In many football leagues around the world right now, teams at the top of their league are battling for a title. This will happen next fall in Major League Soccer. Teams around the world who are at the bottom of their leagues are also playing meaningful games right now. In fact, they are playing the most important matches of their seasons.
This is because they are fighting to avoid getting relegated to a lower division. And teams at the top of lower divisions are fighting to move up, like Newcastle United and Brighton and Hove Albion have both recently done.
But this won’t happen in the United States, because teams at the bottom of MLS are guaranteed their spot in the league, while clubs outside of MLS are unable to win a spot by their play on the pitch and the excellence of their clubs.
Why is the absence of promotion and relegation a problem? The current soccer pyramid in the United States allows for a monopoly at the top, where gatekeepers decide who is in and who is barred from Major League Soccer. This lack of competition is a problem, because it can reward inferiority, failure, and lack of ambition.
People in the U.S. should have the opportunity to buy or create a club, and with ambition, passion, and excellence, take it as far is it can go. The American Dream is not available to them, in this part of society. As things stand, the system is closed to most clubs having a chance to advance in this way.
Also, the system is set up in a way that wrongfully ignores tradition. Why was New York City Football Club created, when the Cosmos still play football in New York? Shouldn’t FC Cincinnati have a chance to secure a spot in a division one league, by the club’s demonstration of excellence and passion on and off the field? And I’d love to see a club with a history like Bethlehem Steel play in a top division of U.S. soccer, or at least have the chance to do so.
Fans would benefit from promotion and relegation in many ways. One of the most significant ways is that every single game matters in such a system. I am not against the MLS. In fact, I’m a passionate supporter of Sporting KC, my hometown team. But the tension in many of their games is nothing like the tension I experience as a supporter of the Arsenal, where each and every game matters. And that tension is part of what brings out passion and excellence in a club, as well as a league.
I’d love it if MLS became a true division one league, with a creation of an open pyramid that perhaps includes leagues like the North American Soccer League, Premier Development League, and National Premier Soccer League. The pressure in an open system forces the best from players, coaches, and their clubs. Those that can’t measure up go down, with other clubs taking their place by what they’ve done to secure promotion.
If the United States is going to go deeper in the World Cup, let alone win it, promotion and relegation in U.S. soccer is a key element for actually doing so. It would be good for clubs, good for players, good for fans and supporters, and good for soccer at all levels.
It might be complicated to transform our system this way, and there are certainly economic issues. But we need promotion and relegation to truly compete with the world’s best at the beautiful game. The United States should play the world’s game the world’s way.
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