Listen folks. I'm a fan of promotion and relegation in the American soccer pyramid. Most US soccer fans that watch EPL, La Liga, Liga MX, etc. are. It's a cool thing. It doesn't exist in other sports. For small clubs, the hope of getting promoted is an amazing idea that can drive investment and excitement and dreams for player and fan alike. The underdogs, scrapping their way from being a semi-pro squad of plumbers and bartenders into being a big-time club. For top tier teams languishing at the bottom of the standings late in the year, they have a real incentive to try, else they get booted out the relegation trap-door. Late season soccer becomes meaningful for almost all the teams in the table.
But it ain't gonna happen in the US. At least, not the way John suggested it could. For two reasons:
First, MLS' owners are bound to be dead-set against it. MLS owners have signed on to own an MLS team. Not a second-tier team or a USL team. It'll be a hard sell to get the owners to agree to pro/rel in the manner that John described. It's against their economic interest.
In England, the second-tier English Championship has a decent television deal on Sky Sports, and balloon payments for teams that go down that mean that they keep a fair chunk of change should they get relegated. Here in America, there isn't nearly as much television viewership nationwide to support such a deal and make it profitable for all the teams in the league. Right now NASL and USL stream games for free, and MLS profits are pretty tight, or, if you believe Don Garber, non-existent. So no owner is going to be in favor of it.
Second, the structure of MLS was created and has operated for 20 years without pro/rel. That makes bringing it on midstream very difficult. Not impossible, mind you, just really difficult. Change is hard. It tends to be gradual. With billionaires, it often needs to be forced upon them. See Sterling, Donald and Snyder, Daniel for reference. So a change must be the result of something slow, organic, and almost irresistible.
When England created the English Football League in 1888, it had 12 teams, and no pro/rel. However, only four short years later, so many additional teams wanted in that the league founded a second division. Teams at the bottom of the Football League were made to play ‘test matches' with teams in Division Two. Eventually, the test matches were scrapped for automatic pro/rel matches. Thus, the birth of pro/rel. I think this can be instructive.
I think MLS can, and should, adopt promotion and relegation. But a limited form of it. In fact, I'd argue it's on it's way. Lemme ‘splain.
MLS will go to 22 teams in 2018, up from 14 teams in 2008. That's an astonishing growth rate. The league has stated that it expects to grow to 24 teams by 2020 (almost certainly Miami and Minnesota), and is open to the idea of pressing onward to 28 teams.
And why shouldn't it? Soccer television audiences are growing, as are the dollar amounts tv networks are willing to pay. TV advertising is going big-time to events that are must-see-live, since your home DVR pretty makes the ads during ‘The Big Bang Theory' invisible. Millennials and hipsters are gaga for footie. A team can still be fielded for under $5 million in player salaries. Sacramento, Charlotte, St. Louis, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, and Oklahoma City have successful USL franchises that could take the jump to MLS. Twenty-eight teams seems almost like a certainty, or even a conservative estimate on the way to an inevitable 32 teams.
But here's the problem. The MLS playoffs is about as long as it can be. Both the weather and throwball (sorry, that's what we call ‘American Football' in my house) make lengthening the playoffs difficult, despite the money that might be in it.
Additionally, going to 32 teams makes the race for the playoffs that much less attractive. Teams like the 2015 Rapids are out of it even earlier, with nothing to play for. It dilutes the significance of the regular season to a point that games become superfluous. And it makes it hard to expand further, since a league of 36 or 40 teams with only 10 playoff spots and 1 champion seems unwinnable.
That's why I believe MLS would be best served to go to 36 teams, and split into two divisions: MLS1, and MLS2.
The top division could have 20 teams in geographically arranged divisions, for purposes of travel and games: home and away against your division, like the Rapids and it's Western Conference opponents, and home or away for the other conference.
The bottom division, MLS2, would contain the next 16 teams.
Promotion and relegation could work a variety of ways. The Belgian/Israeli league have 30 games to determine whether you are into a playoff for the cup, or for relegation. Cup qualifiers then play home and away against their opponents for the next 10 games. Relegation-threatened teams do the same. The worst two teams on points at the end of go down.
Other relegation formats include simply dropping the bottom two or three teams on points at the end of the season, or having the bottom team drop and the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th ranked teams play ‘do or die' final matches. That'd be cool. Liga MX has a relegation system based on a three-year coefficient system, but I'd need a PhD in math to explain it, plus I'm not sure it's actually done fairly, instead of just being a scam to keep Chivas up after a bad run lately.
Of course, MLS1 teams would only get relegated down to MLS2. Teams would share revenue from TV deals amongst both leagues, with a slightly larger share going to MLS1 clubs. Teams in MLS2 would still get to be on TV, but not often.
What about relegation from MLS2? That's the tricky part. I can't see it happening. For the Anshutzes and Kroenkes of the world, they aren't going to vote in favor of harming their investments. They might, however, be open to being dropped into the second tier if they get a taste of all that sweet sweet TV money that comes from being in 36 or 40 markets instead of just 20. They also get a cut of each and every expansion fee. They'll make the vote if the trade-off for second division status is a crap-ton of moola. One could easily argue that the Rapids and Chicago Fire are functionally in the second division as it is.
There is the possibility that once MLS embraces a two-tier system with limited pro/rel, it might eventually evolve into allowing for MLS2 to relegate teams down to NASL or USL. If the owners can experience limited pro/rel, and see that it can be stable, and lucrative, and if they can figure out a way to make expansion to a full three or four tier pyramid profitable, it could eventually happen.
But, baby steps first. Let's have promotion and relegation in America. But let's start slowly and carefully, with a closed system, between two leagues that both belong to MLS. This MLS thing only just got out of being the ‘new crazy fad' and into the ‘bonafide established league' status a little while ago. Let's walk before we run.