Modified promotion/relegation in action



Jonathan Tannenwald got me thinking about this post today when he started musing on MLS approaching a semi-balanced schedule next year when Nashville comes in:

Nice and simple. Which my proposal below is not.

But my proposal accomplishes a few important things:

  • It creates opportunity for clubs to move up.
  • It provides a cushion for clubs that drop down, thereby increasing the odds that their youth academies will survive.
  • It aligns the USA with the transfer windows and season calendar used in the rest of the world (except Brazil, Bolivia, China, Canada, Japan, Iceland, Ireland, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, parts of Scandinavia, several Eastern European countries and several African nations, but that’s only a couple billion people, so who cares? I mean, Russia went to a winter schedule, and we all admire the sense of fair play that governs sports and politics in Russia these days, right?)

It did get me thinking, though, and I wonder if this might simplify things a bit:

Fall Division 1: Two 12-team regional conferences playing 22-game double round-robin. (If that seems short, look at the calendar. See below, where I proposed a 10-team top division. We’re basically squeezing these games in 17 weeks, at least in a World Cup year.) Winners are regional league champions, each claiming a CONCACAF berth.

Spring MLS Cup: Twelve teams play a single round-robin (11 games). So each team can have an equal number of home and away games (and so we can kick off in southern cities), every team’s first game will be at a neutral site. From here, the top six qualify to a simple knockout tournament, with the top two getting byes. (Yes, I’m finally backing off from my beloved Page playoff. Maybe.) Winner is MLS/D1 champion and claims a CONCACAF berth if it doesn’t already have one. (Then it passes down to finalist or highest-placed semifinalist.)

Spring pro/rel tournaments: The other 12 teams from D1 join six teams from D2. Form three six-team groups that play double round-robins (10 games). The top three teams in each group claim a spot in D1 that fall. The last-place teams go to D2. The other six are randomly drawn into two-leg series; winner in D1, loser in D2.

As a reminder: Clubs that meet Premier standards can’t be relegated below D2. Clubs that meet Professional standards can’t be relegated below D3.


You’ve read the plan and the reasoning behind it. So how would it look in practice?

Let’s plug in some clubs, based on results (where relevant) and historical ambition …

FALL 2018 (kicking off July 29, two weeks after World Cup final, and scheduling top divisions around international breaks: Sept. 3-11, Oct. 8-16, Nov. 12-20) 

Division 1 (Premier clubs: 10-team single table, 18 games, final games Dec. 16)

  • Toronto FC
  • NYC FC
  • Chicago Fire
  • Atlanta United
  • Columbus Crew
  • Portland Timbers
  • Seattle Sounders
  • Vancouver Whitecaps
  • New York Red Bulls
  • Houston Dynamo

At stake, besides the league championship: The top four clubs are guaranteed a spot in Division 1 next fall, and the top eight advance to the National Cup. (Put another way — two clubs drop straight into the promotion playoffs, and another four might join them.)

Division 2 (Premier and Professional clubs)

12-team single tables at this point. The eight teams in italics are Professional rather than Premier clubs, which means they could be subject to relegation while the Premier clubs are not.

The top finisher in each region advances to the National Cup. The two runners-up play a playoff for a space in the National Cup.

Sporting KC New England Revolution
San Jose Earthquakes Philadelphia Union
FC Dallas Montreal Impact
Real Salt Lake Orlando City
Minnesota United D.C. United
Colorado Rapids Miami (Silva or Beckham)
Los Angeles Galaxy FC Cincinnati
LAFC Nashville (MLS bidders)
Sacramento Republic North Carolina FC
Detroit (MLS bidders or City FC) New York Cosmos
California United Indy Eleven
San Diego 1904 FC Jacksonville Armada

Division 3 (Professional clubs)

San Antonio FC Louisville City FC Omaha Chattanooga FC
Rio Grande Valley FC Tampa Bay Rowdies St. Louis Little Rock Rangers
Phoenix Rising FC Ottawa Fury FC Milwaukee Torrent Asheville City SC
Reno 1868 FC Richmond Kickers FC Arizona Charlotte
Oklahoma City Energy FC Saint Louis FC Napa Valley 1839 Atlanta Silverbacks
Tulsa Roughnecks FC Charleston Battery Grand Rapids FC Miami
Colorado Springs Switchbacks Pittsburgh Riverhounds Kalamazoo FC Syracuse FC
Real Monarchs Swope Park Rangers Midland-Odessa FC Albion SC
LA Galaxy II Bethlehem Steel Detroit City 2 Birmingham Hammers
Seattle Sounders 2 Toronto FC II Hartford City FC
USL-2 West USL-2 Northeast
Vancouver Whitecaps 2 Rochester Rhinos
FC Tucson Jacksonville Armada 2
Fresno Fuego New York Red Bulls 2
Portland Timbers 2 Michigan Bucks
Orange County SC Harrisburg City Islanders
Des Moines Menace Thunder Bay Chill
LAFC Reserves Long Island Rough Riders
Sacramento Republic 2 Indy Eleven Reserves
California United 2
San Diego 1904 FC USL-2 Southeast
Charlotte Independence
Orlando City B
Charlotte Eagles
Carolina Dynamo
Tobacco Road FC
North Carolina FC 2
Miami Reserves
FC Cincinnati Reserves
Nashville Reserves

Maybe that would be simpler if we could merge everything and go strictly regional, but we’ll live with that for now. The league winners will need to have a playoff to determine teams for the National Cup.

Now let’s assume all of these clubs finished in the order listed above. That leads us to …

SPRING 2019 (Cup play and playoffs, kicking off in March, observing international break March 18-26 and ending before pre-Copa international break June 3)

National Cup: Top eight from Division 1, top two from Division 2, two from Division 3. Drawn into two six-team groups. Group winners and runners-up qualify for playoffs. In each group, the bottom team of the three italicized teams drops to the last phase of the D1 promotion playoffs. (We’ll say Kansas City and New England here.)

Toronto FC NYC FC
Atlanta United Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew Portland Timbers
Vancouver Whitecaps Seattle Sounders
Sporting KC New England Revolution
Chattanooga FC Louisville City FC

D1 promotion playoffs: Every other Premier club. Group winners advance to face bottom relegation-eligible teams from the National Cup for the last spots in the Fall 2019 Division 1.

San Jose Earthquakes Philadelphia Union
Los Angeles Galaxy Real Salt Lake
LAFC Orlando City
Montreal Impact D.C. United
Colorado Rapids Miami (Silva or Beckham)
FC Dallas Minnesota United
FC Cincinnati Nashville (MLS bidders)

D2 promotion playoffs: We still have eight spots in Division 2 for Professional clubs. (Reserve teams are not eligible.) Two of them will go to the D3 clubs that reached the National Cup. For the remaining six, we’ll have two six-team groups. The eight clubs from the previous D2 are automatically invited, along with four clubs from D3.

Sacramento Republic North Carolina FC
Detroit (MLS bidders or City FC) New York Cosmos
California United Indy Eleven
San Diego 1904 FC Jacksonville Armada
San Antonio FC Tampa Bay Rowdies
Omaha Little Rock Rangers

Regional Cups: Every other professional team plays in a regional group that also includes amateur teams that apply. Maybe even college teams. They’re already playing spring friendlies.

So let’s see how this meets the criteria set out in the last post:

OPPORTUNITY: Plenty of it. Division 1 is fluid. Clubs that don’t meet Premier standards can still go up to Division 2.

DEVELOPMENT: The requirement is that all these clubs have academies, so … yes.

STABILITY: Lots of movement here, but not that much risk. Clubs can only fall one division.

SIMPLICITY: No. I’ll get back to work.


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