabrica and Barcelona’s La Masia in the history of sports. And although no American team will glimpse those high reaches of soccer heaven, they can take a page from that Spain’s book on how to set up a prosperous pro/reg system with affiliates included. The key would be an exponential amount of expansion to dilute the lower-level pools (Spain has 122 teams through 3 tiers), making it less affiliate-dominated.
American soccer has already shown an eager initiative to place a soccer team in every city, and the rate of expansion would require it. Another rising factor is the interest that wealthy athletes are taking in buying up lower-level teams (Carmelo Anthony and Puerto Rico FC, Didier Drogba and Phoenix Rising FC, etc.). The investment trend that seems to be finding momentum in expansion teams would only amplify if buying low and profiting from promotion became a possibility.
It’s important to note that the expansion would have to occur solely in the lower reaches. MLS needs to be content with (26?) or however many teams have been promised. And in that word “promise” lies the caveat–expansion is well and good, but how well would the David Beckhams and Will Ferrells of MLS accept relegation when they were guaranteed the riches of a progressing league?
My Verdict: There’s a Bigger Picture
I’m a soccer purist. I don’t agree with how MLS is currently ran and I’ve always looked to other shores for “proper football.” In that same breath, I’ve admired their growth; their determination to compete and rise to the quality of neighbors Liga MX is commendable. But ambition reaches only as far as the vision and, in sports, vision will always be stunted by the politics of business.
Is it possible to look beyond the League, the security of the owners and investors, and the long-term stability of certain teams? Is it possible to embrace the tenuous history of American soccer and realize that an outcome where teams fold is going to happen whether MLS embraces pro/rel or not? The pattern to that side of history cannot be changed.
What can be changed about the history of American soccer is its status as a lightweight upstart in a bout against the world’s heavyweight contenders. And the only way that comes to fruition is through drastic change that inspires a shared competitive atmosphere across the nation. But until MLS looks beyond their 5-year financial plan, their possibilities (and that of the future of American soccer) will remain stunted. It begins with scrapping a failed system, and it must begin soon.