What are the goooooooals of a promotion/relegation system in the U.S.?

As I was leaving the country (for unrelated reasons), I asked aloud on Twitter — how would you set up a promotion/relegation system in the USA? Here’s a sampling:


Traditional pyramids


(That’s basically a pyramid with large D1 and D2, then a mammoth regionalized D3.)

Top tiers only

Somewhere in between


Outside the box


Here’s how I interpret what I’ve heard here and elsewhere:

  1. There’s an appetite for pro/rel to make things interesting.
  2. People are open to a modified pro/rel system.

Let’s work on that, first by defining some goals. (I’ve done that before, but the conversation has progressed since then.)


OPPORTUNITY: Encourage the growth of the professional game so as many communities as possible would have a direct tie to the pro leagues

Or “open access,” if you like.

The minor-league baseball model won’t really work for soccer. A baseball player might take a few years of seasoning before breaking through to the majors, and you can honestly say the players you’re seeing in Rookie or Single-A baseball could make the majors someday. The soccer timeline is more accelerated. It’s a rare player (not unheard-of, but rare) who’s in the fourth tier at age 19 and then makes the Big Show.

DEVELOPMENT: Grow a large, stable national network of pro-affiliated youth academies

Note that I’ve never seen any suggestion to prevent an existing youth club from forming a professional team and being the Richmond Kickers of their region. I’d think that would be encouraged.

STABILITY: Minimize risk — not for the protection of billionaires but for community supporters and their youth academies

(Yes, this would include not letting clubs move. You want a pro club in Austin? Sell your damn club in Columbus and start/buy a new one in Austin.)


This is apparently the counterargument against my most recent plan. It’s really not that complicated, but OK, I’ll play ball.

So how do we do all this? Here’s what I’ll suggest:


Have divisional club standards with some flexibility

The basic idea here is to kill the waiver process and replace it with a system that allows clubs to compete if they can’t meet one or two of the standards. It’ll make more sense if I write out an example:

A professional club is required to have a youth system meeting Development Academy standards (to be defined in another post!), a stadium with basics like locker rooms and lights, and a sufficient full-time business staff. Also, the ownership group must meet financial (viability) standards.

An premier club (a level above simply “professional”) is required to have a stadium seating at least 10,000 people, along with further stadium, staff and ownership requirements.

At each of these two levels, require clubs to meet at least three of these five:

  1. A stadium seating at least 5,000 for pro, 15,000 for premier
  2. A grass field of at least 110 yards by 70
  3. Average attendance in the prior three seasons of 1,500 for pro, 10,000 for premier
  4. An affiliated pro or elite amateur women’s team — either as part of the club itself or through a partnership with a team in the same market
  5. At least one finish in the top 90 percent of the club’s primary league in the last four years

Have a relegation *floor* beyond which a club cannot be relegated (unless it fails to meet standards)

If you’re a premier club, you stay in a premier league — assuming we have enough clubs, that would be the top two tiers.

If you’re a professional club, you stay in a professional league. Might be D3, might also be D4 if we have a lot of clubs.

The distinction between “pro” and “amateur” will be determined by financial reality

Quit griping. Quit telling me your local amateur club would be worth eleventy billion dollars if only it had the opportunity to be promoted to MLS. That’s baloney. Your local amateur club can go pro next year for far less than eleventy billion dollars. Call Peter Wilt. Call USL. Call NASL. Even MLS might still hear you out for the round of expansion after the next round of expansion.

And quit telling me about “the rest of the world” having an uninterrupted pyramid from its megaclubs all the way down to East Piddlington School Old Boys of the Farthingsworth Southwest Northern County Premier League Third Division. In England, the beacon of promotion/relegation, the swinging door between the pro and amateur ranks is a recent thing — and as it currently stands, it’s one that means your club might shut down its academy if it has a bad season at League Two. That’s why I argued a while ago that we’d be better off keeping an open-ended third or fourth tier rather than limiting it to, say, 24 teams — and that was before I dug into English academies and found they were considered quite expendable when a club was relegated out of “League football.”

The Netherlands have been prying open that door rather carefully. Spain’s pyramid is so wide (80 clubs in third tier, 360 in fourth tier) that there’s probably a place for a fully professional club in an upper tier. Other countries have plenty of standards to meet at some point on the pyramid. Even in England, they’re reinstating the wall between full professionals and other clubs in the women’s game.

If you have a lot of money, sure, you can form a club like AFC Wimbledon and climb into the pro ranks. It’s hard to imagine any country in which a club with such a spending advantage over amateur clubs would not be able to go pro.

The farther down the pyramid, the more regional you get

Said it on Twitter today — I’ve never understood the U.S. fascination with making its lower divisions “national.” In Spain and Italy, the third division is regional.

The reason for going national is to have a national TV deal. That’s always going to be a tough sell for a lower division. These clubs are going to make most of their money at the gate. That means regional rivalries help — note North Carolina FC’s excitement about playing Charleston, Charlotte and Richmond in the USL.

Align with the international calendar (even though it doesn’t actually exist)

The OCD pedant in me cringes when I hear talk of the “international calendar.” The major European leagues run from fall to spring. Other European leagues do not. Most South American leagues play two seasons per year. Brazil’s national season is May to December.

Then there’s the transfer window, which is the time in which a player may be transferred to a club within the country in question. (Free agents can sign whenever.) Transfer windows don’t have to overlap for a transfer to be made, which is why you hear very little about the transfer windows in countries from which MLS has been importing (Costa Rica, Argentina, etc.).

But yes — as Eric Wynalda often says, there’s a disadvantage to having your season aligned differently from the Euro leagues. Clubs generally want to do their major makeovers between seasons and then tinker a bit during a season, so it’s easier to make bigger deals when the two countries in question have the same offseason.

Caveat to previous component: Let’s not make fans sit outside a lot in Toronto or Boston or other northern venues in the middle of winter

We’re going to need a six-week winter break. At least.

Strike a balance between rewarding regular-season excellence AND offering up an engaging playoff 

This is something MLS simply isn’t doing right now. Too many teams in the playoffs. Too many interruptions in the playoffs.


OK, I’ll simplify the previous proposal.

Leagues (playing from July to December)

  • Division 1 (MLS?): Premier clubs only. Single table, 12 teams, balanced schedule, best season record determines league champion.
  • Division 2 (MLS2? New brand?): Premier and professional clubs. Probably two regions, maybe three someday. Premier clubs can’t be relegated further than this.
  • Division 3 (many, including NISA, USL and hopefully a lot of new regional leagues): Professional clubs only. These leagues can have promotion/relegation with them. It’s up to them. If you have a 30-team league in the Northeast or SoCal, you’ll probably have pro/rel. If you have 10 teams in a large, sparsely populated area, maybe not.

Does that mean we have pro/rel among Divisions 1-3? Yes, but it’s not based strictly on league performance. The top eight teams in Division 1 are guaranteed a return to Division 1 the next year. Everything else will be decided in …

Cup play (March to May)

National Cup: Top 8 from Division 1, top 3 from Division 2, champion from Division 3. Play in two six-team groups. Top two from each group make playoffs.

D1/D2 playoffs: Bottom 2 from Division 1, maybe 10 from Division 2. Top two wrap up D1 status for the fall.

Regional Cups: The rest of the D2 clubs join all the D3 clubs.

So that’s a start. Still plenty to work out, particularly whether new clubs in D1 or D2 have to pay expansion fees.




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