MLS: What would league look like with promotion and relegation?

MLS, Don Garber (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
MLS, Don Garber (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images) /

What would U.S. Soccer look like ahead of the 2020 season with promotion and relegation? Here, I consider the makeup of MLS with an English-style promotion-relegation system.

The actual implementation of relegation and promotion in the American soccer system is a topic of debate and a much deeper article within itself. With any real progress on the subject at a bit of a standstill as Major League, United Soccer Liga and National Independent Soccer Association continue to grow and add teams, while having others fold in the process. It is a sensitive subject for all involved in the still relatively young and complicated (legally) league system. But let’s take a minute to stop, think and imagine based on 2019 performances what the league structure would look like with a relegation and promotion sample.

First off, things we all understand:

  • Yes, there is a bit of a talent disparity
  • Also yes, the budgets between MLS and USL clubs are a bit different (you should look at the Premier League).
  • Reserve teams like North Texas SC and Sporting Kansas City II would probably be separate entities in a true promotion-relegation system.
  • And of course, there are many business realities and logistics to this we can’t really fathom just yet.

The methodology:

To start, I took a look at what promotion and relegation in the U.S. could possibly look like and took a look at a lot of articles like this one, written over two years ago by fellow contributor Eric Harris. When realizing all of the leagues mentioned look a lot different as I write this in the beginning of the new decade and with clubs folding and being founded around every corner, I just threw all of that out. I instead took some structural ideas from English football.

The English Football System through four divisions: 

Premier League (Top Flight, 20 Clubs)

3 teams relegated to the English Football League

English Football League (Three Divisions, 24 Clubs Each)

English Football League Championship (Second Division, 24 Clubs)

3 teams promoted to the Premier League (2 automatically with the following four competing in the playoffs for the final spot)

3 teams relegated to the English Football League One

English Football League One (Third Division, 24 Clubs)’

3 teams promoted to the English Football League Championship (2 automatically with the following four competing in the playoffs for the final spot)

4 teams relegated to the English Football League Two

English Football League Two (Fourth Division, 24 Clubs)

4 teams promoted to the English Football League Championship (3 automatically with the following four competing in the playoffs for the final spot)

2 teams relegated to the National League (Level 5)

Now, even though the English Football System has a total of eight levels with continuous relegation and promotion throughout, I’ll stop here as it gets a bit messy and there are only three divisions in U.S. soccer anyway.

So, with the model above let’s insert American leagues with the exception of USL-Two for the sake of siphoning through the 72-team standings and the mix of amateur and professional status at that level. And the National Independent Soccer Association will be held out as well, even though they represent the third division of U.S. Soccer along with USL-League One because a small sample size mixed with a shorter season makes things a little messy.

Now, the “new” U.S. Soccer System:

Major League Soccer (Level 1, 24 teams in the 2019 season/26 for the 2020 season)

3 teams relegated to the USL

United Soccer League (Two divisions, 35 teams in Championship and 12 in USL-One)

USL-Championship (Level 2, 35 teams)

3 teams promoted to MLS (2 automatically with the following four competing in the playoffs for the final spot)

3 teams relegated to the USL-League One

USL-League One (Level 3, 12 teams)

3 teams promoted to the USL-Championship (2 automatically with the following four competing in the playoffs for final spot)

3 teams relegated to the USL-League Two

So, let’s see how this would all shake out in MLS. Here is what would happen with the above promotion/relegation system involved.

The 3 Relegated Teams: 

Orlando City SC

2019 Performance: 37 Points (9-15-10), in 34 matches

Joined: 2015

Stadium: Exploria Stadium (Capacity-25,500)

Orlando City have had a bit of a hard time in the Eastern Conference since their bump to MLS from the USL Pro back in 2015. Failing to qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs and failing to finish higher than seventh (their first season in MLS) so far has put them in a tough place, one worthy of relegation. They had much more success in their four seasons in USL Pro and at this point in the club’s history may be considered one of those teams who just promote and relegate between divisions.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC

2019 Performance: 34 Points (8-6-10), in 34 matches

Joined: 2011

Stadium: BC Place (Capacity-22,120)

The Vancouver Whitecaps, like a few other teams from Cascadia Cup, have a long and rich history of soccer that goes way past the creation of MLS. This includes four championships in the CSL, 2 championships in the USL first division and even a CONCACAF Champions League appearance back in 1992. This was all before their entry to MLS in 2011. Vancouver isn’t as new as the other two teams listed to relegate to the USL Championship and they have seen more success in MLS than the other two have as well, so, with offseason additions, they would be a dominant second-division team.

FC Cincinnati

2019 Performance: 24 Points (6-22-6), in 34 matches

Joined: 2019

Stadium: Currently Nippert Stadium (Capacity-33,800), Future Home: West End Stadium (Capacity-26,000)

FC Cincinnati didn’t have the inaugural season they would have hoped for in 2019. Hoping to follow the Atlanta United or LAFC model, they instead created the FC Cincinnati model, one destined for failure in MLS. Garnering just 24 points in their first campaign with just six wins total was tough to watch, especially for a Cincinnati fanbase that gives terrific support and loves their team. The 2020 season should be a bit different, with some underperforming players not returning and added firepower in the form of Yuya Kubo and Jurgen Locadia from Europe.

The Three Promoted Teams:

Phoenix Rising FC

2019 Performance: 78 Points (24-4-6), in 34 matches

Joined: 2014

Stadium: Casino Arizona Field (Capacity-6,200)

Phoenix Rising FC were outright dominant last season in the USL Championship, finishing with a total of 78 points, which was far above anyone in the Western Conference and 10 points better than Pittsburgh in the East. They’ve had MLS teams loan players to them to compete and have recently sent guys up to MLS and have become a bit of a hotbed for some of the best players in the USL. Phoenix is one of the many cities hoping for the next MLS expansion bid and, after putting a dominant product on the field while having an ownership group willing to invest in a climate-controlled stadium to combat their intense summers, it might just happen. This, then, would be a well-deserved promotion.

Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

68 Points (19-4-11), in 34 matches


Stadium: Highmark Stadium (Capacity-5,000)

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds may be one of the more historic clubs in the USL ranks, beginning competition in the then USL A-League back in 1999. Pittsburgh has two first-place finishes under their belts but have really failed to perform in tournament situations, only advancing past the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup once back in 2001. They have, however, had success in the last couple of years and the city of Pittsburgh is a major sports town and large market that soccer is yet to tap into, so a promotion to MLS could be intriguing, to say the least.

Nashville SC (USL Version)

67 Points (20-7-7), in 34 matches


Stadium: First Tennessee Park (Capacity-10,000), Home this season would still be Nissan Stadium (Capacity-69,143)

This is a bit of a tough one as Nashville was given an MLS Expansion slot and is actually set to compete in the league for the 2020 season, but in this fictitious scenario, they would secure their MLS place via the quality of their play, not the decision-making of Don Garber and co. Let’s also set aside the current drama going on with their future soccer-specific stadium and look at the team which has a great mix of MLS and USL talent. It still remains to be seen whether this team will compete well in MLS this season. Will they be closer to Atlanta United or FC Cincinnati? But the fanbase is substantial and fierce, they have a good-quality squad, and there is reason to be excited, both in real life and in this experiment.

New League Roster: 25 teams

Eastern Conference

Atlanta United FC
Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew SC
D.C. United
Inter Miami CF
Montreal Impact
Nashville SC
New England Revolution
New York City FC
New York Red Bulls
Philadelphia Union
Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
Toronto FC

Western Conference

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

dark. Next. MLS: Ranking all 24 stadiums

What comes of promotion and relegation in U.S. Soccer remains to be seen. Realistically, it is always going to be a debate on social media without much action. The owners have too much power and the teams do not want the threat of missing out on MLS money. But as this experiment shows, it would shake up the structure of the league and provide an added dimension to the games in the latter stages of the season, and that is surely worth considering.