In many ways, I count myself as a soccer purist.
Decades before there was a stable domestic league in the United States – and Major League Soccer is now firmly rooted – I was pulling for teams such as Celtic FC and Manchester United, and living for those rare times when a soccer match might pop up on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
In the era that preceded cable television, the Internet and social media, much of my soccer information came via the library, meaning I wasn’t exactly getting up-to-date reports. It was like a shooting star … by the time news reached me, it was already history.
Still, I learned as much as I could about the Beautiful Game, and accepted something that seems odd to American sports fans – the lack of a postseason tournament in most international football leagues.
If you ended the regular season with the most points, you were the champion – period.
There was never playoff fever because there was never a playoff, but that was just part of a deal. If a club clinched a title with three weeks left in the season, so be it.
And of course, there was relegation.
Just as baseball as a hierarchy, from the Majors down to instructional leagues, soccer has divisions. And teams at the bottom of the top league have to fight to stay there, because there are always teams in the division below it looking to earn promotion.
I’ve always felt this system was brilliant. Some of the most competitive soccer matches I’ve ever seen involve English Premier League clubs battling it out in the twilight of a season in an effort to avoid being demoted to the First Division.
Beyond that, it prevents team owners from holding “fire sales” to unload talent. Stakeholders won’t be happy if you allow your team to drop down a rung, and promotion/relegation serves as motivation.
Jump to the present, where there has been talk of a relegation system in the United States. Guys like me would love nothing better for the bottom two teams in MLS each season to drop down to, say, the United Soccer League, while the top two USL teams move up.
Only problem is, MLS isn’t talking about it. And I’d be stunned if it ever agreed to such a system.
You might remember over the summer MP & Silva, a media rights company, offered MLS a staggering $4 billion for media rights that would extend through the 2023 season.
Had there been no strings attached, it’s likely MLS officials would’ve jumped on the offer.
Ah, but there were, indeed, strings.
The MLS would have to work with USL as well as the North American Soccer League, in the formation of a promotion/ relegation system.
And that was a deal-breaker.
The sports culture in the United States is vastly different than just about everywhere else. And while the EPL and most top-tier international leagues accept relegation as part of the sport, MLS would recoil at the thought of a franchise like the New York Red Bulls or L.A. Galaxy slipping into a lower division, replaced by the Charleston Battery and Rio Grande Valley FC Toros.
MLS has a single entity ownership structure, and its investors never want to see a situation where a major market slips to a minor league.
Personally, I think it would be great. I’d even be fine with the European system in which there were no playoffs at all.
Had that been in effect this year in MLS, Toronto FC would already be taking its victory lap as league champions, and not have to worry about facing Columbus twice to make the MLS Cup.
I suppose there might be a day where relegation comes to professional soccer in the United States, but I wouldn’t count on it. The entire landscape of American pro sports would have to change dramatically.
I think the best we can hope for are stable second and third division leagues, and the United States Soccer Federation still has plenty of work to do to unify the system.