Why American Soccer NEEDS Promotion and Relegation

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… and billions of reasons why it’ll never happen.

Written May 18th, 2014 by Mike Slatton

What is Promotion and Relegation?

On the outside, it truly looks like American professional soccer is here to stay – in most Major League Soccer (MLS) cities, anyway.  However, American soccer desperately needs a system of promotion and relegation similar to what most European football leagues have, to ensure a long-term growth pattern of the sport.   To know WHY we need promotion and relegation in professional soccer though, you need to know what “promotion and relegation” is.

[quotes] Promotion and Relegation is a process where teams are transferred between two divisions based on their performance for the completed season. The top 2, 3 or 4 best-ranked teams in a lower division are promoted to the division above, and the 2, 3 or 4 worst-ranked teams in the higher division are demoted (relegated) to the division below.

In some leagues, playoffs between top-ranked lower-tier teams and lower-ranked top-tier teams are also used to determine who moves up or down.  In the 24 level English football system, there are 8 levels of “professional soccer“, but the process of promotion and relegation continues through all 24 levels: about 7,000 teams, “allowing even the smallest club the hypothetical possibility of ultimately rising to the very top of the system.”[/quotes]

The Current U.S. System

The NFL and other U.S. professional sports don't have promotion and relegationIn the U.S., we have no such thing as promotion and relegation in any of our professional sports. All of our premier level professional sports leagues are an exclusive billionaire’s club of individuals with “plantation owner mentalities” (minus the publicly traded Green Bay Packers, of course) who stay profitable by limiting competition.

This business model, of course, mirrors just about every other industry in our nation where bills are written by industry leaders, which then become laws created to PREVENT competition – not promote itMajor League Soccer is a league born in the same country with the same “profit first” ideologies, so it’s fairly easy to assume that the MLS owners have the same mind set.  Heck, Arthur Blank, owner of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons just purchased an MLS franchise for the Atlanta market, because he sees the huge profit potential of an MLS franchise.

In fact, American football’s NFL is so greedy that it won’t even entertain the idea of an official development league for professional football players.  Instead, it and the NBA use college athletics as their own professional athlete development programs, going so far as to manipulate the NCAA into punishing college athletes who try to make money from their athletic prowess BEFORE becoming “professional athletes“.  This system of oppression keeps the athletes desperate, hungry, broke & eager to make it to the big leagues.

Major League Soccer is now starting to follow the same pattern as the NFL, drafting college players and promoting their colleges & universities, thereby feeding the educational machine, strengthening the evil NCAA and creating a professional soccer athlete clearing house to draw cheap labor from.

Cheap entertainment labor provided by the NCAA

The NCAA gets cheap entertainment labor from its college athletes, whose schools are promoted by the professional leagues, to keep the machine running.

Slave Labor

It is widely accepted in the United States that if you want to play professional sports here, you need to be good enough to play in college.  That goes for every sport that has a professional league.  The only exception to that rule might be soccer… for now.

The difference between our system of soccer athlete development and most European football (soccer) systems, is that clubs over there have INCENTIVE to develop athletes.  Players increase in value as they improve.  Any professional club can earn money by developing players.  Any team – no matter what their level – with a penchant for developing players can earn money for their clubs by “transferring” well trained players to teams that can afford them.  The transfer is usually accompanied by a fee:  “transfer fees“.

Transfer fees are separate of player contracts.  It works like this:  If I have a great player on my team, and you want him, then you, me and the player all decide if this is a good fit.  Once that’s established, then you and me decide a transfer fee, and you and the player decide a wage.  Once everyone agrees, money starts changing hands.

In the United States, we have no such thing as transfer fees in our developmental system.  (read more about Athlete Development and Transfer Fees) The only transfer fees that MLS teams have paid have been to oversees clubs that will not release players without a transfer fee.    Instead, the American athlete development system has college athletics.

As we all know, college athletes are not allowed to accept money for playing sports – from anyone, or for anything.  So, if you’re a great American college football or basketball player who’s been surviving on Ramen noodles and nickel beer for the last 4 years while training 20 hours a week on the gridiron or court, 10 hours a week in the weight room and spending another 20 hours a week earning a degree in Political Science or Horticulture, playing in the NFL or NBA for a starting wage of $250,000 sounds like a great reward for all of your hard work.

Major League Soccer is opposed to promotion and relegation

Is Major League Soccer joining the other plantation owners in the Billionaire Boys Club?

In that same grain of thought, if you’re a great college soccer player who’s been surviving on Ramen noodles and nickel beer for the last 4 years (purchased with money from mom and about  $15k worth of student loan and credit card debt) while training 20 hours a week  on the soccer field, 10 hours in the gym, and spending another 20 hours a week earning a degree in Political Science or Horticulture, then playing soccer in the MLS for a starting wage of $50,000 sounds like a great reward for all of your hard work – and an opportunity to put off adulthood for a couple more years.

The U. S. Soccer Pyramid SHAM

Like every other professional soccer league system in the world, the United States promotes a soccer system pyramid that displays the different levels of amateur to professional soccer in the country. The problem is that there’s no way to verify the validity of these claims.

It’s all a BIG LIE!

Where does the NASL fit in to the American soccer structure?

Where does the NASL fit in to the American soccer structure?

Without promotion and relegation, where is the proof that the best teams are in the MLS, and that the NASL is better than the USL?  More than once, I’ve witnessed a college team beat a “professional” team.  In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, the USF Bulls beat the USL’s Orlando City Lions.  The Orlando City Lions then beat the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies in another friendly a week later.  So who’s really better?  And why do the Orlando City Lions get to jump over the NASL on their way to the MLS?

Even more suspect is the fact that MLS teams draft players from college to begin play immediately in the league.  Over half of all MLS players are drafted directly from college.  In the American baseball system however, NOBODY goes right from college into “The Show”.  They start in the minor leagues to get more development.  In the U.S., only baseball has an organized player development program with clear lines of progress.  There are some interesting soccer player development programs though, like the Generation Adidas program which works in a joint capacity between the MLS and USL to ensure that great American talent has the opportunity to play at the highest level possible in the U.S. while getting a good paycheck. But again, this program appears to bypass the NASL.

2nd Tier?

If the NASL is truly a 2nd tier league, shouldn’t there be a clear connection between the MLS and NASL?   The closest connection I can see is on a very few occasions when MLS teams loan players to NASL teams.  This labeling of the NASL as 2nd tier just appears to be an appeasement.  If the NASL was truly the undisputed 2nd tier league, wouldn’t more players be moving between the NASL and the MLS than between the USL and MLS? 

Why does the USL have such a cozy relationship with the MLS, but the NASL looks like the 2nd tier step child?

Why does the USL have such a cozy relationship with the MLS, but the NASL looks like the 2nd tier step child?

The USL has a clear and unabashed relationship with the MLS and work directly with the MLS to develop players, while the NASL just appears to be a needle in the MLS money pouch. Check out this press release from the USL. So where does the NASL come into play?   If the NASL were the clear 2nd tier team, shouldn’t there be a clearer connection between all 3 tiers?  This of course hurts the validity of the NASL and limits the growth of the league and all teams involved in it.  After all, who wants to root for a team that will NEVER be considered one of the best in the world, STRICTLY because of the league it plays in?

So, besides the clear confusion of the relationships between the MLS, NASL and USL, you also have ANOTHER league – the NPSL, which is considered a semi-professional league listed as the 4th tier of American professional soccer.  There is absolutely no recognizable relationship between any of the upper leagues.

Clarity

So, after all of that, is there any more clearer reason that American soccer needs promotion and relegation in our professional leagues?  Here are 8:

8 Reasons Why America Needs Promotion & Relegation


1. FAN ENGAGEMENT

– The system of Promotion and Relegation keeps every fan engaged all season long.  Fans cheer to support their team winning the league, beating the champion for nothing more than pride, or fighting to stay up in the higher performing league.  Though not as profitable, lower leagues are just as competitive, so being demoted to a lower league just offers your team a better chance at winning a title next year.

Anyone who’s ever watched “Championship Sunday” knows that there are 20 different story lines playing out simultaneously in 10 different games.  The 2012 and 2014 EPL (English Premier League) couldn’t determine a clear winner of the league until the final whistle blew.   There were teams struggling to avoid relegation and multiple teams playing for the championship. Your team may have had the opportunity to play for pride, play for survival, or play for the cup.

Oh, the drama!

In Holland, 2014, the final Eredivise (Dutch Premier League) game between Ajax and ENS was one of the most exciting games to watch this year, even though Ajax had already won the league. What made it so exciting was that NEC was fighting to gain a playoff spot to AVOID relegation. A loss would have meant that they had no hope.  A tie or win and they would playoff against other teams in the bottom.  They tied in the last few minutes of  the game.

2. ENTERTAINMENT

Every professional soccer player knows (or should know by now) that they’re entertainers first, and athletes second.   Promotion and relegation is a great way to keep every player playing hard all season long.  If you watch NBA at all, during the first half of the season, the game doesn’t even start getting competitive until he 4th quarter.  Once playoffs have been determined, teams that didn’t make it don’t play their stars and start rebuilding for next year.

In a league where performance can mean demotion from the league, EVERY game is important.

3. PLAYER DEVELOPMENT

–  Promotion and relegation provides a clear line of excellence, and gives every team a benchmark to achieve.  Without benchmarks, we’re just guessing what the best league is and are assuming that league has the best players available.  Promotion and relegation improves the over-all pool of players in America, as every player has incentive to do his best, because sheer effort and determination can drive their team to the top of the pyramid.

NASL and USL teams have no incentive to find (and pay for) the best players they can afford, because they’ll never get the exposure, fan base and revenue that an MLS (or future MLS) team would get.

4. POLITICS

– The current system is ripe for abuse and prevents players and teams from achieving their potential.  Currently, only political connections determine what teams get to play at the “highest level” possible, and what cities can even participate.

Of course, without promotion and relegation, we’re just assuming that the MLS is the highest level.

In a league with promotion and relegation, EVERY city that wants to put together a team, can eventually have an MLS team.

5. TEAM LOYALTY

– Promotion and relegation creates “fans for life“.  Hope and dreams are what drive humanity. If your team has the opportunity to one day be considered the best in the country, you’re likely to jump on that bandwagon early.  However, if you have a team that will NEVER be a top tier team and NEVER play for the premier level cup, it ‘s hard to build a following.

It’s tough to build loyalty around mediocrity.

6. COMMUNITY RELATIONS

– A professional soccer system with league promotion and relegation gives aspirations to young players who may not YET live in an MLS city.  Most MLS teams have Academies to train and nurture “home-grown” talent.  If you’re not in an MLS city, too bad.  If you’re not an MLS team, why bother?

Promotion and relegation makes EVERY city a (potential) MLS city, legitimizing the lower tiered leagues, giving youth soccer players local heroes.  Every local youth player can dream of being the local professional soccer hero who brings the MLS Cup home.

7. ECONOMICS

– If you legitimize the NASL, USL and NPSL with promotion and relegation, more fans will buy in to their local teams, thereby improving the local economies, and give the teams resources to improve EVERYTHING.  More revenue for NASL, USL and NPSL teams provides incentive for city officials to help teams build better stadiums.  It also keeps the money in town, because soccer fans will support the local team rather than making out of town trips to MLS cities to watch “real” professional soccer players.

8. OPPORTUNITY

– Professional sports leagues RARELY represent the best of the best.  Instead, they represent the best of what is left. Many players of every sport never realize their true potential, whether it’s due to bad coaching, bad parenting, injury, tragedy, a failure (of a coach or parent) to recognize potential or just a failure to consider CHEMISTRY.   League Promotion and Relegation allows a great TEAM of players to rise to the top and be recognized for their chemistry and team work, instead of their skills and achievements as individual players.

America’s current system only recognizes the individual.

There are enough teams in the United States to overtake England in terms of fan engagement, but without promotion and relegation, our system is just disorganized and hard to understand. It takes generations to create real fan loyalty for any sport, and right now, we have plenty of teams and potential fan bases to create a great system, but who wants to root for a sub-standard team that will ALWAYS be sub-standard (the standard, of course, being the MLS)?

Promotion and relegation gives every FAN & TEAM a reason to invest their time, energy and money into their team, to help them become the best in the country… and even maybe the world.


Mike Slatton is a USSF & NSCAA Nationally Licensed 30 year youth soccer coach, player developer and father of two soccer players.
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About Author

Mike Slatton is a 2nd generation American youth soccer coach since 1984, and the son of one of the nation's first female licensed youth soccer coaches (Anita Slatton, 1978). He's also a professional soccer scout, a player since 1977, and the father of three adult and teenage children who all play or have played the game. "My job as a youth soccer coach is to develop detail oriented problem solvers who can react quickly under pressure. This relates to life - not just soccer."

4 Comments

  1. So what are we supposed to do? how can I, as an American citizen longing to see soccer be great in this country, help get the USA to use this system?

    I’m pregnant with a boy and I want to encourage my kids (son & daughter) to play soccer.. from what I’ve read my daughter probably shouldn’t go pro if she wants to earn a decent living. lol. unless of course she’s passionate, truly about the beautiful game, and my son is going to have to be shipped off to another country to learn to play well, apparently.. I live in Orlando, I’m super excited about our MLS team, but from everything I’m reading, it’s all a sham. What hope does my son have of going pro if he dares to dream it?

    • Mike Slatton on

      Ha ha ha! Well, it’s not all a COMPLETE sham. Orlando City has a great community youth soccer program with USL affiliate Premier Development League (PDL) teams. If you have professional soccer dreams, Orlando is probably the BEST CITY in the nation to be in, so check “moving” off of your list.


      As for promotion and relegation, I’m beginning to feel that we are actually getting closer to it, than further. The MLS just absorbed NASL affiliate Minnesota into their fold, meaning that the MLS is growing, while the NASL is shrinking. In 2018 the MLS will have 24 teams, while the NASL will be down to 12, with others like the Cosmos and Rowdies trying to get a promotion to MLS as well.


      By comparison, the English Premier League have 20 teams in at that level, with the 8 levels (leagues) lower having 22 to 24 teams in each league. That’s over 200 PROFESSIONAL soccer teams in one system. That doesn’t even count the thousands of semi-pro, pub, and youth teams that also fit into the English Football System.


      While it would be great to have a system like England does right now, it just won’t happen with the mish-mosh USSF “tiered” system we currently have. We have to get to a point where EVERY team is an MLS team. That’s going to be a few decades. In the mean time, the USL has firmly established themselves as the “farm” system for the MLS, and Jurgen Klinsmann has discounted MLS as the undisputed development league of top American talent, calling players up from the NASL and German 2nd division clubs.


      This means for you that your son CAN play professional soccer in the US, because of the conversation we’re having right now. America’s development system is improving because coaches like Jurgen Klinsmann is calling the USSF out and voicing his concerns. On top of that, within a hundred miles of YOU, there are NPSL, USL, NASL and MLS teams that you can support and learn from. Your son will have more opportunities to play professional soccer in the U.S. than at any time in the history of the sport.


      Just don’t burn him out.

      • Thanks for the words of hope & encouragement. I’m new to this, my daughter is only 1, the boy is still cooking, but soccer is what my dad had on tv all the live long day, and my husband raised in private Christian school played it age 5 up until high school, junior year before trying American football and injuring himself pretty bad. I feel like soccer injuries are “safer” than NFL injuries. So anyway, this site is a nice resource. I’m excited to learn what I can.