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Why I’m grateful we don’t have Promotion and Relegation in MLS

It’s the offseason, so let’s debate stuff about the sport we love. Promotion and relegation? I’m glad Major League Soccer doesn’t have it. What do you think?

MLS: State of the League Address Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The old proverb goes, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”

The American soccer proverb (to some fans) is similar, “Promotion and relegation would make our grass a hell of a lot greener.”

Promotion and relegation, if you have been living in a state of soccer ignorance, is the commonly used system in European leagues where teams at the bottom of their league table get relegated downwards and teams who win or place high in their table move up the pyramid of competition. It’s really a cool system in a lot of ways, as it adds some definite bite to late season games against poor sides and puts a lot of pressure on teams to scramble for results.

Though this conversation circulates every year and has its strong adherents, including this guy who flew a plane over the 2014 MLS Cup with a pro/rel message for Don Garber, it has so far not taken root in the American sports landscape. The hurdles are financial and structural, to say the least. With the potential dissolving of NASL and the continued growth of both MLS and USL, do we have a stable enough soccer pyramid that could support such a system? Would owners be on board after spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get in? Would smaller market teams even be able to compete on a larger scale? How could you control costs, especially as travel in this country is already an expensive ordeal and many teams are still struggling to build reliable fan bases?

The American way does seem counter-intuitive to fans who grew up invested in European soccer leagues. I get it. Rewarding a team who finished dead last with draft picks or allocation money kind of stinks. Front offices may not always feel the urge to improve, building slowly if they so choose - although that may not be all bad if that rebuilding includes developing young American talent. Relegation also potentially puts healthy fear into executives who may think they have a cushy job. Their job is on the line too if the team drops down and loses money.

But that’s about where the argument ends. Major League Soccer certainly doesn’t have a problem, like it once did, attracting and paying talent. Teams like the Chicago Fire who finish dead last aren’t sitting on their hands hoping the draft will save them. Expansion teams are trying different strategies, going after solid names to build a competitive team from the get go. GMs are being fired when a team’s roster implodes. The sport is growing in North America whether you like it or not.

Here’s the thing for me - promotion and relegation, as interesting as it is for many leagues around the world, has nothing to actually do with the game of soccer. That’s why spending time arguing about it is fine as long as we know we are twiddling our thumbs, but there is nothing inherent in its system that actually improves how players perform on the field. We might as well spend time arguing about the color and styling of referee’s uniforms as a way to improve the game.

In some way too, I like that MLS is a little bit different. Maybe that will win the respect of international fans in due time who come to see the value in our league for its unique snowflake-like oddities.

Of course, I’m not suggesting our system is perfect. There are improvements needed in Major League Soccer. And they are needed soon.

  • Free agency is finally here, but it can be made better.
  • The league needs to see that having a waiver draft with no one selected is a waste of everyone’s time.
  • The system deserves to be simplified. One kind of allocation money. One SuperDraft for rookies. One draft for the rights (if that) to negotiate with players released by their teams.

Oh, and one more thing:

  • Supporter’s Shield as the sole championship.

What’s your opinion? Did I get it wrong? If MLS did develop a promotion/relegation system, how would it work in your mind? What else can be simplified?