What Could Promotion and Relegation Look Like in the US?

CINCINNATI, OH - JULY 16: Fans of FC Cincinnati cheer on their team during the match against Crystal Palace FC at Nippert Stadium on July 16, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.(Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - JULY 16: Fans of FC Cincinnati cheer on their team during the match against Crystal Palace FC at Nippert Stadium on July 16, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.(Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images) /

A trip down an alternate reality with promotion and relegation in the U.S.

By now you’ve heard of the rumor that MLS turned down a bonkers media deal with one little caveat. That MLS would feature a system of promotion and relegation. Now the MLS media deal wouldn’t be able to kick in until 2021, and there have been no serious rumblings about promotion and relegation. That doesn’t mean we can’t think about hypotheticals. What would a potential system look like? I took the current USSF system and reconfigured it to feature promotion and relegation.

The system has two tiers with 40 teams, 24 in the top tier (we’ll call that MLS) and 16 in the second division (let’s go with USL). The twist is that all 40 of those teams will have a developmental team, similar to minor league baseball or the G-League in basketball. That way we get a total of 80 teams in professional soccer, with all the major markets in the US included. All teams from MLS, USL, and NASL are included in some fashion.

Division 1: MLS

The reason MLS will have more teams in the top tier is because of the current landscape of the league. It currently has 22 teams with the addition of LAFC next year bringing things to 23. Throw in the Miami deal, let’s say that finally gets done, and now it’s up to 24.

Rather than force four teams down to the second division, all 24 can stay in the top division. The size of the country also makes it possible to have more teams, rather than European leagues who mostly have 20 teams.

The league will be split into two conferences which will look like this.

Eastern Conference

  • Atlanta United
  • Chicago Fire
  • Columbus Crew
  • DC United
  • Miami FC
  • Montreal Impact
  • New England Revolution
  • New York Red Bulls
  • New York City FC
  • Orlando City SC
  • Philadelphia Union
  • Toronto FC

Western Conference

  • Colorado Rapids
  • FC Dallas
  • Houston Dynamo
  • Los Angeles Galaxy
  • Los Angeles FC
  • Minnesota United
  • Portland Timbers
  • Real Salt Lake
  • San Jose Earthquakes
  • Seattle Sounders
  • Sporting Kansas City
  • Vancouver Whitecaps

The schedule sets up for every team to play each team in their own conference twice, then play half the teams in the opposite conference twice and the others once. This would rotate throughout the seasons, giving the league a 40 match season.

Division 2: USL

So there are 16 teams to add to the league, with apologies to NASL, the USL is better set up to adjust for this change. That doesn’t mean those teams won’t be included. Here is how the second tier works out.

  • Detroit City FC
  • FC Cincinnati
  • Indy Eleven
  • Jacksonville Armada
  • Las Vegas FC
  • Louisville City FC
  • Nashville SC
  • New York Cosmos
  • North Carolina FC
  • Phoenix Rising FC
  • Sacramento Republic
  • Saint Louis FC
  • San Antonio FC
  • San Diego SC
  • San Francisco Deltas
  • Tampa Bay Rowdies

So the first big difference is single table. Two conferences of eight teams just doesn’t work. So this is much more similar to European leagues, and the scheduling is as well. Each team plays each other twice. Meaning a 30 game schedule.

So How Does Promotion and Relegation Work?

It’s simple, the bottom team in each conference of MLS go down, and the top two in USL go up. What makes this system unique is the hybrid addition that combines elements of the German and English systems.

Two of the more exciting games in soccer are the playoffs. In England, 3rd through 6th in the championship battle it out for the top spot. In Germany a team in the first and second division play each other for that last spot in the Bundesliga.

MLS would combine the two, putting the 11th place teams in each conference in a four team playoff with the 3rd and 4th team from USL. The four teams would play a 3-game round robin, just like the group stages of the World Cup. Top two go to MLS.

If that doesn’t make sense let’s create a hypothetical. Right now in MLS Colorado and New England are in those danger spots in MLS, lets throw in two of the better teams in the lower leagues, say, New York Cosmos and Louisville City FC. Those four each play each other, and would create some incredible drama for the final spots.

Developmental League

The new part of this. Completely separate of the two tiers, each team has a development team and they will compete in one of four 10-team conferences. Those look like this.


  • Bethlehem Steel SC (PHI)
  • Harrisburg City Islanders (MIN)
  • Montreal Impact II (MON)
  • New York Red Bulls II (NYRB)
  • New York Cosmos B (NY)
  • Pittsburgh Riverhounds (CLB)
  • Richmond Kickers (DC)
  • Rochester Rhinos (NER)
  • Toronto FC II (TOR)


  • Colorado Springs Switchbacks (COL)
  • Dayton Dutch Lions (CIN)
  • Des Moines Menace (LOU)
  • FC Arizona (PHX)
  • FC Indiana (IND)
  • Michigan Bucks (DET)
  • Real Monarchs SC (RSL)
  • Saint Louis FC II (STL)
  • Swope Park Rangers (SKC)
  • Tulsa Roughnecks (CHI)


  • Charleston Battery (ATL)
  • Charlotte Independence (NC)
  • Chattanooga FC (JAC)
  • Memphis City SC (NSH)
  • New Orleans Jesters (SA)
  • OKC Energy (FC Dallas)
  • Orlando City B (ORL)
  • Puerto Rico FC (MIA)
  • Rio Grand Valley Toros (HOU)
  • Tampa Bay Rowdies II (TB)


  • Los Dos (LAG)
  • Napa Valley 1839 (SF)
  • Orange County SC (LAFC)
  • Portland Timbers II (POR)
  • Reno 1868 (SJ)
  • Sacramento Gold (SAC)
  • Seattle Sounders II (SEA)
  • SoCal SC (SD)
  • Sonoma County Sol (LV)
  • Vancouver Whitecaps II (VAN)

Each team that already has a USL affiliate keeps theirs, some teams like Charlotte and Puerto Rico might feel fleeced but not everyone can have it their way and all the markets that have shown real promise are included. Each team only plays the teams in their divisions, three times each for a total of 27 matches. To make things fun in this league, the top four of each conference will make a developmental playoffs. They’ll also get to play in the U.S. Open Cup.

What About the Canadian Teams?

This situation also benefits the developing CPL. Teams like the Ottawa Fury and FC Edmonton can go to the newly formed Canadian team which will feature these eight cities.

  • Calgary
  • Edmonton
  • Halifax
  • Hamilton
  • Ottawa
  • Saskatoon
  • Victoria
  • Winnipeg