Can the promotion/relegation debate be saved?

The theme music of the promotion/relegation debate should probably be Carmina Burana. The part we all know from hundreds of pop culture references (“OOOOOOO FORTUNA” — if you ever want to be creeped out, check out the scene from The Doors set to that music) is at the beginning and the end of the composition, suggesting a wheel of fortune in which every spin comes up bankrupt.

And the lyrics translate roughly to “Fate. Monstrous and empty. You whirling wheel. You are malevolent. Well-being is vain and always fades to nothing. And you go home and you cry and you want to die.”

(OK, so I added a line from the Smiths. Did you even notice?)

But despite listening to such depressing music in college, even as we all wondered if we would be drafted into Gulf War I, I’m optimistic. Like this New York Times writer suggesting social media is worth salvaging even as various platforms inevitably descend abuse and cynical data-mining, I think something is worth saving in the pro/rel discussion.

We’ll need, as the NYT writer suggests, a reset button.

So imagine (to cite a more hopeful piece of music) if the pro/rel debate started this year …

Seems reasonable, doesn’t it? MLS is pretty well established, with facilities and academies built up in several cities. But it could use something to get to the next level.

Meanwhile, the lower divisions are changing. In the past, a lot of D2 and D3 teams eagerly “self-relegated” to the amateur ranks, where they could play short seasons with unpaid players. A lot of teams will be happy to stay there. But we may have a critical mass of parties interested in moving up.

We could all kick around ideas. A English-style ladder, with 20-24 teams in each of the top five tiers, doesn’t make much sense in a country of this size. We should have more of a pyramid, with regional play in the lower divisions so we’re not asking an amateur club in Spokane that got promoted to D3 to fly to Miami for a league game.

We could take into account all the things that make the USA different — the generations of cultural antipathy and hostility that left us far behind on infrastructure, the fact that soccer still isn’t and may never be the No. 1 team sport in this country, and the fact that soccer from the youth level upward is in the hands of many different organizations. (In Germany, as the NSCAA presenter from the DFB reminded everyone, it’s one.)

So we could have a reasonable discussion, right?

The problem is the baggage. We call pro/rel the “third rail” of U.S. soccer for a reason.

That’s unfair to well-intentioned newbies. We have a generation of soccer fans who grew up with unlimited choice of soccer broadcasts, and they wonder why the USA doesn’t have a league to rival the Premier League or La Liga. Some of them do some research and begin to sketch out ways to build a club at the grass roots.

Unfortunately, when they turn to Twitter or any other medium, they encounter two groups that have been long ago gave up any semblance of trust or honesty …

  1. The “pro/rel” crowd, whose arguments were pretty flimsy when the USA was desperate for anyone to run a professional soccer team, resorted to lies and slander 10-15 years ago.
  2. The “anti-pro/rel” crowd is sick of hearing it, and whenever they hear someone talking about pro/rel, they assume they’re ignorant haters who are beyond reason.

So we have this cycle:

  1. Newbie starts asking why we don’t have an “open system.”
  2. Newbie gets an overly hostile history lesson from people who are used to dealing with full-time Twitter trolls.
  3. Newbie gets sympathy from the “pro/rel” long-timers.
  4. Newbie starts to believe what the “pro/rel” long-timers say.

That means the newbie is exposed to a whole bunch of myths …

Everyone who questions the obvious solution of promotion/relegation to address most of U.S. soccer’s problems must be compromised in some way — either paid by MLS/SUM to discredit the movement or actually a sock puppet/bot, or perhaps a journalist afraid of losing credentials. 

I’ve gotten the occasional lecture from various people in power about why something I wrote is the stupidest thing ever, but I still got credentials to cover an Open Cup game involving an MLS team last year and the USSF Annual General Meeting this year. I used to go to MLS pressboxes all the time, and a lot of them credentialed everyone with a laptop.

A lot of journalists have written for MLSSoccer.com over the years. I wrote fantasy columns for its predecessor, MLSNet, before I started writing frequently as part of my duties at USA TODAY. (And no, this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned it — see the seven separate references on Ranting Soccer Dad and Duresport dating back to 2014 and at least 10 times on Twitter. It wasn’t exactly hidden before then — the columns had my name on them. You can’t find them now because MLSNet now exists only on the Wayback Machine, where you might my columns alongside those of Eric Wynalda. It was kind of a fun site.)

If you want to declare everyone who has recently written for MLSSoccer.com “compromised,” OK. I’d point out that the freelance marketplace is in tatters, and a lot of people are just writing wherever they can make money. My experience is that a lot of people are capable of writing a Timbers-Galaxy game story and still making up their own minds about things, but it’s really up to you to weigh everyone’s work on its own merit.

But even given all that, there are hundreds of people writing about soccer who are in no way financially connected to MLS’s quasi-independent sites and never have been. Some are beat writers for what’s left of local newspapers. Some are amateur (but well-informed) bloggers. Check out The Washington Post, The Columbus Dispatch, SB Nation, Howler, The Athletic, FiftyFiveOne, Canadian outlets, ProSoccerUSA, Philly.com, The Oregonian, ESPN, The Guardian (where I write, but usually about non-MLS topics), Sports Illustrated and the Associated Press.

(And yes, some people who write for SB Nation and Howler write for MLSSoccer.com. You may note it didn’t stop Howler from publishing Peter Wilt’s promotion/relegation manifesto, nor did it stop SB Nation from ripping USSF over its lack of outreach to underserved communities. U.S. Soccer is not Sinclair Broadcasting, and these outlets are not local TV stations desperate to please their corporate masters.)

But Deloitte did a study proving U.S. soccer would be better with pro/rel!

You mean this one?

As it stands however, US club soccer is not immediately ready for promotion and
relegation – for the topic to move forward several key topics needs to be addressed
including:

  • Decisions made on the optimum number of teams in the existing leagues;

  • The continued development and stability of a second tier competition to develop clubscapable in management and football terms of joining the first tier; and

  • Consideration of the mechanism by which long term league investors have their “equity” protected, at least in the short term, from relegation.

In other words, Deloitte basically said what a lot of the supposed “anti-pro/rel” crowd has been saying for a long, long time.

Pro/rel works in the rest of the world

And yet China, India and tons of other large countries with large economies are worse than Uruguay.

But those countries are DIFFERENT!

Exactly. So is the USA.

If you doubt anything about an open system, you must be perfectly happy with MLS and U.S. Soccer the way they are.

sith

No one’s telling you — well, maybe not no one, but most people — that promotion/relegation is a horrible system that should be done away with in Europe. (Sadly, I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened — the oligarchs buying soccer clubs could easily break away and tell the respective FAs to deal with it.) Most people are just telling you when you have a weak argument.

MLS isn’t really competitive because of single entity and so forth.

Go into a postgame locker room sometime and see what you think. Or talk with a player who just got cut from a roster. It’s not that simple.

Which leads to …

Promotion/relegation would obviously (A) make our youth development better and (B) lead to massive investment. There’s no downside at all!

Yeah, again — it’s not that simple.

But we can discuss all that. We should.

So here’s what we need to do …

  1. Ignore the trolls and haters on all sides.
  2. Drop the accusations.
  3. Learn the history, not just from one source. Read the books on my soccer bookshelf or anything else you can find.
  4. Build on what’s positive about an open system, especially opportunity and the idea of building a larger footprint for our soccer culture. Quit telling people they’re idiots for not seeing how obvious it supposedly is.

I hear from so many people who insist they’ve distanced themselves from the obnoxious liars and scoundrels of Twitter. Then they repeat mythology that those liars and scoundrels have spouted for years. I still believe you when you say you’ve distanced yourself from them, but the next step is to distance yourself from their skewed take on things.

And then — yeah, you “anti-pro/rel” types. Quit treating everyone like they’re same people who got laughed off BigSoccer 10 years ago and spend half their time whining about it on Twitter.

My position — which, not by design, can never be wrong — is that pro/rel will happen in the USA when we’re ready for it. We’re getting closer. We’re finally starting to see investors who want it to happen. We’re running out of space in a one-tier MLS.

So let’s talk as if the last 15 years of b.s. never happened.

Hi, I’m Beau. I live in Northern Virginia. I like Liverpool, and I’m always going to be biased toward my favorite places from my 2011 Women’s World Cup coverage — Augsburg, Leverkusen and Berlin. And I know a lot of people because I’m old and I’ve been writing about soccer for a while. Nice to meet you.

2 thoughts on “Can the promotion/relegation debate be saved?

  1. great piece, but this bit of political rant was unnecessary.
    “U.S. Soccer is not Sinclair Broadcasting, and these outlets are not local TV stations desperate to please their corporate masters.)”

    keep up the good work, but leave out the politics it is too polarizing in this day and age.

    Like

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