Requirements for USSF-Wide Promotion and Relegation: Part 2
Photo: Andrew Snook / NASL

Requirements for USSF-Wide Promotion and Relegation: Part 2

The second part of a series on promotion and relegation in the USA.

Steve Graff

MLS will add two more "clubs" in NYC FC and Orlando City in 2015, and could add teams in Miami and Atlanta in the years to come. The return legs of the 2013 MLS Cup Conference Final ties will happen this week. This is supposed to be good news, but TV ratings have plummeted across the board in 2013 alone. Some experts around the league, particularly Stevie Nicol, the long-time former manager of the New England Revolution who's said, in a recent discussion on ESPN FC "Everything is great about MLS except for the product on the field." Ratings, for any sport or club, are often a reflection of the quality (or at least the perceived quality) on the pitch, court, etc. It's why super-fights involving the best fighters in the world often draw the most PPV (pay-per-view) buys, can get people to buy PPVs for way more than they otherwise would have done, and some leagues are accused of setting up finals as battles between the biggest superstars (or best teams) in the game now. 

An Awful Announcing piece highlighted several things MLS (and USSF) can do fix MLS's huge ratings problem, but it misses an obvious point made by Nicol. Too many teams getting access to first division soccer too quickly, without having to prove themselves in the field of play dilutes the product and will dilute the quality of product on the field for some time. This is why no true fix to the MLS problem can be achieved without a USSF-wide system of promotion and relegation. (The MLS problem is also a NASL problem, a USL Pro problem, a PDL problem, an NPSL problem, MISL problem, etc.) When USSF eventually realizes it has to move to a system of promotion and relegation to solve its fixes, it must address some basic issues was pointed out in Part 1 of this series. But those are not the only issues USSF has to consider when trying to implement a promotion/relegation pyramid. 

5) Matches need to occur on fixed days of the week and at set time slots, with the possibility of flexing between costless-to-air and pay TV (cable) networks.

MLS's big problem is that most clubs' matches do not air on set days or times. Set days and times allow for fans to incorporate USA domestic league matches into their TV-looking and sport-looking schedule. In a promotion and relegation-based pyramid, there is more room for drama, but unless the drama can be caught on a regular schedule--for instance Friday nights-Saturday day games, and a few mid-week games which could work their way around cup competitions (and held on the same day of the week and same time-slots). The same goes with CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) and US Open Cup, or Regional League matches, if the Regional League format is used. Viewers must know that on Tuesdays-Wednesdays at set time slots (on well-distributed stations) that CCL and US Open Cup games (or Regional League) games are played on this date. It helps to organize their viewing schedule and organizes networks around what they can do with their other programming like the NFL currently does with its TV schedule. 

6) The schedule must be balanced, as to that no team can gain an advantage from an "easy schedule."

This is a requirement and a major complaint about MLS for not doing so. While some leagues unbalance the schedule to build up local rivalries, the fact that local derbies will occur throughout the promotion/relegation system should mean that no unbalancing should be required to build up rivalries. Playing in single round-robin or double round-robin formats (with every team playing every other team at home or away once) prevents teams from benefitting from playing a "weaker" or "stronger" schedule, as every schedule is of the same strength, as to provide an accurate merit for what teams should be relegated or promoted. It also evens out travel costs for all teams within each league as they have to make the same trips as every other team in the league.

7) USSF must decide its policy on admitting Canadian, Mexican, Caribbean, and other foreign teams into the pyramid.

Traditionally, USSF leagues have featured a number of teams from Canada, and various leagues throughout the USSF pyramids have featured Mexican teams (for indoor soccer) and Caribbean teams, including those in Puerto Rico (a US territory). And many countries in which the soccer infrastructure is not fully developed, such as Brunei, New Zealand, and Canada, or are microstates without the basic population pool to pull a full professional system like Andorra, Lietchestein, Monaco, and San Marino. While clubs from those countries, as well as Wales, may achieve success playing in the league systems of near neighbors, it may undercut the local FA's ability to develop their game at home. While Welsh players have played in England for a long time, and only the smallest of Welsh clubs are competing in the Welsh system (and the Wales national team has not needed to depend on anyone from that league), Canada is not afforded the same luxury.

By undercutting the chance to create its own pro system to the interest in the United States, the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) lost partial control to develop the Canadian game, and to develop regional rivalries that matter to Canadians to come look Canadian soccer. It also created a massive discontinuity in the development of Canadian soccer, and opened the possibility of the domestic league likely to capture the most Canadian players being desanctioned because of match-fixing. Canada has also not qualified for a FIFA World Cup since 1986, and depends heavily on foreign-born or journeymen players in its national team pool, when in theory a population of 60 million people should produce enough soccer players on its own (for a good national team). While some border Mexican teams might benefit in regional rivalries from playing in the USA system, the foreign team question is primarily a "Canadian question". 

If the Canadian teams, and other foreign teams are admitted, the USSF, CSA, FMF, etc., must decide what cup competitions the teams are eligible for, and whether they can even qualify for the CCL. Right now, Canadian clubs in MLS can qualify for the CCL by two routes--1) through MLS play and 2) through the under-developed Canadian Club Championship (CCC). The CCC only features four (and soon five) teams, and is not as deep or as well-traditioned as the US Open Cup, and does not give opportunities for lower-division Canadian sides (unless you are in Edmonton or Ottawa) to play in the CCL--and does not unify the entire CSA pyramid. And given the problems in the Canadian club game, the USSF, in setting up its own pro/rel pyramid, must consider what it is doing to the Canadian club game, as well as any other foreign club for FA by either admitting USSF clubs only, or allowing outsiders in the system. (This writer believes the best option for all parties is for the USSF to limit participation to clubs in the United States. If membership is extended to Canadian clubs, Mexican and Caribbean clubs should also be offered the same opportunity--as to undercut other FAs sufficiently.) 

8) The USSF must decide its rules on foreign players/nationals playing at various flights.

This point ties into point 3 and point 7. All leagues including MLS have to decide their rules on foreign players. Otherwise, teams will sacrifice the health of the national team for club success by signing tons of foreigners who may be better than the USA players, and sacrifice their own interest in developing players at home. NASL I (1970s-1980s) clubs, and clubs in previous leagues, as well as today's Barclays Premier League in England have rosters largely consisting of foreign players, and native-born English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, and Irish players have either been overrated from playing with those foreign players (and their wages)--or are featuring national team players in lower divisions, because general player development at home has been put on the backburner in relation to club success at the highest level).

The Asian Football Confederation recognized the significant gap between the foreign players teams in its countries were signing (often on huge wages, if they were known), and the native-born players on the same teams, so they set up guidelines that force leagues to severely restrict the number of foreign players in their squads (at most 7 players depending on the country, but clubs still naturalize some players quickly enough to circumvent this requirement), with 1 foreigner having to be an Asian player. CONCACAF does not enforce such strict limits on a confederation level, but FMF, and likewise USSF must do something in order to make sure that clubs reach their glory based on the quality of USA players they have.