No Rel for USA?: A Half-Baked Plan Involving a Flattened Pyramid

As recently as seven years ago, I would have eagerly extolled the virtues of Promotion and Relegation to anyone.  Since then, I have clearly become involved in the debate surrounding the system and it’s conspicuous absence in American professional football.

If you’ve read this blog, I won’t have to tell you that I was long ago persuaded that the time and environment isn’t right for implementing the system here.

As time has worn on, I’ve also come to the conclusion that perhaps there are just better fits for the American game period/fullstop (delete as applicable :P).

Here are some considerations:

Attendance: Something that became abundantly clear when doing my research on pro/rel stats, was that regardless of the nation, league or scope, you are almost certainly going to get the best attendances possible by being part of the top flight (D1).

With that in mind, it seems quite clear to me that when viable clubs emerge, with the resources to be competitive and stable in a top flight, it doesn’t make sense to condemn them to a lesser tier unless the volume of D1 teams becomes problematic.

Therefore, the more clubs we can fit in D1 without issue, the better.

Regional Power: The main reason why England (and indeed most historic footballing nations) has approximately 17 official football clubs per square-foot, is that they were formed when the world was a metaphorically bigger place.

Living in 19th century Preston and supporting a club in the City of Manchester just wasn’t that practical or logical on a Working Class wage.  So the then-cotton industry nerve-center gave rise to the legendary Preston North End.

I currently live approximately the same distance from downtown Los Angeles as Preston is from Manchester and nobody thinks of it as anything but natural for locals to follow any major SoCal team.  The Lakers, Clippers, Angels, Dodgers, Ducks, Kings, are all followed around here. As well of course, as the LA Galaxy.

While the USL’s OC Blues (themselves recently transplanted from LA) have a following here, there’s hardly much reason to form MLS teams in Westminster, Costa Mesa, Irvine, Carson, Torrance, etc. with a collection of Major League teams so close by.

In fact, in this day and age, if such teams somehow managed to miraculously emerge and draw decent followings, it would do little more than stretch both the fan base and the top of the local talent pool. Now as smaller, minor league outfits, there could well be a place for tighter regional clubs and local leagues (more on that later) but for now, we can produce stronger top clubs by consolidating support, not dividing it.

Of course, I chose the worst example, because LA, like New York, can likely sustain a couple of big clubs.  But in general, I think you see my point.

Farm/Development Leagues: Another thing I happened upon in my tedious flicking-through of sports statistics was that – rather surprisingly – US minor league teams actually draw relatively well.

AAA Baseball (US Baseball’s “second tier”) and the NBA D-League actually seem to draw along the lines of the typical D2 soccer league (note: England and Germany are not typical).  Even more interesting is that the further you delve down into MiLB’s many farm league levels, attendance is actually a bit better than typical soccer D3s and below.

On top of this, the modern trend in elite talent-production is moving away from relying on the independent scouting and youth systems of individual clubs.  Germany, Belgium and Uruguay are just a few examples of nations that in the last ten-to-fifteen years have moved to a system with more centralized elements, not disimilar to what the Netherlands has been doing for years.

Such processes involve establishing central philosophies from youth to professional, organised primarily by the governing body, working with their clubs.  MLS has built a strong partnership with USL, where youth and reserve players compete in the lower tier, either for an affiliate of their main club or an actual “MLS 2” reserve team.

Meanwhile, the incoming Atlanta United have already incorporated highly-regarded youth club, Georgia United into their framework.  The Portland Timbers, along with Women’s soccer club the Portland Thorns, has developed a close partnership with the Oregan Youth Soccer Association (OYSA).  The American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) has a nationwide presence, helping drive American soccer’s vast youth participation.

What we can see are the components of a potentially potent farm system.  As Major and Minor League affiliations grow, we can introduce multiple, broader tiers, incorporating clubs from the PDL and NPSL, to improve the USSF’s scouting footprint, disseminate strong training curricula, central philosophies and establish best practices, right down to the youth level.

These tiers can also serve as incremental “proving grounds” for ambitious owners looking to move up, without the significant risk of having to focus immediate investment on playing staff to facilitate advancement via the tenuous criteria of seasonal results.  I know that the popular wisdom among pro/rel advocates is that an open system will spawn increased investment due to the potential rewards of promotion but I question if that’s the most sensible means of attracting and verifying capable ownership.

I’ve seen plenty of clubs spend themselves into trouble, only to not reach the required goal – or for the rise to be all too temporary – and spend years trying to recover.  I know the boxed response is “opportunity isn’t certainty” but sports aren’t meant to be about financial risk and punishing those that fail.  The fact that so many accept this so readily as part of the game, speaks volumes.

The bottom line, is that we don’t need pro/rel for teams to progress or to establish a strong youth network.  We don’t even need it to drive solid  lower-league attendances (the one caveat being where an MLS 2 club plays at, or very close to it’s parent club, so will therefore not attract as much support in its own right).

Perhaps compelling of all: these tiers provide a means for players to improve and move up.  Ergo, we don’t even require pro/rel for sporting merit to exist.

That is not to say however, that promotion and relegation should be rejected or dismissed altogether – more on that later.

The League Plan

Considering the ideas above, we should also perhaps go back and look at how sports in both England – where the pro/rel, hierarchical pyramid was born – and the United States – where the geographical conference/divisional approach is common – evolved.

In both nations, we saw certain sports become popular over time.  We saw teams emerge and leagues grow.

In England, when the Football League merged with the Football Alliance, there were suddenly too many clubs to fit in a single, national pro league.  A split was required.  National leagues had emerged as a bid to define a national champion.  Splitting the top tier into regional leagues had little merit and could even be seen as a regression to what had existed prior.  So hierarchy was used instead, with pro/rel born to shuffle the tiers appropriately.

In the USA, travel was far more of a factor in many sports so as leagues grew (or merged with other leagues) geography became the basis for divisions.  While there remain exceptions, it was also felt that it was more financially viable to play in larger markets than toiling away in limited hamlets.

Now this is a pretty simplified approximation but it does give the gist.

Basically, I don’t see much reason why US soccer should deviate from this approach right now.  In fact, I think they should quite literally expand on it.

Today, MLS is home to 20 teams.  The Uniteds of both Minnesota and Atlanta, are slated to start playing in the league in 2017.  LAFC will be attempting to do a second Los Angeles club right, starting in 2018.  David Beckham and Co still wander around Miami, looking for a place to put his expansion team.

That’s 23 MLS clubs confirmed, one semi-confirmed, Sacramento Republic highly touted as moving “up” from USL, Detroit and Nashville ownership groups reportedly applying and Don Garber talking about going to 28.  I’ve got to think that in keeping with US sports traditions, 30-32 teams is an eventual likelihood.

Now for Bazza’s actual stance on pro/rel in the USA (and Canada): If MLS stops hard at 32 (or indeed any point), ruling out any further expansion ever again. and there are still an adequate number teams – with sufficient resources and infrastructure to compete – emerging outside the league, then we have an organic case for promotion and relegation.

However, I’m not so sure that a hard stop and hierarchical tiers are necessary, or even the best approach in this country.  We have the space, population and geography to actually keep adding clubs.  Compared to Europe, we could actually accommodate, support and run multiple “D1s” here.  California has roughly the same amount of residents as Belgium, Portugal and the Netherlands combined.

MLS continues to improve, despite entire teams joining every few years.  I say, if the clubs are there and they’re truly viable and competitive, let’s bring them in.  After all, I’ve already shown that they’re going to get optimum attention, attendances and revenues in the top flight.  Let’s accommodate them.

That’s right: I’m talking about (over an extended period of course) growing well beyond 32.  I’m thinking that if we have the clubs and we’re scouting and developing the talent, we have the basis for a set of leagues encompassing double that number!

The Format:

As it Stands and the Growth Process

Currently, we have:

2 regional conferences (East and West), 10 clubs in each and inter-conference play (games between clubs in different conferences).

A title (the Supporters Shield) is awarded to the club with the best overall record, regardless of conference.

12 clubs reach the playoffs (top 6 in each conference).

We can maintain this basic format until we reach 28 clubs.  This is when we introduce two major concepts of this plan:

  1. The National Championship (or perhaps a more Canada-inclusive title).
  2. A halt to inter-conference play during the regular season (switching to H/A round robin).

I’ll outline more details later but the National Championship is best described as a US (and Canadian if they qualify) domestic “Champions League”.  Teams that would before have qualified for the playoffs, will instead enter this competition.  The tournament will run in tandem with the regular season, rather than operating as a “post season”, though it’s final will still be the league’s showpiece finale.

Meanwhile, a further championship will be awarded for finishing top of your  conference, replacing the Supporters Shield.

As new clubs or viable ownership groups emerge, the conference structure will be sustained until we pass 32 teams.  At this point, a third conference will be added, with teams reassigned accordingly and inter-conference play resumed to maintain a full schedule.

When these three conferences reach 14 teams, we again cease inter-conference play.  The basic rules for conference distribution are:

Number of Conferences:

  1. If there are 32 teams or less, there will be 2 conferences.
  2. At 33 teams there will be 3 conferences.
  3. At 40 teams or above, there will be 4 conferences.
  4. Anticipate ceasing expansion at 64 teams (but we can go bigger if necessary! – see “further info” at end).

Size of Conferences:

  1. No conference should be smaller than 10 teams.
  2. No conference should be larger than 16 teams.
  3. No conference should be larger than any other by more than 1 team.
  4. If all conference have less than 14 teams, inter-conference fixtures will occur.
  5. If any conference has 14 or more teams, regular season fixtures will be H/A round-robin within conferences (inter-conference fixtures will not occur).

After the Growth Process

Regular Season

64 Teams – 4 Regional Divisions of 16 – No Inter-conference or Inter-divisional Regular Season Play (see “further info” for post-season and qualification make-up prior to the 64 team threshold).

Each club plays the others in their division twice (H/A), for 30 Regular Season games.

Top 4 qualify for National Championship (held following season alongside Regular Season, a la Champions League).

Positions 5-10 playoff for a single qualification to National Championship.

Penalty Zone

This may not be necessary but I’ve also come up with a points penalty to dissuade “tanking for draft picks” or owner apathy.

Teams finishing in the bottom three (Penalty Zone), will start the following season with a points penalty. Position 14: -3, Position 15: -6, Position 16: -9

This penalty can be reduced by making positive moves. Say a point for maxing out spending via the cap, allocated money and “buying down” mechanisms. A couple of points for signing a high profile DP. A positive review of academy performance & production could reduce the penalty significantly, as could spending on infrastructure.

If you want to get extra punitive, on the other end, persistent placement in this zone could lead to performance assessments. Perhaps a performance bond could be entered into for ownership groups, that demands review for a poor 5 years average.

I could see ownership being open to this if they felt there was dead wood in the League, sharing their revenues and having their roster funded by the single entity.  Though again, this may not be necessary.

Qualification Playoffs

Playoffs are between teams in the same conference for the final National Championship berth.  This should give clubs in the midtable something to play for late on, without making qualification the Nat C “too easy”.

Entire playoffs are single elimination, with extra time and penalties.

Round 1:

Position 7 hosts position 10. Position 8 hosts position 9.

Round 2: Position 5 hosts the team with the lowest remaining league position.  Position 6 hosts the other remaining team.

Final: Team with the highest remaining league position hosts.

National Championship

Round 1: Group Stage

4 groups of 5, each comprising of a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th & Playoff winning team from prior season.

Each team plays the others once.  Home team determined by prior seasons league position – higher position hosts. This is where your final league position is rewarded.  If you won the Conference title, then all of your group games will be played at home.  Scrape in via the qualification playoffs and you’ll be on the road throughout.

Top 3 in each group progresses. Group winners qualify for Quarter final. 2nd and 3rd placed teams qualify for 2nd round.

Second Round: Single Elimination

2nd placed teams from prior round each host a 3rd place team.  Extra time and Pens if necessary.

Quarter final: Single Elimination

1st placed teams from the group stage each host a winner from the prior round.  Extra time and pens.

Semi final: Single Elimination

Bracket is seeded by record in competition so far (to reward strong results thus far), sorted as follows: Wins, draws, goal difference, goals scored, away wins, away goals, last seasons league position, last seasons regular season record, last seasons away record.

Higher seed hosts.  Extra time and pens.

Final:

Finalist with the best league record the prior season hosts the final.

Further Considerations

Champions League Qualification

Currently, the MLS Cup winner, the two teams finishing top of their respective conferences and the US Open Cup winners qualify for the CCL.  Naturally, the national champions and US Open Cup winner would still participate.

With four (or potentially more) conferences, using the table-toppers won’t work.  Let’s keep it simple (Simple?? Did you read your seeding criteria for the Nat C semis???) and go with the Nat C runner up qualifying, along with a third place play-off for the remaining spot.

Rival “D1s”

The beauty of having a tier of multiple leagues is that it gives us some flexibility here.  If the NASL for example, ever achieves its dream of being D1 standard (in name or otherwise), we could simply add them to the top tier, either merging regionally, or competing separately.

Should they decide to remain separate, a coefficient system could be used to assign berths.

If Commissioner Bill Peterson ever gets his purported desire and implements pro/rel, we could allow that approach to stay in place, providing the best of both worlds.

Promotion and Relegation

I personally think that this proposal could be superior to the common hierarchical system that usually features a ludicrous number of clubs, with only a handful among thousands competing for titles. There’s a possibility though, that this approach simply doesn’t pan out.   Here are a few scenarios where pro/rel might be a contingency.

Parity fails: It’s possible that despite our best efforts, parity either isn’t effective, leading to perennial contenders and also-rans or can’t be maintained at a level that allows US soccer to progress.  We now have a case for implementing pro/rel to create competitive levels, most likely by dividing the league into appropriate tiers.

Quality doesn’t match expansion: I’m adamant that the US has the population and resources to one day hit 64 clubs that can be relatively competitive within their regions.  However, it may transpire that as further clubs emerge beyond the 64, there’s enough of an overlap in quality to include them but not enough talent to do so without noticeably diluting the top tier pool overall.  At this point, we have a case for potentially expanding hierarchically, versus geographically.

Failure to perceive all Conferences as D1: It may be that this system of discreet conferences fails to catch on as truly “top tier”.  It may be that the Nat C is deemed the de facto top competition or that all conferences are not perceived as equal.  Options here would be to either convert Nat C into a single, national division, or two consolidate the stronger teams into fewer D1 conferences, with the weaker forming D2s (or more if necessary).

Too many viable teams: I think I’m pushing some people’s idea of “acceptable” with 64 clubs.  I disagree and in fact think we might be able to accommodate more.  However, there does come a point where you’ve got so many clubs and conferences that people just don’t perceive them all as D1 anymore.  There also comes a point where populating teams with strong enough players becomes an issue.  If we’ve got 400 clubs and they’re all capable of at least giving each other a competitive game and have the resources to carry themselves up the leagues, than you’ve pretty much got the exact situation that pro/rel was invented for.  And with this league structure, I believe a scenario to make more of them stronger and better than any other league on the planet.

Finally

My hope here is that this format can increase the footprint and interest in domestic US soccer by giving broader access to local major clubs.

I also want to modify the perception of the playoff system by transforming it into a more in-depth, season-long tournament that showcases the nations best clubs, without creating a divide between elite and/or wealthy teams and the weaker/poorer outfits.

At the same time, I also want to keep fixtures manageable.  By limiting the regular season to 30 games (33 including qualification playoffs) and the Nat C to 8, we don’t even need to deviate from the current schedule.  The CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) and US Open Cup can go on as always.

I also feel that this is a strong framework in which to integrate the many disparate levels in a way that maximises revenue, creates nationwide interest and improves development standards.

It may be a little “out there”.  I’m more than happy to discuss alternatives and tweaks, even competing ideas.  Many aspects could do with fleshing out.  It’s likely pie-in-the-sky.  Admittedly, it’s also an indulgence of this odd fondness I have for thinking up tournament and league formats.

However, at the very least, I think this is a fascinating concept.  If you made it this far, thanks for reading.

 

Further Info

A breakdown of how the format could evolve based on number of clubs:

formbrkd

A chart of club, group number and group size ratios:

clbtogrprat

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