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What MLS Might Look Like If it Adopted Promotion and Relegation

The promotion/relegation debate storms on in the states, but what would the top league look like next year if we applied the practice to our federation?

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-San Antonio FC at Houston Dynamo
San Antonio FC would have found their way to MLS, if promotion were possible in North America
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t mean to beat a dead horse and bring up the same old argument that American soccer fans have been having for years, but someone has to do it, so let’s talk about promotion and relegation.

I’m not going to bring in the pros and cons of pro/rel — that would be a much longer article for you to read through, and it would likely contain regurgitated quotes from industry experts saying the same things we’ve all been hearing for years. Instead, I’m going to talk about what MLS would look like next season if promotion and relegation were to be adopted.

Before I go any further, I will let you know my opinions on the subject of pro/rel, just for transparency’s sake. I am in favor of pro/rel. I think it would breed more competition, better players, and better fan bases. However, fiscally speaking, it is something that would be very difficult to make work in the American sports model. Owners would be uneasy when it comes to making investments, because one poor season could result in the loss of it all. So I understand both sides of the coin, but I am in favor of the betterment of the game, not the wallets of the owners, and that is my stance.

Now that we’ve done that, let’s examine how we would implement promotion and relegation. Now of course, minus the statistics I mention, the methods of implementation are what I believe would be the best way to do it, no concrete evidence to anything here.

I think the way that would be the most widely received, would be the German Bundesliga’s method of pro/rel. It isn’t a strict three-up/three-down system, and adds some action and tension that I think would be well received by the American sports fan. The way the Bundesliga works is that the bottom two teams are automatically sent down to the second division at year’s end, with the top two teams from the second division moving up. Then, when it comes to the third spot for promotion, it all comes down to a playoff. Not like how it is done in England, where teams three through six play a four-team playoff for the final spot. Instead, the third-place team from the second division plays a two-legged playoff series against the team that finished third from the bottom of the first division.

Last season in Germany, this featured VfL Wolfsburg fighting for its life and managing to stay up in the Bundesliga, defeating Eintracht Braunschweig, 2-0 on aggregate. The narrative fits everything that an American sports fan loves: it makes it almost a David-vs.-Goliath story where the little guy has an opportunity for glory while the well-established team has to fight for its livelihood. I do believe that maybe in the future the English method with the four-team playoff could be adopted instead, however since there is some unfamiliarity with teams in the lower leagues among the average MLS fan, I think having an MLS team involved in the playoff would bode better for ratings.

Which Teams are Going Down?

Looking at the Supporters’ Shield standings, Orlando City would definitely have been safe this season, despite finishing 10th in the East with 39 points. The two worst teams in the league both finished with 32 points, and they are the LA Galaxy and D.C. United. Finishing just one point ahead of those teams, with 33, were the Colorado Rapids, who would find themselves in a playoff scenario if this were to occur.

Honestly, this scenario would be particularly devastating for the league. D.C. is set to open a new soccer-specific stadium next year, LA just had its stadium expanded. Not to mention that these two teams have combined for 14 trips to the MLS Cup and nine championships in the league’s history. The Galaxy have five titles, and United has four, while the next-closest in league history have two. The reason that I’m harping on the importance of these two teams in particular is because it would likely result in big problems for MLS, as the league would miss out on these larger market shares.

It would also be a large issue for the rosters themselves. In many leagues around the world, “star” players often request a clause in their contracts that states that they would be released from the team or be transferred to another team if the club were to be relegated. Now we already know that Bill Hamid does not wish to return to D.C., but as for the rest of the teams, we could examine who would likely be shipped out.

For D.C., the diminutive maestro Luciano Acosta would likely be gone, along with recent signing and young American hope Paul Arriola. For LA...the list is much longer. One-time MVP contender Romain Alessandrini, the Dos Santos brothers, along with Americans Jermaine Jones and Gyasi Zardes would likely be looking for new jobs. Hell, If Colorado were to lose the relegation playoff, Tim Howard would even be looking for a job.

Which Teams are Coming Up?

So we have our two teams on the way down, and one heading for a playoff, but who is coming up to the first division? Technically, both the North American Soccer League (NASL) and United Soccer League (USL) were granted Division 2 status from the U.S. Soccer Federation last season, but for the sake of this experiment, I will grant the USL superior status due to the fact that they have more competition, a larger reach, and incredibly devoted fan bases.

Not a knock to the NASL at all, but come on, have you seen Nippert Stadium for an FC Cincinnati game? Plus, the USL has Division 2 status for next season. The only drawback to using the USL is that MLS “B Teams” often play in this league. OCB, Sounders 2, Timbers 2, Real Monarchs SLC, etc., etc. So, since we can’t have two teams from the same organization in MLS, any team that is run by an MLS team is disqualified. Unfortunately, that means Real Monarchs SLC, who were top of the table this past year in USL, will not be moving up. With that being said, first place belongs to Louisville City FC, second to San Antonio FC, and third goes to Reno 1868 FC, who would reach the playoff.

Frankly, I think MLS was always missing a team that had a year in their name, so in this fictitious scenario, I’m pulling for Reno to knock off Colorado. I know I said earlier why the relegated teams could hurt MLS. Just as easily, these promoted teams could aid MLS because they are in markets that have just started to get a whiff of what professional soccer can be, give these fans a taste of MLS, and the possibilities could be endless. Now obviously things would be difficult; Louisville and Reno both play in baseball stadiums that seat on average about 8,000 to 10,000 fans, and San Antonio FC plays in its own soccer-specific stadium, Toyota Field, which seats 8,000. The most glaring issue here is that these stadiums are not up to MLS standards. But they could make for interesting away days if you ask me, especially Toyota Field. I would also love the opportunity to see Reno striker and USL Golden Boot winner Dane Kelly get a chance to strut his stuff in MLS.

Final Thoughts

Obviously, this is a dream scenario for what may never actually happen in North American soccer. But it doesn’t hurt to be hopeful, or to speculate, and imagine how different the landscape of the league would be if these opportunities were offered to clubs in the lower divisions. After getting through all of that, I’m not gonna lie, I’m a little winded, so from here I’d love to hear from you.

Are you for or against pro/rel? If you’re for it, do you like how the Bundesliga does the playoff or would you prefer the English method? Where do you think players who are now void of contract would end up? If this happened, would MLS ever allow for true free agency? There really are just so many questions, and I would love to hear your opinions on all of them, so be sure, to comment on them below and I will try to get back to as many of you as I possibly can.