Columns & Blogs

Opinion: It’s time for promotion-relegation in U.S. soccer

Sunil Gulati, left, president of the United States Soccer Federation, United States’ Landon Donovan, and Don Garber, right, commissioner of Major League Soccer, pose for a photo after a press conference in Bristol, Conn. Friday, Oct. 10, 2014 regarding Donovan’s retirement from soccer.
Sunil Gulati, left, president of the United States Soccer Federation, United States’ Landon Donovan, and Don Garber, right, commissioner of Major League Soccer, pose for a photo after a press conference in Bristol, Conn. Friday, Oct. 10, 2014 regarding Donovan’s retirement from soccer. AP

First, let’s give some credit to Major League Soccer. For more than 20 years, the league has survived – a significant accomplishment for any of us – and is the fifth-leading professional sports league in the United States.

It even gained a national television deal a few years ago, thanks to the brokerage work of the admitted FIFA crook, Chuck Blazer, who ratted out his pals in international soccer’s governing body.

MLS’ TV ratings and attendance are going up, and the quality of play appears to be getting better. Eleven of its teams made money as of 2013, according to Forbes magazine.

You can’t argue with MLS’ incremental success – unless you’re getting frozen out of it, and that’s where the argument in favor of promotion and relegation begins. Unhappily, MLS is opposed.

“Pro-Rel,” as the insiders call it, is the concept that guides professional soccer worldwide, except in the United States. Clubs that finish at the bottom of one league drop into a lower league; teams that finish at the top of the bottom levels move up.

If applied to soccer in the United States and Canada, promotion-relegation could throw all 54 professional teams in 44 cities in three leagues in the two countries into one multitiered jumble. The sea-to-shining-sea scope might bring on another soccer popularity boom like we saw last year when new fans filled bars and plazas all over the country to watch the men’s national team in the World Cup. Promotion-relegation could even give amateur teams a chance like they get in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup now under way.

The only sporting event that truly unifies the country, where hundreds of towns have a puncher’s chance at a big-league championship, is the NCAA basketball tournament. It’s also arguably the most popular sporting event in the country, bringing the business of the nation to a halt while everybody stops to see how VCU and Gonzaga are doing.

Who’s to say if soccer will ever become such a showstopper. But except for the quadrennial World Cup, it won’t generate the same nationwide electricity as long as MLS remains so rigid in its opposition to promotion-relegation.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber, at The Associated Press Sports Editors Association meeting in New York last month, looked like Tim Howard in the nets the way he knocked the suggestion of promotion-relegation over the crossbar.

“I will certainly tell you in the near term, and that near term will be a long time from now, that there will not be promotion and relegation,” Goal.com quoted Garber as saying. “It makes absolutely no sense. There is not a developed secondary division. We have union agreements. We have national television deals. We have investors who have put in billions of dollars. It is not something that is going to be able to be managed anytime soon.”

Garber’s remarks made sense only if you don’t think the system would work as wonderfully here as it does in the rest of the world. Secondary divisions such as the North American Soccer League and the United Soccer League, to which Republic FC belongs, are already in place and sanctioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation. Union and TV deals could only be improved to everyone’s benefit and investments enhanced as the sport takes off in popularity through promotion-relegation.

For a counterargument to Garber, let’s check in with Jurgen Klinsmann, coach of the U.S. men’s national team.

“I’m a deep believer in promotion-relegation systems,” Klinsmann said at a news conference last October in a discussion about his search for talent in MLS and the second-division NASL.

NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson supports it, too, telling SI.com last year, “There’s no denying the excitement it creates.”

Peterson, however, is dealing with other issues these days. Federal prosecutors accused the chairman of the NASL board of governors, Adrian Davidson, of being a bribery conduit in the FIFA scandal, forcing his ouster. NASL also has had a little problem with the USL in third-round Hunt Cup action, with six of its clubs bounced out of the tournament by third-division USL squads.

USL executives wisely stay out of the promotion-relegation discussion. It has teams such as Sacramento with eyes on MLS membership, and there is no percentage in saying anything that might upset the soccer bosses over there.

Nobody’s shackling the fans, though.

Taylor Miller, 72, is a retired lawyer new to his liking of soccer. He only recently attended his first Republic FC match, which makes him emblematic of the millions ready to be won over by the sport. Miller wore a Republic FC baseball cap the other night at the Track 7 brewery off Sutterville Road. After downing a pint, he told it straight on where he stands on promotion-relegation.

“I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “It allows small markets like Sacramento to be able to compete with larger markets on the basis of merit and to move up.” Miller shed no tears for the money men whose teams might fall if they don’t win. “In America,” Miller said, “merit counts.”

Like Al Davis said – just win, baby. Or you get relegated.

  Comments