Just What Would MLS Look Like With Promotion/Relegation?


Aside from possibly MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s choice of cigars there is no subject in MLS and North American soccer that is more of a hot button issue than promotion and relegation. Although it can be at times a lively discussion of the game’s finer points, it often seems to boil down to name calling and derogatory remarks mostly under 140 characters.

While the subject seems to have been discussed ad nauseum at this point, there is still one question that needs to be answered:Just how the heck would it work?

Now before everyone starts taking that question to mean yours truly has a particular point of view this subject, please take a moment to listen. This question isn’t meant to instigate negative comments it is just an honest observation. Leagues all throughout the world use different types of promotion and relegation systems to determine who goes up and who goes down.

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For example, while the Premier League has a simple system where the bottom three teams at the end of the season go down, the Bundesliga has a mini-tournament. There are also leagues like La Liga which includes teams like Barcelona B who cannot play in the same division as Barcelona and leagues that have split season schedules like Liga MX.

So let’s say before the start of last season  the United States Soccer Federation and the Canadian Soccer Association wrote MLS and its owners one giant fat check and told them to get behind promotion/relegation immediately. This is of course assuming the owners of the North American Soccer League and USL Pro would jump at this idea. What would be the rules be and what would the leagues in North American soccer look like in 2015? Let’s take a look!


Aug 3, 2013; Hempstead, NY, USA; Fort Lauderdale Strikers defender Toni Stahl (5) and New York Cosmos midfielder Joseph Nane (5) fight for the ball during the second half of a match at James M. Shuart Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

1.)Three teams up, three teams down.

Promotion would be determined based off of each league’s respective playoff structure. North American soccer officials love their playoffs so this would likely be a pre-requisite.

So let’s use the 2014 NASL season as an example. Since the San Antonio Scorpions won the Soccer Bowl they would obviously go through. As would the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers who were the runners-up in the Soccer Bowl. The final spot, which would be contended by Minnesota United or the New York Cosmos, could either be determined by superior regular season record or a one game playoff.

Of course this also brings up the question as to whether or not each league should implement a single table with each team playing every other team the same amount of times. Although it would be ideal to have a single-table it might not be doable given the size of the Untied States and the financial impact that it would have on the leagues in particular USL Pro.

Relegation is much simpler: the three teams with the least amount points drop a division.

2.) One season schedule for each league.

The only league that this affects is the NASL, which has a fall and spring season. While there is nothing wrong with the league continuing to use this system, provided that it continues a combined standing system at the end, it would be nice to have each league use the same format.

3.) Any subdivision clubs (Los Angeles Galaxy II, P2) cannot play in the same division as their parent club. 

While it would be great to see Los Angeles Galaxy fans try to figure out which team to root for as they leave the match in the 60th minute (just kidding, Galaxy fans) it would be difficult to see how such a match would work. Would Bruce Arena stack the Galaxy II team to teach the senior club a lesson? Let’s not find out.

4.) The PDL teams would be separate from the Promotion/Relegation system.

Anyone who follows English football knows how cool it is to see a team rise from Conference level and go up through the divisions. While it would be great to see this in US Soccer there is one small problem: players in the Premier Development League are not paid. Many of these players play for their college teams and if they were to be paid to play for a PDL squad they would lose their college eligibility and possibly scholarships.

Now if the college system were to change or if professional soccer became a more lucrative business here in the United States then perhaps things might be different. But for now there is really no way a team like the Baltimore Bohemians could advance to USL Pro without it impacting their player’s college careers.

5.) There would need to be some sort of bonus awarded to teams that are promoted.

This is an idea that English football uses to help assist teams that are going up a division and playing against sides that have greater financial resources. This would of course need to be implemented in the U.S./Canadian pyramid as well since their is a disparity between teams in MLS and the other two divisions.

6.) Expansion teams start at the bottom.

We can grandfather in the teams being added for 2015 to the various levels and the three other MLS franchises being added in 2017 so that lawsuits can be avoided. But going forward if some rich mogul wants to own an MLS team they will need to go through USL Pro first.

So with these rules in mind let’s take a look at the pyramid of US/Canadian Soccer and what it would look like with a promotion/relegation system:


(Promoted Teams In BOLD)

[table id=6 /]

Relegated Teams: Montreal Impact, San Jose Earthquakes, and Colorado Rapids.

Quick Thoughts: Minnesota was given the third promotion spot since a.) they had a superior record over the Cosmos and b.) the one-game playoff is strictly hypothetical since there would actually need to be a match. However, if the Cosmos were to win such a match they would be moved to the East and Sporting Kansas City likely to the West.

Part of the problem of breaking your league into geographical conferences and doing promotion/relegation would be consistent realignment. Also, MLS plays an imbalanced schedule so the Earthquakes and the Rapids might have done better playing in the Eastern Conference.

That being said, a Houston-San Antonio-FC Dallas Western Conference could create some exciting Texas derbies.


[table id=7 /]

Relegated Teams: Indy Eleven, Atlanta Silverbacks, Ottawa Fury FC

Quick Thoughts: Once again depending upon on how the leagues want to set up their promotion guidelines we would see either Los Angeles Galaxy II or Richmond Kickers in the NASL.


[table id=9 /]

Quick Thoughts: If Los Angeles Galaxy II is promoted over Richmond based on finishing one spot higher than the Kickers during the regular season then nothing would change from this table. However if Richmond were to be given a one-game playoff and win or if L.A. Galaxy II were unable to be promoted due to being a sub-division club then Louisville would likely move west.

The subsidiary team situation makes promotion/relegation very difficult. Since PDL teams could not be promoted, USL Pro teams could also not be relegated. And since MLS squads would likely not want to be in the same division as their second division squads this could create complications.

What rules would you add to create promotion and relegation in this country? What model do you think would work? Please share your thoughts!

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