A synthesized promotion/relegation system

For my latest effort at creating a promotion/relegation system that takes into account the various things that make U.S. soccer a little different, I’m borrowing from the following sources:

  • Eric Wynalda, for his insistence that the USA needs to sync its calendar with major European leagues to take better advantage of the transfer market.
  • Brian Straus, for his group-stage MLS playoff idea.
  • Mike Winograd, for his “guest team” promotion/relegation idea.
  • The NASL (current version), for its spring and fall season split.
  • Brazil, for the weirdest and wildest season of league soccer I’ve ever seen — 2000.
  • Me, for my old scheme of separating League and Cup.

And I’m using the following principles:

  • Opportunity. Let small clubs have a chance to compete and move up.
  • Stability. Don’t toss clubs into oblivion and let them cut their youth academies. (In fact, academies would be part of the Professional Club Standards, which would replace the Professional League Standards. More on that later.)
  • No lawsuits. We hope. So we’re not asking MLS owners to risk nine-figure investments on a bounce of the ball, we’re giving lower-division owners a chance to compete without buying a share of SUM, etc.
  • Balance between playoffs and regular season.

Here’s the plan:


Start in late July (early August if we’ve just had a late international tournament) and play until early December.

Division 1A: A 12-team single-table division. We’ll assume this starts in 2019, so we’ll pick the 12 teams based on 2018 results. The winner is the MLS/Division 1 League champion.

Division 1B: Flexible format to account for expansion. In 2019, if MLS has 28 total teams, then this would be a 16-team format, so split it into two eight-team regions, playing two games against each team in the region and one against each team from the other. Each region’s winner would meet in a one-game playoff. At stake: a nice trophy and a guaranteed spot in next year’s Division 1A.

Divisions 2A and 2B: Regional. Maybe two Division 2A leagues and as many Division 2Bs as we can field. Pro/rel — specifics to be determined by the number of clubs involved. Any club that meets Professional Club Standards will play no lower than Division 2B.

Each team’s finish seeds them into the …


Shorter. Roughly March 1-June 1. (Again, move that June date to account for an international tournament if needed.)

Pro Cup (should be named after someone important)

This is less of a league season and more of a Cup. It’s the national professional championship. And any professional club can win.

24 teams, determined by fall league season.

  • 8 from Division 1A
  • 8 from Division 1B
  • 6 from Division 2A
  • 2 from Division 2B

Clubs are seeded and then drawn into four six-team groups. Double round-robin, 10 games. Then a modified Page Playoff:

Round one

  • Game 1 – Group 1 winner vs. Group 2 winner: Winner to semifinal; loser to quarterfinal.
  • Game 2 – Group 3 winner vs. Group 4 winner: Same stakes
  • Game 3 – Group 1 runner-up vs. Group 2 runner-up: Winner to quarterfinal; loser out
  • Game 4 – Group 3 runner-up vs. Group 4 runner-up: Same stakes


  • Game 5 – Game 1 loser vs. Game 4 winner
  • Game 6 – Game 2 loser vs. Game 3 winner


  • Game 7 – Game 1 winner vs. Game 6 winner
  • Game 8 – Game 2 winner vs. Game 5 winner

Then the final.

Regional Cups

We’ll have four 1A clubs, several 1B clubs and a ton of 2A and 2B clubs. Divide them by region and have competitions similar to the Pro Cup. At stake: regional trophies and division status for the fall season.

These teams also will play the early rounds of the …

U.S. Open Cup

If you’re in the Pro Cup, you get a bye. If you’re not, you don’t.

Also, we’re starting a separate Summer Open Cup for clubs that play only in the summers. That replaces national NPSL and PDL playoffs, and it takes those clubs (or, more specifically, summer-only teams within a club) out of the Cup. Other teams may also enter, but we’ll have to make sure the competition starts in late May and ends before players go back to college.

(And yes, I dream of the day in which the Open Cup proper includes college teams.)


Division 1 and Division 2 status will be based on two things:

  1. Meeting the Professional Club Standards. These replace the Professional League Standards (though the D2 leagues, which can be branded, will be required to meet some basic criteria — obviously not including time zones). The PCS will have a basic list of 8-10 criteria, and a club will be required to meet 75% of them. That means “waivers” will neither be given nor necessary. If you have a smallish stadium but meet every other standard, you’re in. We’ll have one set of PCS for D1 clubs, another for D2.
  2. Elections will be held after each Cup season.
    1. D1: Clubs that meet D1 standards and have won either a League or Cup competition in the past two years can apply for D1. Any D1 club that finished in last place in its regional Cup must stand for re-election. The number of clubs that will be accepted is variable. There’s no required relegation to D2. (Maybe at some point we’ll add some criteria under which a club is automatically relegated, but the election should take care of it.)
    2. D2: It’s very rare that a D2 club would need to stand for re-election. If it still meets D2 PCS, it should generally still be in the mix. (The PCS could include a minimum payroll.) Amateur clubs can apply each year to move into professional ranks, and that’s not dependent on league finish — meet the PCS, run for election.

Status in D1A/D1B or D2A/D2B is partially determined by League play (top four D1A clubs and D1B champion will be in the next D1A) but mostly by Cup play.


Why is this so complicated? Why not just a straight up-and-down pyramid?

The same reason Congress will never pass a tax code that reduces your tax return to a postcard. It sounds like a great idea until you realize that you can no longer itemize deductions and the super-rich are paying nothing because they’re simply moving all their “income” to the Cayman Islands with no tax code to close the loopholes. Simple isn’t always better.

But why should care about protecting club owners’ interests? 

It’s not about protecting Merritt Paulson, Anthony Precourt, Drew Carey or the gaggle of celebrities behind LAFC — though, as mentioned above, it’d be nice to stay out of court and avoid lawyers asking pointed questions about why massive investments are suddenly worth a lot less.

It’s about encouraging professional clubs to form and stay professional — for the benefit of (A) their supporters, (B) professional-level players and (C) youth academies.

Why separate League and Cup? 

To give us the best of both worlds — the traditional single-table league and a playoff competition.




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