Don Garber, I'm sure you are reading this. I've come up with a way to introduce Promotion and Relegation to MLS. I know you've said that it's unlikely, but I've gone and figured it out for you anyways. Just sit back, put on your reading glasses, and take this all in. Oh, you don't wear reading glasses, well just skip that step then.
I'll lay everything out in just a few simple steps.
- The MLS Expands to at Least 30 Teams (probably more).
- After said Expansion, the Craziest Season in MLS History Unfolds
- After said "Crazy Season", the MLS Splits into Two Tiers
Step 1: MLS Expansion to 30 Teams (or More)
A lot of people who discuss Promotion and Relegation in America default to the US Soccer Pyramid. That simply will not work, so let's throw that out right now. The MLS currently operates as a single entity, and that will likely change no time soon. Because of this, moving teams up and down from a separate existing league like the NASL or the USL is illogical. I know that people who support Pro/Rel hate that last statement, but continue on for a compromise that hopefully we can all agree on. Who am I kidding? We won't all agree, just leave me alone on Twitter because I already know you don't like this idea, I just am giving you an idea that could realistically happen (time frames not withstanding).
Also we must factor in the fact that most of the teams from these lower leagues don't have stadiums with the capacity that would be required to be a MLS team and many of the teams in the USL are owned directly by MLS teams. The USL can continue to exist outside of MLS as a development or reserve league, as well as a league that serves smaller communities that may not be able to support an MLS team on their own.
Most importantly, to the MLS and its existing owners, teams are paying crazy expansion fees to join MLS, so there is no reason not to take all that money. If America is good at anything, it's being capitalists. Ultimately the league needs to make money to make things feasible, so I don't blame them one bit. And let's not forget, Jurgen Klinsmann wants the MLS to adopt a Pro/Rel system, and I do too. Clearly he and I are both equally important on the American soccer scene.
Currently, the MLS is home to 20 teams. In the coming years the MLS is set to add four additional teams. Those teams will be Minnesota United FC (currently of the NASL), Atlanta United FC (new, and how unoriginal to copy their fellow projected 2018 team Minnesota when naming their club), LAFC (new or former Chivas USA, depending how you look at it), and David Beckham's unnamed Miami (new) team, assuming they ever get going.
For those of you lacking in basic arithmetic skills, that would bring the total to 24. For my plan to work, we'll need to reach at least 30 teams. Because I love talking expansion in general, I'll lay out some of the likely cities/teams to join. If you are uninterested in who the teams will be, skip ahead to Step Two.
Sacramento Republic FC
Sacramento Republic FC are currently in the USL and in their third season. Their first season they went ahead and won the championship and broke all the USL attendance records (at that time). They are one of the more logical choices for MLS expansion because they already have plans for a soccer specific stadium, which is one of the current keys to getting an expansion team in MLS. They clearly have a rabid fan base since their attendance set a USL league record (at least for their first two seasons).
They would be the fourth team in California (counting LAFC) but there are 12 million more people in CA than in the next largest state (Texas), so I think there are enough bodies to not make attendance an issue. They probably won't be our last California team. Sacramento would also be following a rich history of USL teams (and USL First Division teams) to make the jump to MLS (Orlando City, Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers and Montreal Impact).
San Antonio FC
The former San Antonio Scorpions played in the NASL before desolving and becoming San Antonio FC. The have actually already built a soccer specific stadium and have outlined plans to expand it to the capacity of an MLS stadium.
San Antonio has a special place in my heart because Sporting Kansas City have sent several players there on loan (well, the San Antonio Scorpions, not SAFC) during the 2015 season (Saad Abdul-Salaam and Jon Kempin). Going back to my population theory, Texas can definitely support additional teams on top of their existing teams (Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas) since they are the second largest state in the country.
Another bit of information that will help San Antonio is that they are owned by the same people that own the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA. MLS loves rich owners and with San Antonio FC being in the USL, much like Sacramento, that puts them in a good place to earn expansion.
St Louis FC
St Louis FC are currently playing their second season in USL, but that's not why they made the list. No, St Louis made the list because of it's rich soccer history that dates all the way back to the early 1900's. St Louis has seen a slew of teams over the years, including a team in the original NASL. Additionally, they hosted the Olympic Games in 1904, which were the first to include soccer as a sport.
St Louis also are in talks to get a stadium of their own since the Rams of the NFL have relocated to Los Angeles. On top of all that, how great would it be for Sporting Kansas City to have a proper geographical rival? Sometimes geography can make for the best rivalries. Until then, we'll all just have to agree to keep hating Kyle Beckerman and Real Salt Lake.
Cincinnati are an expansion team in the USL and have shattered the previous attendance records set by Sacramento. That alone has to give the team a chance. If they can sustain this attendance and excitement, they seem like a strong candidate. Cincinnati is the 30th largest metropolitan area in the country (one behind Kansas City at 29, who are doing quite well at supporting a team.) They'd be a natural geographic rival to the Columbus Crew as well.
Arizona United SC
As if there aren't enough teams with the words United in their team names (DC United, Minnesota United, Atlanta United), next on the list comes Arizona United SC. Arizona currently plays in the USL and are in their third season. Arizona United took over for Phoenix FC, which folded after the 2013 USL season.
Phoenix currently has nearly 4.2 million residences, so it's definitely one of the largest unrepresented areas in the country. The main problem with Phoenix is the heat. The MLS season covers the entire summer and the average temperatures are over 100 degrees. Arizona United currently start all their games later in the evening, but that has to be a concern. Not to mention the debacle that is the city of Glendale and their stadium situation with the NHL's Arizona Coyotes. The MLS though prefers to be in downtown areas, and Glendale is definitely out in the burbs.
A possibility exists that the Arizona Coyotes would move to a new closed stadium in the downtown Phoenix area. If they were to partner with AZU and play soccer indoor that would greatly increase the odds of Arizona gaining an MLS team.
Louisville City FC
Louisville City FC are another USL team in their second season. They came into the league as a replacement for Orlando City SC, who were granted expansion to MLS for the 2015 season. Louisville is a smaller market (only the 30th largest city in the country -- not this is city size, not metropolitan area like Cincy) but they've enjoyed early success in USL. Also, what else is there to do in Kentucky? They have college sports and horse racing, but beyond that I'm pretty sure it's all Bourbon related activities. Louisville is having success in USL both on and off the field, which is something the MLS values when adding new teams.
Detroit City FC currently play in the NPSL (the unofficial 4th tier of US Soccer). Detroit is the 14th largest metro area in the country with nearly 4.3 million residents. While Detroit is a city in decline, this team has been greatly supported in the area. Detroit is another one of those towns where there is really nothing to do but watch sports or be cold, so it seems like a probable home for an expansion team. With the city struggling financially, they'd likely have to follow the path of a team like Orlando City, who are privately financing their own stadium.
Detroit City will likely take a back seat to the bid to gain expansion from the owners of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons (NBA). The fact that the new Detroit team doesn't actually exist may mean some sort of melding of the two teams.
San Diego, California
San Diego currently has a team, the Flash, who are so lowly they don't even have a website (come on guys, you can buy a website with loose change from your couch. Who am I kidding, no one uses physical money anymore). That doesn't mean soccer wouldn't thrive in southern California. San Diego has the best weather in the continental US.
With an MLS season that runs through the summer, that's a definite advantage. San Diego has been hopeful in the past to obtain a failed Chivas USA team, but that didn't work out. Now they are pondering replacing the possibly departing Chargers of the NFL with an MLS team. If San Diego can prove they would support a team, I can think of no better place to put one.
Not to mention, all these international stars coming to MLS are targeting these prime destinations (LA, NY, Miami) and though San Diego is smaller than all those cities, I doubt you'll find a shortage of people wanting to live there. On top of that, former MLS legend Landon Donovan has been tied to possible expansion for USL or MLS teams to San Diego which definitely won't hurt the cause.
Austin Aztecs (USL): Though they are right down the road from San Antonio, they do have nearly a million people in Austin, Texas. Not to mention hipsters love soccer. I'm not stereotyping, that's just science. Austin are currently taking a year off to get their stadium situation worked out, so that hurts a bit.
Orange County Blues (USL): Just north of San Diego, they already have a team in the USL. The Blues are so close to LA, this seems less likely since there are going to be two teams there again quite soon, but as always, the population can support numerous teams, there is just a question if fickle Los Angeles or Orange County people will come out in support.
Indy Eleven (NASL): Indianapolis, Indiana is the 14th largest city and 33rd largest metro area. It again helps fill in the middle of the country and they already have an established team in the area. They've shown good support for soccer over the years as well.
Edmonton or Calgary, Alberta, Canada: FC Edmonton already play in the NASL, but Calgary is larger. It would help fill out Canada quite a bit since there is such a gap between Vancouver and Toronto geographically.
Ottawa Fury FC (NASL): Ottawa is the 4th largest city in Canada and has a team in the NASL already (and a head coach who moved over to Sporting KC). Ottawa is pretty close to both Toronto and Montreal geographically, but that shouldn't matter too much.
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada: Winnipeg again would help fill out Canada's large empty void. It's the 7th largest city and they do have a small team, WSA Winnipeg, that shows they do have an interest in soccer.
Las Vegas, Nevada: Las Vegas was up for the most recent round of MLS Expansion that went to Minnesota United. They went as far as to design a stadium proposal. Vegas has the same issue with the heat as Phoenix. They also have the additional issue of gambling engulfing the city. That could be why no major pro team has landed there yet. That said, it's rumored the Oakland Raiders (NFL) could move there and it's certainly not out of the question to share a stadium (much like Atlanta United are doing).
Step 2: The Craziest F&#$ing Season in MLS History
Hopefully that bold headline will bring you back! All this talk of expansion teams may have put some of you to sleep. I just love talking expansion, but I digress. In my hypothetical Promotion and Relegation plans, we are now up to at least 30 teams in MLS. Most of the other professional sports leagues in America have that many teams, so we could stop there. I will do no such thing! Promotion and Relegation is common-place throughout soccer leagues around the world, and the way we get there is through this season.
We'll say all that expansion happened super quick and it's only 2020 (despite how unrealistic that is). We have 30 teams, still divided up between Eastern and Western Conferences. The 2020 season will play out like normal. There will be a race to make the playoffs (hopefully by then the MLS lets less than half the league into the playoffs) and there will be something else fantastic going on. At the end of the 2020 season, the league will drop back down to 20 teams and the remaining teams (10 if we are at 30 for you math Wizards out there) will be relegated to MLS 2.
As a side note, we don't have to call the leagues MLS 1 and MLS 2. We could be creative and say the MLS Premier League (I'm sure we won't get sued) and some other creative name instead of MLS 2, like MLS 2: Electric Boogaloo. For the sake of this story we'll call them MLS 1 and MLS 2.
Now I know what you are saying, "10 teams relegated, have you lost your mind?" I have not lost my mind. Think of the drama of this season. With 10 (or more) teams going down to MLS 2, there is a good chance a legit team will get relegated by having an off-year. Their supporters won't love it, but every game will count on a level that has never been true before. I know I wouldn't stop supporting my team and in fact I would rally behind them even harder to make it back to MLS 1.
Step 3: A Two League Promotion and Relegation System
After this wild season, we'll switch gears to some more standard rules. Going forward MLS 1 will have 20 teams, and the bottom three teams will get dropped down (or we could get wild and send five up and down every year, but that feels like a bit much to me).
Now I'm open to it being the three worst teams (which would decimate the poor Eastern Conference most years) or doing something like having the worst team from the East and worst from the West automatically go down. Then the next worst overall is demoted or possibly there is a one game playoff between the next two worst teams.
Then, down in MLS 2, the best three teams will get promoted back up to MLS 1. Again, I'm open to options here. We could simply have the three teams with the most points move up. Or, since we love playoffs in America we could send the winner of a playoff back to MLS 1. We could make the runner-up go up as well, or simply revert to the teams with the most points again. Or, the two title game teams go up and we play a 3rd place game to send up the final team. The options are endless.
I realize Promotion and Relegation is going to create some chaos in different ways. Geographically, there will still need to be an Eastern and Western Conference due to travel constraints of a single table balanced schedule like the Premier League (or I guess we could do a single table, I'm down to negotiate).
So teams that are in the center of the country may move back and forth between the conferences. To keep throwing out crazy ideas, I once saw it proposed we have a 21 team league with an East, West, and Central Conference alignment. That would cut down on wild swings in alignment, but probably causes more trouble than its worth.
Now, what about further expansion? At this point, once the leagues are split, all future teams would start in MLS 2 and have to earn their way to MLS 1. I'm sure there are concerns about teams not wanting to continue to pay big fees to enter the league at this point. That is a possibility, but I think teams will still be willing to join.
As MLS continues to grow and the talent levels continue to rise, there will be no shortage of billionaires willing to spend money to get into a sports league. If soccer continues its rise in America, we could easily get to 40 teams. Think of how many teams are on the tiny British Isles. They support four major leagues. Plus, with the cities I've mentioned, we already have teams in the largest markets. New teams would be smaller market teams. If the growth continued there could be an MLS 3 even.
There are still lots of other semantics to be determined. With all this expansion, constant expansion drafts could really take a toll on rosters. I think the level of talent around the world will support it though. Look at Sporting Kansas City last year. They turned over a large portion of their roster year over year and still played quite well. The MLS may need to revisit roster rules in terms of the number of international players per team, but MLS changes their rules so much this wouldn't be that big of an issue. There is talk of already eliminating the expansion draft for Atlanta and whoever joins with them (if anyone does) and just increasing the amount of General Allocation Money to jump start a new squad.
Having said all that, I'm not holding my breath. As much as promotion and relegation means to soccer fans around the world, it's something more complicated to explain to a novice. I think it adds a lot of intrigue to every game in a season, but I'm not sure that would hold true for everyone. I'd still be passionate about my team if they were in MLS 2. And picking up a championship trophy, even in the second division, would still be something worth celebrating.
Think of all the situations in sports it could fix. The Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA have been tanking for years. NFL teams often tank to get the highest draft picks. You'd see much less of this if it meant being sent to a lower division. Especially in soccer where the MLS SuperDraft doesn't mean as much as say the NFL or NBA draft.
Talent is brought in by so many different mechanisms, with the draft only counting for a small portion. Speaking of the draft, I have to say you go from the worst MLS 2 team in order up through the best, then do the same for MLS 1 teams, worst to best. 30 or 40 picks in the first round would be interesting. I'm open to this being discussed too as players may not opt into the draft if they know they are going to a second division team.
Now, with TV contracts in MLS not being as lucrative as being a member of the English Premier League, I don't think we would see some of the disparity we see now in the EPL. Teams would just keep splitting revenue, regardless of which league you are in. There would probably need to be a salary floor, to prevent teams from not spending to just cash their revenue sharing check.
Right now that likely isn't even a problem as the checks are so small compared to the EPL. The best teams will always make money from being successful (merchandise and ticket sales at the very least), so there will always be incentive to maintain your status in MLS 1, even if the revenue sharing is the same across both leagues. I'm also for keeping a salary cap, which many Pro/Rel people are against, but parity is important. I don't want to see a few teams dominate and in the 20 years of MLS, 10 different teams have won titles, which seems like a good split.
So Don, how much do I get for thinking this all out for you? Let me know. I'm happy to take a position in the league office. I can be the guy who deals with all the angry fans, since you can never make everyone happy.
What does everyone think? Hit me up on Twitter @PlayFor90 or in the comments.