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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fixing US Soccer Part 1

A good chunk of this article comes from a comment I posted on a recent article at Major League Soccer Talk. The primary point of this post is structuring professional soccer in the US to be more similar to European soccer instead of other pro sports in the US. In order to grow and thrive rather than barely survive, something has to be done to improve Major League Soccer. Read on!

Finding a way to get MLS and United Soccer Leagues to work together is vital to the continued growth and success of professional soccer in the US (plus Canada, Puerto Rico, and Bermuda). Coming up with a promotion & relegation system is great; it adds meaning to more games. Is it feasible in the US? I am not sure. However, the salary cap might be the key to making it work.

Imagine if USL and MLS started a work relationship like the Premiership and League. Carry over the salary cap and Designated Player rules to USL-1 and USL-2, but decrease the scale - like allow 3-4 DPs for MLS, 2 for USL-1, and 1 for USL-2; have the salary cap increment down as well. So that USL-1 is x amount higher than USL-2 and MLS is y amount higher than USL-1. This would help to minimize cost differences between the top team in MLS and the bottom team in USL-2 thus making a system with reasonable parity to prevent "giant clubs" from dominating year in and year out like Barcelona & Real Madrid in Spain and Man U, Arsenal, Chelsea, & Liverpool in England. The salary cap system would keep the game American enough to give promotion & relegation a chance to work here.

Also, I think MLS should stop at 20, maybe 22 teams. Yes more established nations hold at 18, but we are very large country, geographically speaking. Our population is spread over four time zones (six if you include Hawaii); Russia is the only other country that can claim that. We need more teams in order to decrease travel issues (Becks has commented on the 6 hour flights to NY from LA) that most European countries could never imagine. Plus Canada, like it or not, is & will remain part of our league. This necessitates more teams as it is. You also have to add in PR and Bermuda should promotion & relegation come into play; neither is large enough to support its own league.

The trick to making soccer work on a large scale is ensuring that the best 20-22 teams represent MLS every year. Promotion and relegation is the key to this. Automatic promotion for the regular season winner; playoffs between the second and third for a second spot. Automatic relegation for the bottom (sorry Red Bulls) and a playoff between the second and third worst to stay in the higher league. Of course there are some other issues to work out concerning franchise fees and such nonsense, but it could eventually work (maybe in 10 years or so)...

Currently, MLS is charging $40 million for expansion teams. I know that if I recently dropped that kind of cash to bring in a team (Seattle, Philly, Portland, Vancouver) I would be pissed if I was relegated and some other club gets to jump up for free. Also consider that Red Bull's purchase of the MetroStars cost $100 (although it did include the stadium deal among other things). Making matters worse, MLS is a profit sharing, single entity league. The league also owns the rights to the players (except for DPs) and negotiates their salary. Obviously some of this will have to change in order for the promotion & relegation system to work.

In order for the promotion & relegation system to work, teams must be willing to participate and would have to meet certain standards. One of these standards would be the ability to meet a salary floor when moving up. This would ensure that teams are at least competitive at the higher level. At the same time, relegated teams cannot be expected to shed all of their higher salaries upon moving down; European leagues (France being a great example) often give them a window in which to decrease salaries if they are do not make it back up to MLS within that time frame.

Another hurdle for promotion & relegation is the constant up and down movement and its effect on the fan base. Theoretically, the most recently promoted team is the most likely candidate to finish at the bottom of the table and the most recently relegated team is the most likely to be promoted. In practice it seldom works this way, but such movement does seem likely. In the fickle and competitive American sports market this might make it hard for teams (especially newer teams) to develop strong fan bases. Then again, fighting to reach MLS, stay in MLS, or regain a place in MLS might make for more passionate fans. In any event, a stronger relationship between the leagues would make the US Open Cup more meaningful.

With an expanded relationship between MLS and USL, adding new teams becomes more difficult. Now either league decides which cities/ownership groups are viable, charges an expansion fee, and grants the team in the desired league. The new system would more muddy than that.

In European leagues teams enter at a bottom level and have to earn their way up via promotion. While that system is fair, balanced, and allows for smaller markets to build a strong fan base, how would it work with currently untapped major markets like Phoenix? Sure Krause could turn the Menace pro at USL-2 with the current PDL fan base continuing to grow as we advance up the pro ranks, but how would larger "major league" cities respond to this? In the American sports' model, huge cities are granted top level teams based on the virtue of being huge. They do not have to earn the right to play in the top league.

So how can promotion and relegation work with our nation's entitlement mentality? Tomorrow's post will address that issue.

Continue to Part 2

Tribe 7