THE momentum for change is real. Over the last decade or so, demands for promotion, relegation and fully fledged US soccer clubs have propagated as dramatically as the popularity of club soccer itself. More US supporters of every shape, size and color are speaking out for open US soccer leagues and fully independent clubs than ever before.
The market demand is there, too. More Americans get their soccer from open leagues than ever before – while TV ratings and internet search reveal an MLS that appeals to a smaller slice of US supporters than at any point in their history.
The battle is even entering the legal sphere. Two US leagues are questioning a trust arrangement that guarantees MLS valuable D1 status from US Soccer – by way of FIFA. One of them is threatening to take those demands to court.
The pressure isn’t only domestic. FIFA’s commitment to promotion and relegation as the essence of the game remains so strong, MLS is currently bracing for an intervention from them.
Suffice it to say – it is time to start believing the hype: We are poised to break a US sports cartel. It will not only mark a dramatic shift in American soccer history. It will be a seminal moment in American history.
One way or another, promotion and relegation is coming to American professional soccer. Let’s get it right the first time. Let’s skip the gimmicks, the pre-compromises and the poison pills we know are coming. We need a workable open league plan that fits the United States in every dimension. One that is truly national in scope. One that isn’t run by any one league. One that is properly installed and governed by an independent federation. One that addresses both our vast geography and enormous market and the financial fears of every owner. One that finally ushers our game into a new dimension in which it’s awesome potential can finally be realized. One that gives all investors choices. One that grants top-flight opportunity to dozens of US clubs.
Enter the octahedron.
Don’t worry. It’s just a fancy name for two pyramids stuck together.
One thing is for sure. In a nation roughly the size of Europe in both geographic and market size, we’ll need a plan that works for a plethora of clubs over dozens of market. Including our top four divisions, recent D5 entries, and NCAA sides – and despite a closed system that perpetually suffocates interest and investment – we already have over 1000. Two open pyramids – East and West – effectively answer those demands. Dual pyramids give US clubs more chances to prove themselves both here in the massive US market – and the global one beyond. They come fully equipped with 36 lucrative D1 slots to shoot for.
US supporters are increasingly upset by the fact that we continue to arbitrarily trap lower division sides in a caste system while flinging limited MLS outlets into unlimited international competition. Two pyramids answer their concerns. They will give us the same vibrant and unlimited clubs the rest of the world enjoys. We get clubs that draw passionate support in lower divisions, and top-flight clubs that go international competition unfettered by rules endemic to our cloistered leagues.
At the core of the need for an octahedral plan stands an inconvenient truth. One key to the meritocracy of promotion and relegation is a balanced schedule: In order for a table to reflect team quality at the end of the season accurately enough to justify relegation and promotion, every team must play each other twice in a home and away series. Thus, a single pyramid becomes unwieldy once divisions grow too far beyond 20 clubs. MLS is rumored to plan expanding to as many as 32 sides – not an absurd figure by any means in our huge market. Problem is, in an open pyramid with a balanced schedule, that would require over 60 league matches.
Unfortunately – there’s only 52 weeks in a year.
That’s why we need more than one pyramid. We’re not a small European nation. We need a open system that accommodates a number a independent top flight clubs commensurate with our massive size. Add a measured transition that address virtual concerns – and a two pyramid system becomes the clear choice to fit a fully open American soccer market. Two top-flights of eighteen clubs mean every D1 side can commit to a balanced league schedule with room to spare. In fact, each would play 34 matches – the same number MLS sides will play in 2015. The 36 top-flight slots between them will also allow most potential D1 markets to be reached – over a wide geographic spread – while still leaving plenty of schedule room for Champions League, US Open Cup and perhaps even other competitions.
Once fully implemented, this regionalized plan will address one of the longest lingering pro/rel concerns: Travel costs. That’s just for starters. It also accommodates both playoffs and existing East/West conference setups. It ensures wide geographic and market spread. Most importantly, it will finally give every US soccer club the same opportunities as any in the world – whilst giving each of them a transition period in which to plot their own destiny.
As hysterical claims of cultural roadblocks to pro/rel fall away – and with 36 top flight slots virtually guaranteeing at least one top flight club in each mega market – the final bulwark between us and unlimited US soccer teams snaps into focus:
There’s no intellectual, societal or fiduciary roadblock between promotion/relegation and US fans, broadcasters, sponsors or lower division owners. Only the anti-competitive demands of MLS – and their curious control over the fates of hundreds of clubs outside their business – stand in the way. They argue that they have sunk too much cash into the league – under the auspices of first division guarantees – to suddenly risk it all in open competition.
This plan even addresses their dubious closed market concerns – to the tune of $2 billion.
Regardless of how one judges the legitimacy of these concerns or the weight of these demands, a responsible transition to an open and regional two-pyramid system addresses virtually every one.
Transition and Structure
The key element of the transition period – one that should assuage the fears of every owner and fan – is:
It all begins at the bottom. Every division will be required to fill – via promotion from the next lower division – to their 18 club capacity before promotion to the next relegation begins. Relegation will not commence in any division until all divisions are full.
This point cannot be overemphasized: During this transition phase, clubs will only be promoted. There will be no relegation – until every division reaches full complement. Only then will the first drops occur.
At a moderate pace of 3 promotions a year, the transfer to dual open East/West pyramids can be completed in as little as 5 years. It will protect all owners from relegation until that time, and drive badly needed investment and interest to our lower tiers. It only requires an activist, independent federation – a hallmark of healthy soccer nations worldwide.
Here is how it will work:
• First, US Soccer divides the country into East and West regions. These regions become the foundation of the two pyramids. At least first, second, third and fourth divisions are initially sanctioned. MLS, NASL, USL and NPSL clubs are all invited to join in their respective divisions. If and when interest demands – and standards are met – we can build down to D5 and further.
• Eighteen club limits are set for each division. Stadium standards will also be set for each: If a club does not meet those requirements, it will not be promoted – or admitted into the initial setup. Initially, every club could also be required to show financial ability to complete their season. This could take the form of an escrow account in which every club must deposit agreed upon travel costs in each league.
• Existing teams in every division would be offered initial sanction to their respective division – but all would be free to decline that invitation. They would simply have to forfeit their divisional sanction. Also, any team that chooses to voluntarily pass on promotion would be welcome to do so.
• When leagues reach full complement, every division will promote two and relegate two. Each D1 will relegate two, send league winners into the CONCACAF Champions League, and host an East/West playoff to determine the third slot. Until full complement is reached, leagues can continue to play in one national structure.
Possibilities and Assumptions
• If initial interest in D3 and D4 is too large – a play-in tournament could be organized for every club that meets basic financial and stadium standards. Given the burgeoning size of our current D3 and D4, this could bring both to full complement in the first year. Promotion to D2 would then be able to commence in year two. Assuming more than three clubs were promoted each year, both pyramids could reach full complement in two or three years. All depends on how many are able to be promoted each year during the transition. I would accelerate that process as quickly as the market bears.
• The bottom division would be defined by demand. Whether it’s D4, D5 or even lower, a petition process – with standards – could be installed to bring new clubs in at that level.
• Two assumptions are intrinsic to this transition: Arbitrary salary caps and the player draft system will be removed from every participating league. Canadian teams will be required to reach special arrangements with US Soccer should they choose to participate in our leagues – as Welsh clubs do in the English FA.
• Admittedly a two-pyramid system would require a special sanction from FIFA. As it adheres to the essence of the game as outlined by the world governing body, I hope they will. The US market is comparable in size to that of the entire European continent. Europe hosts dozens of pyramids. I think FIFA would be wise to grant us two.
Benefits to MLS
A responsible transition will be a boon to every level of US club soccer – while protecting MLS investors. They will be granted several additional years free of relegation – and major advantages over newly promoted clubs in legacy and continuity when it hits. Until D1s reach full complement, they could even be allowed to continue with the national single entity trappings to which they have become accustomed.
Obviously MLS should be compensated for all infrastructure they’ve built and the risks owners have taken. This plan virtually guarantees it. As the owner of every team trademark, MLS could – and should – sell each and every team out of the existing structure. Assuming an average team value of $100 million, that’s over $2 billion MLS could bank in this transition – and redistribute to owners – per single entity prerogative.
That’s not the only MLS advantage in this plan. By the time their outlets have to face the specter of relegation some will have a quarter century of continuous D1 legacy to draw upon. This will give them a big leg up over newly promoted clubs filling out the bulk of our first divisions – before the first relegation ever takes place.
Perhaps most importantly, every league and club has the final choice to either participate in an open system or not — and in this transition, MLS owners will have the most time to make that decision. Structural changes like elimination of caps and player drafts would only be imposed on D1 when promotion began. This gives MLS years to decide for themselves whether they would like to participate in this transition, sell their outlets out of single entity captivity, or even continue to pursue their destiny in a separate, unsanctioned league.
Promotion and relegation is MLS’s choice. They are free to decide – for themselves – whether to participate or not. In a scenario in which MLS breaks away from the new US pyramids, D2s would become D1s, D3s to D2s, and so forth. Perhaps a provision could be made to allow non-league MLS outlets to continue to participate in the US Open Cup – should they choose to pursue it. Under no circumstances, however, will a closed MLS be able to maintain a D1 sanction from a US soccer federation. That means no Champions League play – unless – perhaps – an MLS outlet can capture US Open Cup.
Capping all divisions at 18 teams apiece will mean a manageable 34 league matches for each club, leaving room for inter and extra league play. This will be very important for D1s on which the heaviest schedule demands are placed. A revitalized US Open Cup could go back to a home and away series – and implemented to feature East/West match-ups not found in league play. A Carling Cup type competition (or even a revived Superliga) could also be implemented and feature competition between the two pyramids. An East/West D1 playoff for the American championship – and third Champions League slot – would also add interest and interleague play. Indeed, an American style D1 playoff system between leagues could easily be implemented at every division level – with promotion on the line – a la the Championship in England.
Benefits to Lower Divisions
Sir Alex Ferguson famously said that the end of relegation would be suicide for lower division English clubs. By opening an avenue to promotion we will breathe new life into ours. Should MLS decide to maintain salary caps during the transition, a few lower division clubs may surpass MLS outlets on the pitch quite quickly. Given the broad appeal for promotion and relegation in the US soccer supporter community – there is virtually no doubt lower division clubs would see a dramatic spike in interest, investment, and value. Using EPL and Championship club as a guide, some lower division club could see appraisal values spike by 1000% – or more. Of course, results will very, but all will see increases in value. Gone will be the days when a lower division owner simply walks away from his team – as happened recently in Pensacola.
One of the most common and persistent fears of a pro/rel system is travel costs for cash strapped lower division clubs. Regionalized leagues are a hallmark of this plan – and end this fear. Indeed, I see no reason that leagues can’t be broken down to even smaller regions in lowest levels of the pyramid should the need to further mitigate these costs remain.
As mentioned, MLS could continue to limit their own teams until promotion reached D1. With lower division investment and interest building at a rapid clip, this might not prove a wise move. As the transition progresses, we are sure to find out about ambitious lower division clubs in US Open Cup play.
Promotion, relegation and unfettered clubs will draw fantastic new interest, investment and quality to the US club game. On this there is virtually no more argument.
This transition to promotion and relegation will not hang MLS investors out to dry. This plan addresses their concerns directly: If existing MLS owners are too risk averse to continue, rising values will enable them to sell high – long before they face the prospect of relegation. Even when relegation finally begins in both D1s, MLS sides will have a cushion of recently promoted lower division clubs to further dilute their risk.
If these advantages still don’t work for MLS, they are welcome to opt out. This point cannot be overemphasized. They are absolutely free to exist without a D1 sanction via an independent international sporting organization – like their NFL role models. There is no mandate for any league or club to participate in an open system. All are free forge their own futures – minus a division sanction, of course.
Just as MLS’s opt-out contingency can’t be overstressed – most important to every lower division investor will be dates certain by which this open market transition will occur. While there will be some wiggle room on timing and standards in this transition as clubs decide their futures and strive to meet financial and stadium standards, there can be no scenario in which this transition can be allowed to exceed 6 years. This system is founded on opportunity. Those opportunities must be guaranteed in the near – and defined – term.
We have tried to do club soccer our provincial way for over century now. It has proven totally ineffective and unstable unless both club quality and league access – and thus interest in the US club game – are strictly limited. Even then, it’s a dubious claim. Plenty argue today that MLS is still fragile – after 20 years.
The fact is, every closed top-flight US league of unlimited soccer clubs has failed – and lower division club collapse rates are even more apocalyptic. It’s a fantastically unstable system for professional soccer. We’ve already lost over 200 D4 clubs since MLS arrived in 1996.
In effect, we are limiting quality, access, opportunity and investment in US club soccer – in an otherwise open global market – so that a tiny few US pro sports owners can get their way. It is no coincidence that our national teams stagnate alongside that system.
Leave no doubt, this wide open octahedron will usher these persistent problems out of American soccer once and for all. Historically, stable soccer leagues are always open. Over the century in which scores US soccer leagues have fallen like dominoes – and oftentimes their teams with them – virtually no fully open and federation sanctioned pyramid has ever collapsed. Two open pyramids give us the same system of unlimited clubs every top soccer nation enjoys – all the while addressing both our uniquely vast market and geography. They allow us to send the best clubs we can produce into unlimited international play. They will drive investment to dozens of US cities capable of hosting their own top-flight soccer club. They will drive massive new interest to our lower divisions. They will grant us a stable system in which every US club can finally be a fully fledged participant on the global stage of club soccer – for the first time in our long, dramatic and oftentimes tragic soccer history.
Implemented responsibly, this system will even give MLS owners time to adjust, put the odds of D1 survival in their favor, and increase the value of their brands.
We’re a unique country. We cannot just graft a small market English system onto our massive pro-sports market. Two open American pyramids address more of our concerns than a English one. They are an effective American response to the promotion/relegation bogeymen.
History is conclusive on this point: Once fully opened, soccer pyramids never collapse.
We’ll be blessed with two of them.