Our City is a weekly column dedicated to the fans and supporter's perspectives of Orlando City. Any feedback, comments, or questions? Find Kevin Mercer on Twitter @KevinMercer225
North American Soccer League Commissioner Bill Peterson made headlines last week when he announced the league has a vision for promotion and relegation in American soccer. The system used by virtually every league and soccer pyramid in the world outside of the United States has long been on the top of domestic soccer fans' wishlists. Quickly explained, teams finishing in the bottom of the league at season's end would drop a division down, while the top finishers would rise to the above division.
These calls for promotion/regulation share an increasingly complicated American soccer landscape. While attendance is steady in MLS, lower league clubs in Sacramento, San Antonio, and Louisville are bringing in impressive numbers. Even the National Premier Soccer League's -- the de facto fourth division in the U.S. -- Chattanooga FC is setting attendance records, with 18,227 showing up for a recent championship game.
These are only a few of the success stories that mirror our own Orlando City's rise from a market not in consideration for MLS to its 21st team. The league continues to expand and look at new markets.
These two issues, the call for promotion/regulation and the expanding demand for professional soccer across the country could in many ways help one another. A traditional pyramid could give markets eager for professional soccer both a team and the hope that their club would have a chance in theory to rise to the top flight.
One major problem exists: Major League Soccer's cold shoulder to any and all promotion/regulation conversations. From the league's perspective, this makes sense. With clubs paying around $100 million to enter the league, what owner would want to wager that money to enter a league they could easily fall out of any season?
A completely understandable position. MLS has done a careful job of nurturing the American game to the generally successful league that exists today. Despite the loud knocking of the promotion/regulation barbarians at the gates, MLS wisely is protecting the investment it has made with U.S. Soccer to have a successful league, as well as their owners' investment.
Can MLS appease the promotion/regulation crowd, while continuing to expand? I would propose this as one solution.
The first thing to come to terms with is the simple fact that MLS will not open the door to other leagues. It won't happen, ever. So this proposal has to exclude the NPSL, USL, and NASL. Second, no owner of an MLS club will vote for a change that would see the potential for their club to not play in the top tier. These are the realities of the U.S. soccer landscape. This is not a personal bias, but simply my reading of the situation.
The only way forward in a promotion/regulation argument is to create something beyond the top tier, while letting go of any ideas of relegating a team out of MLS.
My proposal would see MLS restructure into two essentially separate leagues. A Western and Eastern Division, with teams added as needed until each league has between 20-24 clubs in each conference. These two "leagues" would play within their own division, with each team playing one another home and away -- a system that mirrors most leagues throughout the world. This would help reduce travel for clubs, while at the same time helping to nurture regional rivalries.
These two leagues would operate separately and crown their own league champions under a larger MLS umbrella. There could be an inter-league championship between the top two finishers. The playoff system as it exists would be scrapped.
A reorganized and expanded MLS could follow a couple of models at this point to create a kind of promotion. The argument being that you can't send a team down, but you could send some teams up. The one I would propose could mirror the popular Champions League model, with a certain portion of the top of each league qualifying for a competition the next season. These games would instantly be more lucrative for teams qualifying, as they'd provide unique match-ups with teams and players not normally seen by local fans.
Imagine the draw of a one-time appearance by a star-studded LA Galaxy, for example. A game like this would become a must-see for fans, while also bringing in regional fans eager to get their one chance to see particular stars.
These match-ups also make great games for television. Beyond the additional revenue generated by extra games and their extra attendance, the league would have to find a way to make substantial rewards available for teams who do well in this competition to provide incentive.
This dual league structure with more clubs and a chance to qualify for a lucrative extra competition could give MLS a structure that at least addresses some of the complaints lodged by its critics, while actually benefiting the league with a better command of the American soccer landscape -- all the while protecting the investment of its owners.
Rightfully, there are plenty of criticisms for such a structure. The first, that limiting East-West match-ups would hurt the league in some way. Consider David Beckham's MLS if he wasn't able to tour (and sell out) stadiums across the country. I think this is a fair critique, but it would also give added importance to qualification for the extra competition.
This revamped structure would mirror college football in a way, with its multiple conferences. Often times, in the NCAA structure the biggest and most successful teams never meet. This has never hurt its popularity, while providing a massive national fanbase.
A second criticism would be a fear of "watering down" the league. Again, a very legitimate concern. While most of us think of MLS as providing a service to the aging stars of Europe, its other function is to help develop the domestic game. Additionally, with more clubs and the increased attendances, the league and clubs could better afford quality international players, helping to continue the goal of becoming a top league in the world.
A final critique would be the existence of the CONCACF Champions League. While I enjoy the idea of this competition in theory, it has never been successful in the U.S. Matches against clubs unknown to domestic fans have always struggled to be an exciting draw.
I'd suggest MLS clubs withdraw from such a competition and replace it with a domestic "Champion's League." While I think this makes the proposed structure work, it feels a bit too insular. Perhaps there is room here for compromise to allow for both without playing too many games in a season.
I see the above proposal as part of a larger conversation happening in the U.S., involving both expansion and ideas of promotion/relegation. This is nothing near a defend-able thesis, so I welcome your comments, suggestions, and critiques. Would you watch a league like this? What would you change about this proposal?
What do you think?