The promotion/relegation debate has long been tainted by personal accusations. If you point out reasonable things that make it impractical, you’re accused of being a “shill” for MLS or U.S. Soccer. The people making such accusations — the PRZ (pro/rel zealots) — have been so divorced from reality that they make reasonable promotion/relegation talk very difficult.
We’ve turned a corner in the last few years. And with a gaggle of mostly reasonable U.S. Soccer presidential candidates expressing some willingness to explore pro/rel, we can honestly say it’s mainstream.
But the debate is still, unfortunately, not entirely grounded in reality. Or sanity. Or humanity.
Pro/rel is not the magic bullet for “pressure.” I’ve addressed this before in the post with Austin Powers and a clip from White Men Can’t Jump. Taking it further: Look at the players who were on the field in Trinidad:
- Played in pro/rel leagues in Europe: Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood, Clint Dempsey
- Played in pro/rel leagues and been involved in actual relegation battles: DeAndre Yedlin, Jozy Altidore, Benny Feilhaber
- Played in Mexico’s sort-of pro/rel league: Omar Gonzalez, Jorge Villafana, Paul Arriola
- Only played in MLS: Matt Besler, Darlington Nagbe, Kellyn Acosta
Pro/rel is not the magic bullet for youth development. Far from it. The notion that any club could make the Premier League doesn’t mean Cornwall has a bunch of Category 1 academies. The youth game isn’t even always tied to traditional clubs — or is Independent Football Academy climbing up through the National League system?
And in case you missed it — clubs that get relegated out of the pro ranks have a nasty habit of closing up their academies.
If you’ve found a lot of full-fledged clubs with academies outside the traditional four professional divisions in England, please let me know. After digging around for a while, I could still count the number of Category 3 academies below the Football League on one hand. Check out the spreadsheets.
Pro/rel DOES have some benefits. I covered that, too. But they’re benefits for supporters. (And neutrals. And data scientists.) Putting a larger goal such as “development” on it just falls apart under scrutiny.
You could also argue that pro/rel helps build a larger soccer culture. That’s fine.
Now let’s weigh it against this …
What do our feelings about pro/rel say about our feelings toward athletes and others?
I’ll raise my hand and say I’m hypersensitive about this. Ever since I saw Rollerball for my first Guardian piece, I’ve been a little queasy with the notion that athletes are exalted but ultimately expendable. No, we’re not carrying out de facto assassinations on a roller rink, but the tone of the conversation toward athletes (or coaches or sometimes just anyone who works for a sports organization) veers toward class bias. There is a substantial group that wants “hungry” athletes fed into sports academies (when they’d actually be far better off in a STEM program) so we can select the top 0.1% for professional riches and glory.
So when we talk about pro/rel — are we looking at it with a bit of sadism? Are we giving the old Roman thumbs-up or thumbs-down to a couple of gladiators?
The anger over the “World Cup losers’ NIT” tournament hints at the problem. I mentioned it might be fun. I’ve been told we don’t have fun in soccer. It’s as if people who cite the Bill Shankly quote about soccer being more important than life and death are unfamiliar with dry British wit.
The next post in this series will how promotion can help with youth development. And perhaps we can do limited relegation so clubs don’t toss aside their academies and stop paying players. Happy Thanksgiving.