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Explained: Why US soccer doesn't have relegation and promotion - and will MLS ever change?

15:30 BST 03/04/2019
David Beckham Don Garber
The absence of team movement between divisions in American soccer is a complicated situation that isn't likely to change any time soon

American soccer does not have promotion and relegation, making Major League Soccer one of the only first-division professional soccer leagues in the world where clubs don't have to fear the drop.

That means a team like the San Jose Earthquakes can muddle through a nightmare season in 2019 after having been the worst team in MLS over the course of the 2018 campaign.

But why doesn't promotion and relegation exist in the United States?

It starts with the reality that 24 years ago there was no established professional soccer structure in the country. MLS helped fill the void with a business model that treated each of the league's teams as part of one entity.

That single-entity structure has helped the league grow at a slow and steady pace over the past two decades, blossoming from a 10-team operation to a 24-team league that is set to grow even more in the coming years.

Though MLS is expanding at a rapid rate,  there is no push on the part of MLS to support the implementation of promotion and relegation , which is a system that would need to be mandated and implemented by U.S. Soccer.

On the contrary, MLS is the biggest opponent of the system, citing the large investments being made by new teams arriving in the league each year, like FC Cincinnati in 2019, and Los Angeles FC in 2018, with expansion fees reaching the $150 million (£114m) range.

It is that level of investment that has made U.S. Soccer reluctant to even consider the idea of trying to implement promotion and relegation at this point, even though the American second division, USL, is also growing rapidly. The sport is thriving at multiple levels, but that hasn't led to any sort of movement from U.S. Soccer on the topic.

The stagnation has led to lawsuits and court filings made by opponents of the current setup in the United States in an attempt to open a system that they believe is currently controlled by MLS rather than U.S. Soccer.

MLS officials have long stated that promotion and relegation wasn't something the league was interested in. MLS commissioner Don Garber stated recently that he doesn't see it as being viable in the United States.

“Just because there is promotion/relegation in other leagues that were founded on different principles doesn’t mean that it would make sense in Major League Soccer," Garber told the Kansas City Star . "We have a vibrant No.2 league in the USL. We have [Sporting KC principal owner] Cliff [Illig] and his partners that have just put $60m of capital, along with the public, into this building.

"If all of a sudden they’re playing in a different division that doesn’t have national revenues - because the USL doesn’t have that - how does that make any sense? There’s no economic rationality to promotion/relegation whatsoever in the era that we’re in today.”

Not everyone in American soccer agrees with promotion/relegation being ignored.

A filing made to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) by owners of lower division sides Miami FC and Kingston Stockade in 2017 called for FIFA to enforce its own bylaws by mandating the implementation of promotion and relegation in American soccer. CAS has yet to issue a ruling on the filing, and current U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro has avoided publicly discussing the possibility of promotion and relegation in American soccer due to the pending case.

The last U.S. Soccer official to make a public statement on promotion and relegation was former U.S. Soccer president and current FIFA Council member Sunil Gulati, who a year ago disputed the notion that current FIFA rules make it mandatory for soccer clubs worldwide.

Article Nine of the FIFA Regulations for the Applications of Statutes states: "A club's entitlement to take part in a domestic league championship shall depend principally on sporting merit. A club shall qualify for a domestic league championship by remaining in a certain division or by being promoted or relegated to another at the end of a season."

In January 2018, Gulati said: "There's a reason FIFA didn't make it mandatory when they passed the rule a decade ago. And by the way, it wasn't about the sporting merit. FIFA's rule came into play because what happened in Spain and some other places was the team that got relegated, the owner of that team quickly bought the team that went up, changed all the uniforms, changed all the players, and then went back to the first division. That isn't sporting merit."

Gulati stated repeatedly during his U.S. Soccer presidency that the governing body wasn't interested in entertaining the possibility of teams going up and down.

"[In MLS], there's a whole bunch of people that came in under one set of rules, and some have paid $150m and built a stadium for another $250m under a certain set of rules," Gulati said. "If they sit down and start this other league and say, 'we want to do promotion/relegation' for all the reasons that people think are positive, fantastic. We as a federation aren't going to legislate that. Anyone who thinks they can without everyone's agreement is going to end up with nine [Supreme Court] judges in Washington for sure."

Legal battles are already taking place in American professional soccer. While the CAS filing waits for a ruling, another lawsuit is being fought between MLS and the North American Soccer League (NASL), which served as the second division of American soccer up until two years ago when U.S. Soccer made USL the new second division. NASL has filed an anti-trust lawsuit claiming U.S. Soccer and MLS had conspired along with USL to keep it from competing with MLS. 

Though that lawsuit does not directly involve promotion and relegation, it isn't a coincidence that some of the biggest opponents of the current structure in place in the United States - such as Miami FC owner Riccardo Silva and New York Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso - are tied to NASL. A victory for NASL in that court case could help pave the way for a change in the current professional soccer system in the United States.

Though MLS is clearly opposed to promotion and relegation, and U.S. Soccer has shown no appetite for considering its implementation, promotion-and-relegation backers have continued to push to try and force FIFA to make U.S. Soccer implement it.

Silva's Miami FC led the filing to the CAS after his failed attempt to bid for MLS TV rights. That bid, a reported $4 billion offer made in 2017 by Silva's company MP & Silva, was made contingent on MLS implementing promotion and relegation. MLS never considered the offer, with league officials stating MLS was contractually prohibited from engaging in discussions regarding broadcasting rights with potential new distributors. The exorbitant offer was seen as a publicity stunt due to the fact MP & Silva was fully aware MLS wasn't in a position to accept an offer due to its current TV rights contract. 

A grassroots effort to push FIFA to force American soccer to adopt promotion and relegation recently led to the submission of a letter presented to FIFA president Gianni Infantino and signed by representatives from more than 150 amateur soccer clubs in the United States. It asked FIFA to enforce regulation governing promotion and relegation.

There is clearly a segment of American soccer that wants to see promotion and relegation, but it will ultimately be up to FIFA to decide whether it will force the United States to implement the system, even at the risk of legal challenges from those who have invested hundreds of millions into the current structure.

Is American soccer ready for promotion and relegation?

As things stand, the disparity between MLS and the lower divisions such as USL is extreme, in part because many of the most successful lower-division markets in the country, like Cincinnati and Minnesota, have established teams in MLS in recent years, while some other big markets, such as Miami and Nashville, are set to launch MLS teams in the near future.

The continued growth of MLS - which will reach 28 teams in the coming years and hasn't ruled out expanding beyond that - could also offer a form of promotion and relegation if the league gets to a size that could lead MLS to break off into a pair of tiered leagues. That sort of scenario is still probably at least a decade away, assuming MLS would even consider it.

If promotion and relegation is going to work, it will require significant increases in investment by lower-division clubs in order to close the current gap, though proponents of the system argue that implementing it would provide the incentive to lead to greater investment. There is also the added incentive promotion and relegation creates for teams in the top league to run better organizations.

As things stand, MLS teams face no real backlash for operating perennially unsuccessful clubs, whereas promotion and relegation could shed the league of subpar ownership groups while potentially bringing in new blood that could help the league, and American soccer, reach new heights.

That is the dream proponents of the movement of teams between divisions in American soccer are holding onto, but MLS promotion and relegation aren't likely to become a reality any time soon, if ever.

That may be music to the ears of teams that are struggling like the woeful Earthquakes and ownership groups worried about seeing their nine-figure investments jeopardized. But if FIFA mandates a change, and the grassroots push for promotion and relegation gains momentum, those in power at U.S. Soccer and MLS may be left with no choice but to start singing a different tune.