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MLS Simplex 1 and 2

May, 2012



I’ve often placed MLS’s single entity business model in the realm of pathology. It is a system in which club autonomy, quality and investment is limited by a controlling cartel that uses legal loopholes to exert monopoly control on the US game. It debilitates top US clubs for domestic parity in a very open global market. It develops little American talent, as evidenced by miniscule sales of US players on the international market compared to even moderate soccer nations. With pro-soccer second only to NFL in key under-24 and Latino demographics, it still relegates US club soccer to miniscule TV ratings. It pens the game into small stadiums, and limits capacity in larger stadiums. Most importantly, by possessing a US Soccer D1 sanction, MLS continues rob lower division clubs of the equity and investment they need to survive.


Our sanctioned chain of discount D1 soccer outlets leaves our second division clubs so weak that they must sell home field advantage in the most legacy laden national club tournament in the Western Hemisphere - apparently in order to survive. They also leave our federation subservient enough to allow this level of corruption in our historic US Open Cup.


Now the disease is showing signs of mutation. As often happens in the wake of scandal like Cupgate, and under increasing pressure from fans, the MLS rumor mill is cranking up – and the biggest thing on the QT is MLS 1 and 2 – with some form of promotion and relegation between the two.


On the bright side, if MLS 1 and 2 try to take center stage - it will be because of supporter pressure for pro/rel in the United States. It will be remarkable evidence of increasing supporter demands. No doubt it is also an indication of continued FIFA pressure on US Soccer to integrate to integrate our club game with the rest of the world.


On the dark side, it is just another gimmick-laden delay tactic. Any MLS managed system of promotion and relegation will leave our lower division sides in the same situation they inhabit today: Robbed of the equity and investment, living on borrowed time, and donating all their blood and treasure to prop up MLS – via US Soccer edict.


It’s great that MLS is feeling the pro/rel pressure, but MLS 1 and 2 not a solution. The battle for promotion and relegation in American soccer is a fight for the same unlimited clubs that the rest of the world enjoys - and around which the history of the game revolves. It is a struggle to reach the vast potential of the club game in the US. It is about giving every US club the opportunity capture the imagination of supporters, investors and sponsors. It is about giving our lower division clubs access to new streams of capital with which they can develop US talent. It is about sending our top clubs into international competition as unlimited as their opponents.


For MLS and SUM, this plan for league run pro/rel is a battle for single entity survival. US supporters of promotion and relegation are often accused of being sheer copycats. We’re told we just want the game to look like England’s. The nutty thing is, if MLS forms a second division with pseudo promotion and relegation and while still locked under a system of drafts, salary caps and DP rules - that is exactly what we’ll get.


Let’s say MLS 1 and 2 gather momentum among US supporters and come into being. Operating without federation rules and regulations, they'll be free to run it in whatever way benifits their investors the most. Be sure that's not a fully open system.


Here's one scenario under which pretend pro/rel plays out. The most successful MLS expansion teams are already pseudo promotions. Sounders Timbers, Whitecaps and Impact have all set the bar for expansion outlets – and probably saved MLS bacon. MLS 1 and 2 would simply institutionalize this process, and increase one league’s grip on the game. If the league does open a doggie door to promotion, it may only be availed to teams pre-selected for expansion, and then quickly closed once MLS 1 reaches full complement.


Do not expect to see relegation from MLS 1. Instead, expect that promotion itself will be ended when they’re done building their chain of top-flight outlets. Also, do not anticipate any changes to the MLS multi-layer marketing scheme. Be secure in the knowledge that clubs will still have to pass through the MLS single entity event horizon to get into either “league” and avail themselves to the same micromanagement and quality limits. Be assured that the connivance in which the league trademarks their properties (while clubs continue to pay them for the privilege) will continue as usual. Just as we will not see unlimited futures for any club, neither will we see any additional incentive to invest in lower divisions.


Erik Wynalda is leading a fifth division team against the Portland Timbers in the US Open Cup this week. I haven’t heard any rumors of MLS 5. No matter how you splice it, MLS breaking itself into two salary-capped-single-entity “leagues” does not end the single entity pathology. It is simply a mutation designed to add another layer of resistance to the disinfectant of true open leagues and unlimited clubs. It is gimmick by those who wish to copy the appearance of promotion and relegation – without getting any of the qualitative benefits of independent and unfettered clubs.


For me, bandying terms around is not sufficient. For most supporters of pro/rel, it is not about copying nomenclature or echoing slogans of open systems for marketing purposes. It is about a fundamental change that will allow us the unlimited clubs that that a true system of promotion and relegation accommodate.


For MLS and SUM, this is a medicine show. It is about using lip service to buy more time in which they can consolidate their hold on the American game. If they double the single entity disease, they will do it by packaging it as a cure.


Snake oil never solves anything.