The Saved and the Doomed – Does MLS Need a Trapdoor

12 May

The final games of the European soccer season unfold this week. The polarizing emotions of promotion and relegation grip them. Ecstasy prevails as winning teams ascend to the higher divisions. Desperation plays out at league bottoms as trapdoors open and teams vanish to the lower class. Television images capture the rawness of fans going up and those going under. It defines club soccer.

No such system exists in Major League Soccer. MLS prefers a playoff structure mirroring other major league sports. “The conditions are not there,” says Nelson Rodriguez, MLS’s executive vice president. “It’s a complicated issue in North America because of the way our league originated, the way our clubs work. The monetary value required to purchase and operate a club is significant.”

The United States Soccer Federation governs US soccer. MLS is US soccer’s Division One. It berths nineteen teams. The second division is the North American Soccer League (NASL), composed of eight teams. “Let’s start with the fact that Division 2 has been a relatively unstable league,” says Rodriguez, “one that has had a lot of clubs in and out of it in the past few years.” The current NASL was configured in 2009. “At such a time when there is a viable and large enough second division, promotion and relegation may be something we can consider.”

MLS operates as a limited liability company in which club owners (investors) purchase a share of the whole enterprise. A Board of Governors comprised of the owners decides upon expenditures. Player contracts are signed with the League. MLS pays the salaries of all the players. In such a set up, accepting a relegation model would be like turkeys voting for Thanksgiving. Besides, a potential investor is highly unlikely to sink money into such an enterprise. The risk of lost millions incurred by the performance of something so fickle as the form of soccer players is certainly not appealing. “That could very well be an issue. Obviously a point that needs to be considered,” says Rodriguez.

Critics cry from the wilderness. Ted Westervelt of draws controversy in soccer’s blogosphere. He pursues a relentless campaign to alter thinking on the current MLS set-up. He believes the fiduciary interest of MLS owners is holding back progress on moving to the escalating league model. “It gives them a self-destruct button. In my mind, the only real scenario in which promotion and relegation becomes a reality is via a US Soccer Federation sanction change.  Should our federation ever find the courage to make that call, MLS could literally threaten to blow up every one of their outlets. I hope this isn’t a veiled threat that keeps our federation in line – but perhaps it helps some MLS investors feel safer from ever having to face relegation.”

Westervelt favors a regional pyramid system with independent clubs in multi-league setups of eighteen teams. “I think the US market is simply too large for one soccer pyramid,” he says. The plan includes safeguards for current MLS teams. The leagues would have to be established to full compliment before the escalator runs up and down. MLS teams would have had plenty of time to build a playing legacy that could prove unsinkable once relegation and promotion takes hold, perhaps as long as two decades. Any expansion teams harboring weak business plans would be precluded from admittance to the leagues. Other benefits include travel distances being cut. Local rivalries would intensify, another key ingredient of the world’s game, and a developmental goal of MLS. It is essentially an argument for a free market. “It’s important to recognize that every US top-flight closed soccer league of unlimited clubs has failed. Indeed, I can’t find an example of a top-flight closed league anywhere in the world that has succeeded over the long term.”

Promotion and relegation pressure produces competitive play to the final whistle of every season. Lowly clubs topple successful ones in late-season clashes affecting outcomes at both ends of the table. This season in England, relegation candidates Wigan knocked off Manchester United and Newcastle, saving themselves from relegation and kicking life into the races for the champion’s mantle and the coveted places in next season’s European competitions. In the MLS system, teams eliminated from reaching the playoffs long before the end of the campaign could be forgiven for losing interest in getting results -without relegation to worry about, why bother? Competition suffers.

“I disagree,” says Nelson 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. If you look at the relative health of other leagues even from a competitive standpoint, in Italy, in Spain, in England, to name three, you have only a few teams that have a realistic chance of winning the league. That hampers competitiveness. “In the 2011 season, with two weeks left in the calendar, ten MLS teams were competing for seven playoff spots.

MLS is designed to grow slowly. MLS Commissioner Don Garber insists on a plan that keeps growth relative to sustainable markets and encourages the building of soccer specific stadiums to establish the anchoring concept of “home.” The artifices of promotion and relegation are not at the top of his immediate agenda. His goal is to make MLS one of the world’s top leagues. Garber says, “We set that goal, knowing that we had to improve the quality of play, ensure that we had the right marketing and promotion, and very importantly be sure that we had the right economic system because it wasn’t just about having a handful of really popular clubs but to ensure that our whole league would be viable economically.”

There lies the rub.

Read Alan Black’s soccer column in the San Francisco Chronicle, every Friday





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