Is Garber Inadvertently Providing a Problem for Pro/Rel to Solve?

Since day one, my stance on promotion and relegation has been that the system was born as a means to solve a particular problem.

It had nothing to do with player development, stimulating investment, opening the doors to the nourishing effects of free market economics, boosting attendances, the emancipation of lower-league clubs or any of the many other effects the system is so often credited with.

It was simply a system devised to handle the world’s first national, professional football league, growing beyond the boundaries of its single-division structure.

My next statement is going to be bold. Not necessarily by design. However, it contradicts official documents of FIFA themselves; perhaps even their philosophical tenets.

Promotion and relegation is not the essence of football.

I’m sorry but it simply isn’t.  Nor is it the reason for the sport’s global popularity.  To make that claim is to do football a serious disservice.  It’s popular because it’s a brilliant and fascinating game to watch.  What other sport features such a range of playing styles, tactics and philosophies?

Soccer was destined for greatness from inception.  It was already well on its way when pro/rel came along.  If anything, pro/rel was a product of the game’s popularity.  History and objective fact slam the door on any notion to the contrary.

If you’re not convinced, just look at where the gaze of a soccer fan falls.

The most popular clubs on the planet consider pro/rel like the human race considers global extinction events.  The possibility is always there but they’re not going to spend much time fretting about it.

We’re talking about elite superclubs that spend tens of millions on individual transfer fees, with all the stress and care of a kid buying a packet of bubblegum.

Even in the best attended football leagues in the world, second tier attendances and TV ratings look anemic next to their top-flight counterparts.  For all the talk of die-hard fandom and the thrill of following a team up the ranks, precious few clubs maintain a comparable attendance after any drop in level.

In fact, outside England & Germany, lower league attendances are in the same ballpark (pardon the pun) as minor league baseball.

Compare the TV ratings of “El Classico”, Man United vs Liverpool or a major UEFA Champions League fixture to the relegation dogfight, let alone any promotion race.

If you still have any lingering doubts, they should be swept away when you consider that football’s biggest event, the World Cup, doesn’t feature pro/rel in any way, shape or form.

Currently, many including myself, feel that the US soccer setup, is not yet ready for Pro/Rel.

The current structure contains 60 professional clubs, 22 of which are in MLS and 10 of which are MLS reserve “minor league” outfits.  That’s 28 independent clubs outside MLS, most of which would require a significant uplift in their squads and infrastructure to compete in the current top tier.

For anyone disputing this, we’ve seen some very sobering events in support of it.  As recently as one year ago, if you’d asked soccer fans across the US, which non-MLS club would be best placed to be promoted, the majority would have said the New York Cosmos.  A dominant force since their rebirth in the modern NASL, they’ve boasted the likes of Raul and Marcos Senna in their ranks.

Out of the blue this off-season as the NASL floundered, the US soccer community was shocked at the revelation that the Cosmos themselves were on the verge of collapse.  Only the late purchase by Rocco B. Commisso and a series of reprieves from the USSF saved the club and its league.

Meanwhile, the failure of David Beckham’s Miami to come to fruition on schedule, saw the MLS debut of Minnesota United FC brought forward.  Because this team was already playing in the NASL and had their MLS expansion prep time cut short, they are by far the closest equivalent to date of an expansion team resembling a promoted team.

Even with their roster bolstered by an expansion draft and a playing field somewhat evened by a salary cap and the bulk of their players being paid directly by the league, they conceded 11 goals in their first two games.

The only way pro/rel would have a purpose is if MLS stopped expanding with several existing viable clubs and/or ownership groups remaining outside the league.  The feeling based on the make-up of other US leagues was that the cutoff wouldn’t come until at least team 30 and more likely 32.

Earlier this month, MLS Commissioner Don Garber, was interviewed by Britain’s Sky Sports.  In this interview he stated that expansion may be capped a little sooner than we thought:

“We’ve just announced we are going to announce four new teams to go from 24 to 28 which would be the largest professional division one league in the world, 12 cities from across the United States have submitted bids and great cities where we don’t have teams; San Diego, St. Louis, Sacramento and Nashville. These are really big cities with millions and millions of people and people don’t have a division one pro team to call their own with their own stadium, so we will be a 28 team league and I think that is it for us.”

As it stands today, MLS has 22 clubs with Los Angeles FC starting next season to bring the total to 23.  David Beckham’s Miami Vaporware is meant to be a 24th some time but frankly I’m not holding my breath.  Assuming Becks & Co do get their act together though, that means MLS has four spots remaining.

This recent round of expansion bids saw applications from twelve teams.

Some of those teams already exist in some form.  Others would be starting entirely from scratch.  Nonetheless, that’s twelve potential teams with owners willing to stump up at least a $150m expansion fee.

Though it’s a big “if”, IF all twelve clubs came to fruition, that would leave the US soccer landscape with at least eight teams with potential D1 viability.  It would certainly leave at least $1.2 billion on the table.

Of course, this assumes that Garber is being 100% truthful, that by “I think that is it for us” he means permanently and that the league isn’t open to reconsidering or changing its mind.  Two decades of fluid rules and mechanisms, shows that the league is not beyond changing tact if they see a benefit.

Taking him at his world though, stopping at 28 teams certainly conjures up a case for promotion and relegation.  Eight clubs would be more than enough to form a D2 and if these folks have the clout to at least table an MLS expansion bid, there’s an argument that they could well deliver teams comparable to what already exists in the incumbent D1.

As an aside, many with the pro/rel advocacy contingent have dismissed the concept of MLS having a second division without opening up the pyramid to all, as “not true pro/rel”.  Those folks would do well to consult the history of the game: this is frequently a first step in building a full open system and even today, few nations operate a structure that doesn’t have exclusions and limitations at certain levels.  As you go deeper down the ranks, you’ll often find that applications to move up are still used (England being a firm case-in-point).

I’m on record as saying that I don’t see the benefit of ceasing expansion unless proceeding would result in serious problems.  Talent dilution is a common issue that’s raised, however we certainly haven’t seen that in MLS so far.  As it stands, the league continues to improve (even if the rate is not fast enough for some critics), youth development is growing and the reach of football is such that the international talent pool should be deep enough to mitigate such an issue.

Another issue – and as stated above, the primary reason for pro/rel existing at all – is logistics.  How big is too big?  When does the schedule become unmanageable?  Will an increased number of regional conferences eventually detach clubs and fans from the feeling that they’re all in the same league?  My personal thoughts on this are covered comprehensively here.

Again, I’d rather MLS found a way to get any and all of these twelve groups into the league, so long as their bids show them to be viable candidates.  Thirty-six teams is certainly workable using the standard US league format.

Another option of course, is these and other owners clubbing together to form a rival D1: something that according to current NASL Commissioner Rishi Sehgal, is not only permitted, but that USSF would be obligated to sanction:

From Nipun Chopra’s interview, via Chris Cassell’s ProRelforUSA blog:

Rishi Sehgal – “We have had conversations with US Soccer about the sanctioning process in the past and they have been very clear that as long as the league meets the standards then they are under an obligation to sanction them at that level.”

One aspect of the expansion process and Garber’s comments shouldn’t be overlooked: he’s currently in negotiations with these owners.  This is the same man that publicly painted a less-than-rosy picture of MLS’s financial performance during the last Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations with the league’s players union. I wouldn’t put it past him to undersell the league’s expansion potential as a bargaining strategy.  Naturally, the less spots, the higher the price of expansion.

Garber and Major League Soccer need to be careful though.  Poll after poll of players, fans and many others in connection to the sport in America, frequently shows that promotion and relegation is a system favoured by the majority.  Indeed, I would count myself among them in terms of the concept.  Where these polls are less damning is when they are supplemented with the question “Is the USA ready?”.  Almost as frequently, the opinion given is “No”.  Again, that’s in line with my beliefs.

Even if excluding these candidates alone doesn’t flip the switch that says the USA is ready, it does move us substantially closer to the scenario that pro/rel was invented to cater for – a scenario that otherwise may never occur if expansion is permitted to simply continue in line with demand.

The bottom line is that while MLS is under no obligation to implement pro/rel, regardless of how many viable candidates are left out, a premature hard stop will only make the calls louder and the arguments against implementation weaker.

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