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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fixing US Soccer Part 2

Yesterday I wrote about adding a system of promotion and relegation to professional soccer in the US (including Canada, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico). Today I want to continue that thought by discussing how this could be made to work in the US given the entitlement mentality of most cities. It may not be pretty, but it might just work...

If American soccer were to enter a promotion & relegation system, then every new team would have to start at the bottom. A couple of weeks ago I talked about restructuring US soccer with a semi-pro league. Under my new proposal, the system would still work as I described it. Professionally run/organized teams would have the option of joining as an amateur (PDL, NPSL), semi-pro (USL-3), or professional (USL-2, USL-1, MLS) team. Amateur teams' would not change much from the current system and would be eligible for the US Open Cup.

The USL-3 would function as several smaller regional leagues (similar to the English system) with a national championship (similar to the current PDL). In addition to the USOC, amateur and semi-pro teams could have their own shared cup along the lines of the FA Trophy. The USL-3 teams winning the league and either or the cups would have the option of going fully professional the following season.

USL-2 would become the default entry point for fully professional teams. To accommodate our landmass, it would be set up as a regional system with two to four fluid leagues and a playoff to determine the national champion. The national champion and runner-up would be eligible for promotion. Promotion would be optional, but encouraged, and contingent on meeting the standards (to be discussed tomorrow). The third place finisher would be an alternate candidate for promotion.

USL-1 would remain the second highest division of professional soccer in the US. A nationwide league, its champion would automatically earn promotion to MLS, based on the season (no playoff trophy) and contingent on meeting the standards. The second and third place teams would have a play-off for promotion. At the other end, the bottom team would be relegated and the next two worst teams would have a play-off to earn the right to stay. Should only one (or no) team from USL-2 be promoted, then the play-off and relegation would not occur. USL-1 and USL-2 would also compete in the USOC.

MLS is currently the top league in the US and will continue to be the top league. All current MLS teams and planned expansion teams would start off in the new MLS. To adjust to the new format, relegation would not occur for two years after the last expansion franchise enters the league (currently 2011). MLS teams will compete for the Supporters' Shield and the MLS Cup playoffs as we currently know them will be gone. Since all levels of US soccer will be aligned, the USOC will become one of the premier events of the US soccer season. Its prestige would increase greatly.

Since not all teams in our league system will be from the US, a second major trophy competition could be held featuring teams from USL-2, USL-1, and MLS (similar to the League Cup in England). Unlike the USOC, the additional cup is only for purely professional sides; it is also open to every professional club in the new US league structure regardless of their home nation. It would be a more direct replacement for the MLS Cup and would be the new premier event of the American soccer season. The "League Cup" championship game could be held at a pre-determined site and marketed for months in advance like the current MLS Cup game.

Still, we are left with the problem of expansion fees and elevated costs. Being the top level, MLS will certainly have greater TV exposure than the other levels of the new league. With more meaning to the average game since the current playoff system is gone, TV viewership should increase. As teams literally fight for their right to be in the top level competition should improve, which should have an impact on ratings and attendance as well.

With new teams playing in MLS every season, viewership might also increase to see how the new guys stack up (I know I watched many Reading and Derby County FC games when they returned to the EPL in 2006 and 2007, respectively); knowing your home team could have a legitimate shot at the top level should increase support as well. The various stages of the USOC and the "League Cup" could be televised as well (like English soccer). All of these competitions strengthen soccer in the US and offer increased revenue opportunities.

In lieu of franchise fees, there are a couple of solutions I came up with. First, every team at every level could pay a league fee. Each level would have a slightly different fee, with lower division teams seeing much smaller costs than USL-1 or MLS due to regional play. Recent expansion teams would have reduced or no league fees for a predetermined amount of time to compensate for their lump sum payment.
Second, every team would have to pay a percentage of their income to the league. This includes revenue from regional broadcasts. Third, national TV revenues would be directed to the league with compensatory amounts being given to the participating teams. The amount should be comparable to revenue earned via a regional broadcast, if not higher.

Through the various fees and revenue sharing programs the league would cover officials, travel, and accommodations for domestic and league-approved international events (CONCACAF Champions League, SuperLiga, Club World Cup). Friendlies hosted against international clubs would be considered as team marketing expenses and not counted as revenue; the referee costs would be paid to the league, however.

Speaking of Champions League and SuperLiga, these two events should be given more emphasis. Both are important to creating a more European flavor within our league system and have the potential to increase the profile of North American soccer greatly. Unfortunately both have serious flaws.

Currently US teams are given four spots in the Champions League tournament - three through MLS and one through the USOC. Canada is given a single entry through the Canadian Championship (Toronto cannot qualify through MLS). Bermuda and Puerto Rico must qualify through a Caribbean tournament. Under the new league structure things should be different.

The MLS champion should qualify for the Champions League, regardless of nationality. The USOC winner and runner-up should also qualify, as should the winner of the new "League Cup." The Canadian Championship could still serve as a qualifier if it is expanded into a USOC-like competition. The final spot would go to the winner of a round robin play-off between the second and third place finishers in MLS, the runner-up of the Canadian Championship, and the top teams from Bermuda and Puerto Rico (plus US Virgin Islands or any other Caribbean nation joining our system). For classification purposes, this tournament could be called the "North American Trophy." This is a rough concept, but should provide an idea of how it would work.

The SuperLiga should be expanded beyond MLS and FMF 1 to include teams from other leagues in CONCACAF. It should be the secondary league to our Champions League mirroring the relationship between the European UEFA Champions League and Europa League. The top four MLS teams not qualifying for the Champions League, regardless of country, would qualify.

Although I feel my ideas are fairly decent, by no means do I assume they are the best out there. Really I am exploring my own thoughts for making US soccer more similar to European soccer and more competitive as a whole. I realize that these posts are wordy and complex. Hopefully tomorrow's post will clear things up a bit as I plan on making a rough outline of the strategy...

Continue to Part 3

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