Yet another year with the same outcome. When all four MLS teams crashed out of the CONCACAF Champions League this past week, it ensured a Mexican team would win the competition for the 8th straight season. Frankly, it hasn’t been close: Real Salt Lake and Montreal have each made a final, and LA and Seattle reached the semifinals once.
In the immediate aftermath, the obvious question is, “How do MLS teams do better?” Brian Strauss wrote a good synopsis of the various angles, spanning the pre-season schedule, overall salary spending and distribution across MLS rosters, and overall level of commitment toward the competition. Juan Arango added an interesting quote from Hristo Stoichkov, that MLS teams lack any pressure from losing the competition or facing relegation.
Ah, promotion/relegation! US Soccer fans can recite the arguments for and against it in their sleep. Promotion/relegation is not a panacea, but nor would it lead to the imminent demise of soccer in the US. Two things come to mind as it relates to implications of promotion/relegation.
1. MLS does not need promotion/relegation to win a CONCACAF Champions League
Why not? Liga MX barely has promotion/relegation itself. After the Apertura and Clausura tournaments, just one of the 18 Liga MX teams drops down to Ascenso MX. What’s more, a three year points-per-game average determines the relegated team, protecting more established teams. Just last year, Morelia finished last in both the Apertura and Clausura tournaments, but escaped relegation due to its performance in earlier seasons. The threat of relegation provides marginally more pressure on Liga MX teams than MLS teams, but causal effect of promotion/relegation on Liga MX’s Champions League dominance looks weak.
If anything, the fact that both leagues have spots rewarded through a playoff system levels the playing field. Santos Laguna, the team that just eliminated LA, finished 8th in the Torneo Clausura, but qualified for the Champions League by winning the Liguilla. This forgiving format means that Liga MX teams – like MLS teams – typically have league champions with lower point-per-game totals than single-table league winners.
Don Garber mentioned that reaching Liga MX’s level is the next rung on the ladder for MLS. For the reasons Strauss outlined above, this is an achievable goal, regardless of league structure.
2. MLS expansion and quality of play will force the promotion/relegation issue, and it is viable whenever the USSF wants implement it
Yes, a large contingent of MLS coaches and executive just laughed at this very prospect (Caleb Porter a notable exception), and league officials are adamant that it will “never happen”. However, as MLS continues its expansion toward 28 teams unabated, the strategic question to ask is: what’s the end-state for a top-flight division in this country?
The FIFA 20-team league limit seems more like a suggestion than a definitive regulation. The US is an enormous country, and it would be a missed opportunity to artificially cap top-flight opportunities to 20 teams. However, expansion also means that MLS’ parity-driven philosophy applies to more teams and more players, hindering its ability to become one of the top leagues in the world. Bruce Arena recently expressed his opinion that MLS’ level of play is at “a bit of a standstill.” Ensuring that 28 (or more) teams have a chance to win MLS Cup each year is at odds with climbing those rungs past Liga MX.
While envisioning promotion/relegation in the short-term is difficult, we also don’t know what the next 20 years will bring. Regardless of finish, Leicester City are the story of the English Premier League season. They are not alone in their rise from lower divisions. Here are the past 20 years of final league positions among the current English Premier League teams, starting with the 1995/96 season (the first season of the EPL’s current 20-team format):
To highlight this point, eight of the 20 EPL clubs spent at least a season in the third division, taking paths to the top-flight divergent from those of established powers like Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, or Chelsea:
All of this mobility occurred in the same time frame as MLS’ entire existence. Rather than MLS stopping at 32 teams like professional leagues in other US sports, it seems like the more logical end-game is to stratify and broaden professional soccer. Regarding viability of a US soccer pyramid, there are 61 professional soccer teams in the top three US leagues today, nearly double the amount from just 10 years ago. There are concerns about protecting investments in MLS, but yet, massive amounts of American investment in the sport heads overseas. With that investment comes a willingness to assume the risk of a devalued asset.
In terms of fan support, interest in MLS today is more driven by its outstanding live attendance instead of TV ratings. This bodes well for identifying new markets. Don Garber recently compared MLS to Championship quality. If that’s the case, than the median NASL attendance compares favorably to attendance in League One, even without the prospect of promotion. The size of US also results in more geographic exclusivity. Whereas London features 10 teams in the top three tiers, there is little overlap today among MLS, NASL, and USL markets (the MLS-associated USL teams a notable exception.) This should lead to less risk of fan attrition if a team drops down a tier.