Relegation – Not Only The Titanic Sinks

13 Apr

MLS coaches go to bed nightly without fearing relegation. Most world soccer leagues operate on a system where the worst teams over a season fall into a lower league, replaced by the best coming up from below. Apply the word disaster to the relegated. Those going down lose revenues, a fire sale of their best players likely follows. Woe betide! Fans are stricken. Relegation can mean the wilderness. Some teams never return from the depths.

Think Titanic. The English Premier League season is coming to a close. Five teams are locked in a death struggle at the bottom of the table. Every point gained, every goal scored, every goal conceded could make all the difference. The players are desperate. They throw every ounce of effort into hope. An animal threatened can be dangerous. So it is with failing soccer teams. Teams at the top of the table competing for honors do not relish facing those sides staring at oblivion. Survival is the greatest motivator. See the proof in relegation threatened Wigan’s shock victory over defending champions Manchester United on Wednesday. History is filled with great escapes. On the last day of the season some teams will survive the drop, while others go under. It is pure emotion.

Will US domestic soccer ever have a relegation/promotion system? Not in the near future. “The conditions are not there,” says Nelson Rodriguez, an executive at MLS, “…it’s a complicated issue.” Where to begin? The US soccer market is not stable or big enough to sustain such a system. Lower leagues like the NASL are volatile. Teams come and go. MLS owners are invested in a franchise system that pays to play. Try selling relegation to potential investors. Your millions could be sunk by the poor performance of temperamental employees on a soccer field.  Methinks not.

Critics abound. US soccer without an up and down escalator undermines the development of talent. Teams and players with little to play for are not motivated. There is no fire under their butts. No fear. It does not bring out the best. And competitiveness suffers. “ I disagree,” says Rodriguez, “In sixteen years of our league, we have had nine different champions. That speaks to an overall competitiveness, top to bottom, that is probably unrivaled by any other league in the world.” MLS’s preferred option for motivation is a play-off system like other US sports. Last year, with two weeks left in the season, ten teams were still competing for seven playoff spots. Competitive? Yes; but certainly not relegation’s drama of life and death.

Kick Alan Black on Twitter and read his soccer column every Friday in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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