Our City is a weekly column focused on my perspective of Orlando City as a supporter. I would love to incorporate your ideas and stories, if you have something to add or a story idea please connect by commenting here or on Twitter: @kevinmercer225
Major League Soccer has evolved over the years to appeal to the growing ranks of American soccer enthusiasts. Gone are the days of countdown clocks and mandatory shootouts. We've lost the Dallas Burn and Kansas City Wizards, only to find more traditional soccer monikers, like FC Dallas and Sporting Kansas City.
These changes signaled a shift away from marketing the league to general sports fans and instead wisely attempted to bring the significant numbers of soccer purists to the stadium. Sure, we haven't recreated the atmosphere of Camp Nou or Anfield, but I would challenge you to compare the atmosphere of an MLS game at a soccer specific stadium and that of a midlevel international club.
The success of MLS 2.0 -- Don Garber's reboot of the league -- a game that American soccer enthusiasts can enjoy, has left two questions begging. First, when will MLS transfer to a traditional fall-to-spring schedule? The Orlando City SC faithful will be asking this question often in August when our only game time weather options will be stifling heat with 100% humidity or torrential rainstorms with lightning.
The second is, when will MLS institute a promotion / relegation system? The recent NCAA football bowl games and new playoff system got me thinking about this last one.
Briefly explained for the uninitiated, promotion/ relegation simply means that at the end of the season a select number of clubs at the bottom of a league will move down, while clubs from a lower league will be promoted. There may or may not be a playoff involved.
This has a number of benefits. First, it creates meaningful games for teams in the league basement. Instead of a late season meaningless game between two also-ran clubs, you have a battle for survival. Second, it separates the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.
Think of the clubs in American sports who seem to permanently hold down the final spot in league tables. We won't name names, but I'm sure you can think of more than a few. Relegating underperforming clubs brings new blood and passion into the league and cuts some of the dead weight free to figure things out in a lower league. These are the two most cited benefits for a promotion/relegation system, there are of course more.
The problem is this: the structure of MLS could never allow it. The buy-in fees for expansion clubs are hovering around $100 million right now. Orlando City paid $70 million, while the new club in Los Angeles reportedly paid $110 million.
The reasoning for MLS not having a promotion/ relegation system seems quite clear -- nobody wants to pay $100 million to play in the B league one day. MLS wants a competitive league and it wants to expand, but these two desires bump up swiftly against the desire to have millionaires willing to pay expansion fees with confidence.
This is where I began to see comparisons with college football. When trying to explain international soccer to friends, I have often used the NCAA as an example. It is the only sport in America that is comparable with European soccer.
The multitude of intense rivalries, the many different leagues with various standards, and the widespread geographic nature of colleges all mirror elements of the European and South American club pyramids. For example, while a state like Alabama might not support a top tier sports franchise, it does support four FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) teams (Alabama, Auburn, South Alabama, and Troy).
College football can double the populations of some towns on game day and bring national championships away from America's major sport markets. While clubs in Europe's major cities dominate many of the leagues, clubs from smaller cities like West Bromwich, for example, compete in the English Premier League.
Statistically, West Brom is a similar size to Savannah, GA, and a bit smaller than Dayton, OH. I can't imagine the NBA or NFL putting a team in Savannah anytime soon, yet in a promotion/relegation system, a town the same size has found an ability to compete in a top-tier league.
I could go on making comparisons, but the point is, a promotion/relegation system awards teams the chance to play for the top prize, even if they aren't in a lucrative market or considered a traditional challenger. Many universities in America would love the chance to compete for a national championship but have become locked out of the major conferences.
My Alma Mater, the University of Central Florida, is certainly one, but not the only, example of this. During the rush of realignment a couple of years ago, they moved to the former Big East in hopes of joining one of the top leagues, only to have the conference absolutely disintegrate around them.
The traditional football powers in the league shuffled off to the even bigger conferences. This realignment wasn't about creating regionally competitive leagues or anything to do with the betterment of college football. It had everything to do with money.
College football, like MLS, is an invitation-only party. Those teams in leagues able to compete for the major trophies have seemingly closed the door to outside competition, while those on the outside looking in can only gain entry into the upper divisions with a significant check and the right handshake.
As MLS seeks to expand and cities continue to line up for the chance for an expansion team, the league faces a number of problems. The most significant of these problems is maintaining the talent to keep the on-field product viable.
U.S. soccer history has the best cautionary tale for such expansion in the old NASL. Eventually, a two-tiered MLS with promotion and relegation could make a lot of sense. Opening up new markets and tapping into great existing ones from the new NASL and USL Pro would be dynamic and unique to the American sports marketplace. It would give soccer purists what they have been seeking, while creating drama and excitement that just might entice new generations of fans.
I imagine smaller market clubs with legions of fans who swell with pride as their team pushes its way into the top flight. On the other end, some of the mismanaged clubs in MLS would be forced into a season of reevaluation and renewal in a lower league.
Just one caveat though: the current well-invested owners of MLS clubs have one hundred million reasons not to go along with it.
So what do you think? Is there any possible way to bring a promotion/relegation system to MLS?