Could promotion and relegation work in the USL? Potentially, with an outside of the box approach.
The debate over whether or not promotion and relegation can be implemented rages across the U.S. soccer landscape, especially in the USL. Most in 2020 would argue that pro/rel is generally preferable if it can be done in a way that does not undermine the financial viability of existing clubs.
Try Something Different, Limited Pro/Rel
Owners have made significant financial outlay and don’t want to squander those investments by risking fans abandoning the team after relegation. We must remember teams are competing not only with each other for fans, but also foreign teams accessible on television and social media. While fans say they want pro/rel, there are unknown risks that relegation may alienate those who don’t truly support local soccer and could migrate to a team in a higher division.
Yet fans (and some players and owners) want to see more meaningful matches and players fighting for something other than a playoff berth. Not only that, but within USL, many are discouraged by the lack of quality of developmentally-focused MLS “2” sides. This is particularly true in the Championship. But while some MLS2 teams may not have the same stadium atmospheres as independent teams, there is no questioning their on-field performance (looking at you Real Monarchs, New York Red Bulls II, et al).
I may have come up with an interim step to make everyone happy, at least until we can figure out a realistic pro/rel system.
Start With MLS 2 Promotion/Relegation
As a podcaster focused on USL League One, I’d like to continue to see strong competition between all clubs in the league and not have a league dominated by MLS 2 clubs. Plus, I believe having a good mix of independent teams and MLS2 teams is better for player development. So here’s my out of the box idea.
- Promote the USL League One MLS 2 team that finishes highest in the table
- Relegate the MLS 2 team from USL Championship with the least points. This should be completed every year.
- As independent teams are added to USL League One, relegate an additional MLS 2 team.
- Stop MLS 2 relegation when four MLS 2 teams remain in the Championship (hopefully two in each conference)
- After both leagues have similar numbers of total teams, discuss possible alternative pro/rel options
- Note: Independently owned clubs with soccer operations run by MLS teams would be exempt from relegation (see reason below).
This concept has several benefits.
- USL Championship teams that paid expansion fees would remain in the league. This would include independent teams that have soccer operations run by an MLS team given the financial outlay.
- MLS 2 teams that not only develop but also compete well at least against other MLS 2 teams would remain in the Championship
- USL League One would remain at least 50% independent teams allowing for development and competition to remain a hallmark of the league
- High-quality MLS 2 teams (looking at you North Texas SC) would have a shot in USL Championship, without a meaningful increase in cost except some travel and several extra home games
Of course, there are drawbacks and risks to this concept, too, just as there would be with any implementation of full bore pro/rel. For example, league division alignments would likely change every year with Midwest teams moving frequently depending on where promoted or relegated teams were located. Over time, if both leagues have an East and West division, pro/rel could happen between them, but initially, this would be impracticable.
While not perfect, I think this or a similar out-of-the-box system might be an initial method to create and test pro/rel within the USL professional league structure. Perhaps, this is something for Jake Edwards and his team to ponder as they speak with MLS owners and league officials.