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Soccer Dreaming: Promotion/Relegation and Why We Need It (and how it can work)

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But John, the Rapids would have been relegated...

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

You know what, you are damn right.  The Colorado Rapids would have been relegated after their problematic (OK, utter crap) 2015 season.

And you know what...I just do not care one bit.  I will love this team whether they play in Major League Soccer, the North American Soccer League or United Soccer League.  Passion for a team does not end based on what division they are playing in.  My favorite team is Burnley Football Club and will always be...Regardless of whether they play in the Championship or in the Premier League (and after seeing them play in the Prem twice since 2009 and seeing them relegated twice, I understand happiness and sadness).

And think about it: where would teams like Crystal Palace (who were in administration in 2010 and nearly liquidated and now are an exciting team with legitimate sites on top 4 in the Prem) be without Promotion/Relegation?  Or one of the stories of the 2015-2016 Premier League season:  AFC Bournemouth (who were nearly out of the Football League all together in 2009).

So if it can work in most places all over the world, why can't it work in the United States?  Well, here is my take on it in the form of Soccer Dreaming: why we need Promotion/Relegation and why it can work in the USA.

The Rapids Conundrum

As hard as it is to accept, the Colorado Rapids would be down in the NASL if we had promotion/relegation (pro/rel) in the United States.  If we did have pro/rel here is what the NASL would look like in 2016:

Team 2015 Table Position
Atlanta Silverbacks NASL Eighth Place
Carolina RailHawks NASL Sixth Place
Colorado Rapids Relegated from MLS--19th Place
Chicago Fire Relegated from MLS--20th Place
FC Edmonton NASL Seventh Place
Fort Lauderdale Strikers NASL Fourth Place
LA Galaxy II Promoted from USL--Second Place
Louisville City FC Promoted from USL--Third Place
Miami FC NASL Expansion Team
Philadelphia Union Relegated from MLS--18th Place
Puerto Rico FC NASL Expansion Team
Rayo OKC NASL Expansion Team
Rochester Rhinos Promoted from USL--Champions
Tampa Bay Rowdies NASL Fifth Place

Promoted to MLS:  New York Cosmos, Minnesota United FC, Ottawa Fury

Relegated to USL:  San Antonio Scorpions, Indy Eleven, Jacksonville Armada

Why call this a conundrum?  Because this would cause a significant problem for the Colorado Rapids as they would be forced to face some stark realities:  they are not running this club very well right now and what they are doing is not working.

But how big of a conundrum?  I guess it depends on how you look at things.  There is no doubt that the Rapids are not a good team (right now) and they are lacking in leadership who are willing to make the tough decisions that benefit the soccer side of things.   But being relegated might be the best thing that could happen to them.

Say what?  And how could this be the best thing that happens to the Rapids?

1)  It would force the ownership to pay real attention to the team. Yes, the ownership of the Rapids appears to be more engaged then they were before.  And yes, they have signed two new Designated Players (Kevin Doyle and Juan Ramirez) that featured in the 2015 season.  And yes, they have made upgrades to things around Dick's Sporting Goods Park to improve they experience.  They are truly trying.  But, the results on the pitch are ultimately all that matter and in that category, the Rapids are sorely lacking.   With the prospect of being relegated the ownership would have to say:

"Well shit.  We could legitimately be playing in the NASL (currently Division Two on the US Soccer pyramid) against teams that no one has heard of.  This could be an unmitigated disaster and all of that money we spent to build Dick's Sporting Goods Park will be used to play teams from Rochester, New York or Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  Screw that boys.  We need to put money into this team and make them competitive.  Or at least good enough to be above the Red Line in MLS."

2)  It would force the Front Office to be concerned with results.  Before you yell at me and say, well dude, of course the front office is concerned with results.  Are they?  Really?  They are in one of the toughest two year stretches in club history and are light years from a playoff berth.  And what do they do?  Keep the coach that has run the team into the ground.  This is not personal, but there is no way Pablo Mastroeni should still be employed as head coach of the Rapids.  It is bloody disrespectful to think otherwise. Pro/rel would push the Front Office into taking results seriously and would make changes that would improve the product on the pitch.

3)  Pro/rel would require better players which would increase attendance. Look, people are not getting off their couch to come see Jared Watts play.  They are not rolling out of bed to see Marc Burch.  But when the Rapids play New York City FC people are there to see David Villa.  When we play LA Galaxy, people are coming out for old man Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane.  And why are so many people there when we play Seattle Sounders:  Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins.   The Rapids would have to get better immediately to stay in MLS, and would need to buy better talent which would improve attendance numbers.  People want to come out and see big names play on the highest stage the US soccer scene has to offer.  It's no secret that attendance numbers are higher at DSGP when the other team has big names playing.

The Development Issue--A Benefit of Pro/Rel

One of my big mandates for US Soccer would be development of players.  The ability to groom young American players so that they can represent the US Men's National team is critical and something that seems to be lacking in the United States.  It seems like our best young talent is playing overseas and getting experience there.  Sure, those leagues are, by and large, better than MLS, NASL and USL.  But imagine a player for Rochester Rhinos.  The Rhinos would USL last season and in the pro/rel system they would have been promoted to the NASL.  Where, presumably, they are playing tougher competition and in theory improving their game.  And an improved player means that they could be getting more looks from the USMNT.  And an expanded player pool is much better than what we have now.

But Major League Soccer is a Single Entity

It sure is and that is always the big problem I hear about with pro/rel is the single entity model that MLS has.  Well here is my response:

"Any for profit business runs the risk of losing money.  If you did not want to lose money in Major League Soccer you sure as heck should have stayed out of it."

But pro/rel actually increases the chance that teams can make more money.  Why?

1) A pro/rel system means teams are going to need to spend more on players and better players means higher attendance as more fans are concerned with the team as they get to see bigger named players.  Or at least teams that are playing better soccer.

2) A pro/rel system means that teams are going to "go for it" as they don't want to get relegated.  And a front office that is showing a willingness to 'put up or shut up' is going to have a far more energized fan base and a fan base that spends more money

3) A pro/rel system increases television viewership (and in turn, more revenue from said television).  One of the compelling thing about the Barclay's Premier League is certainly the fight for the title and the top four.  But equally exciting is the race for the bottom three.  Maybe I am a sucker for someone else suffering, but man alive.  Seeing Aston Villa, Sunderland and Newcastle United fighting for their premier league lives is as exciting as trying to figure out who will be in the top four.  (Side note, Arsenal, Man United, Man City and Tottenham are my choice for that).  The point is, people tune it to see whether a club will beat the drop or not.

But Dang It John, MLS is a SINGLE ENTITY!

And, your point?  Look I get the single entity argument, but that should not be a hindrance to pro/rel becoming a reality.  The bigger problem is whether MLS can commit to this new model.  For kicks and giggles, let's say that hell freezes over and Major League Soccer decides that pro/rel is for them.  How could it work:

1)  Decide When. Pro/rel is NOT going to happen overnight.  I propose a ten year time period so that when March 2026 comes around, pro/rel is on the table.

2)  Decide How Big. MLS needs to decide how big the league wants to be.  Constant expansion is an issue for a pro/rel model.  If 28 is going to be the number, then fine.  If 32 is going to be the number (which is my guess) then fine.  Just stop the constant expanding of the league.  If 32 is the number, this should be able to be accomplished by 2024.  That gives two years before the pro/rel model takes shape and is enacted.  That also gives NASL and USL time to get their ducks in a row for this as well.

3)  Give owners time. There will be some owners that will be completely dead set against this idea.  Fine.  No problem.  You have been given a ten year time frame to either get on board or sell your team.  But they have to know that pro/rel is the direction that the league is going and anything short of their 100% cooperation is not going to cut it.

4)  Compensation for the drop. Call it parachute payments or whatever, but the drop can be financially difficult for teams as they would be losing out on top level revenue.  MLS would have ten years to come up with a payment schedule to help teams adjust to the lower leagues.  But it would also help teams that have been relegated to make an immediate return to MLS.

5)  The Salary Cap. A salary cap is important as it still makes it possible (in theory) for any team to have a shot at staying in the league that it is currently in.  But it will be critical that both NASL and USL have a salary cap as well.  It would not make sense for an MLS club to get relegated but still be paying MLS wages.  Yes, they will have parachute payments upon relegation, but they will still need to stay within a cap (more work would need to done here to flesh out how this would work).  But relegated teams will have those payments to pay players so it is not an immediate salary dump.

Whew.  That is a lot of words.  And look, I know that this is the longest of long shots.  You have people that are so dead set against this model that it is highly unlikely that this ever happens.  But if Don Garber is serious about making MLS a destination league, this is something that should strongly, strongly be considered.

It should be considered, but what is bothersome is that people dismiss this right away as something that can't happen.  How do you know that something cannot happen if it is not even tried.  I am sure one of the arguments will be "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."  Sure.  I understand that.  But what if there were a way to make soccer in the United States even more exciting?  What if there were a way to grow the sport beyond what it is now?  And what if there were a way to truly bring MLS to one of the premier soccer leagues in the world?

And what if all that took was having stakeholders of US Soccer sitting down at a table and beginning to have discussions about making this sport even better.  A system of promotion/relegation can do just that.

What's the harm in sitting down and talking about it?