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MLS won't have promotion and relegation soon

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Growing beyond 24 teams may involve some system of promotion and relegation, but first we have to get there and no one has any idea what it will look like when we do

Thomas Starke

Have an open forum for questions about soccer long enough and someone will bring up promotion and relegation. It is inevitable, like the coming of the tides or the return of the Pumpkin Spice Latte. There's a side the believes strongly that US soccer will never truly be free unless there's a promotion system, and there's another side which believes such a system will topple US soccer as we know it.

The logistics for promotion and relegation in the United States are tough to wrap ones head around, since its tied directly into MLS' single entity structure. MLS clubs don't have owners in the same sense that teams in Europe do. MLS investors share just about everything, and that includes Major League Soccer owning the copyright to everything in a team's identity down to the player contracts.

Second division soccer in the US doesn't extend past the Rocky Mountains, though there is a Canadian team in Edmonton. Yet these complications haven't prevented several prominent voices from pushing for promotion and relegation.

MLS is well aware of the viability of second tier franchises. Since the league stabilized after the contraction of the Florida franchises, five MLS expansion franchises have begun life in the lower divisions including the incoming Orlando City. The league hasn't reached its ideal size yet, so there hasn't been a need to shed teams. Acquisition was the name of the game.

That goal of 24 teams Ian Darke hits on is five years off in 2020, and certainly there's a fair question to be raised about plans after that point. How willing is MLS going to be to shed franchises after spending twenty-four seasons getting teams to a stable space?

Promotion and relegation is a response to competition, something every professional sports league faces at one time or another. Baseball dealt with competition by agreeing to a truce with one league and organizing the rest of them into a rigid tier system. The rest have dealt with them through mergers of some sort, typically as western focused leagues took advantage of overlooked space the East Coast based major leagues were neglecting.

What MLS has done in their slow addition of former minor league teams is unprecedented in the US, but if they did eventually want to go to a system of promotion and relegation it would be a mistake to model themselves after the major league in Europe. For all the talk of being a top ten league, MLS needs to accept its peers aren't the leagues winning Champions League titles.

Scotland has a pro/rel system I could get behind. Only one team per year relegation and one promoted, but only if its grounds meet premiership standards. MLS could let in San Antonio without having to worry about letting in some of the less apt franchises.

What this hypothetical still doesn't address is MLS' control of player contracts and team branding. Players in the league sign MLS contracts, do they go down with the ship if an MLS team is relegated? Are lower division teams required to make their way in MLS with the players they already have?

A system of promotion and relegation only makes sense if players were under contract to individual teams and not the league. Whenever I hear someone bring up the topic, I assume they either want to topple that or don't understand how it works. The owners currently invested in MLS didn't buy an individual franchise they have to keep afloat financially.

Going to a system where they're on the hook for everything is wildly different from what they agreed to. Yes, they can be promoted back. No, it's not as simple as flipping a switch and deciding to promote teams.

The Championship tier in England has gotten to a point where they can sell a US TV package. Lower division soccer in Mexico is also on US TV. Absolutely the NASL needs to get to a point where it can sell a TV package. Deals to stream games online aren't good enough.

It's a subject worth thinking through, getting down all the ins and outs. However, the notion that promotion and relegation is anywhere near ready to go is silly. The American audience might be ready, that isn't the point. Those who follow the respective leagues know that the money behind the system isn't ready.