The Pro/Rel Fantasy

By Benjamin Massey

August 11th, 2015 · No comments

North American Soccer League

North American Soccer League

As you probably know, North American Soccer League commissioner Bill Peterson recently told The Telegraph‘s Bob Williams that he will “take action” on bringing promotion and relegation to North American soccer[1].

Obviously a serious fan will wish Peterson all the best, but talk is cheap and pro/rel chatter goes at a discount. The only thing in the soccer universe less likely than the NASL getting USL onboard for a promotion/relegation scheme is the NASL getting MLS onboard. Peterson talks about a partnership with the American National Premier Soccer League but even for the Yanks that’s hardly a national pyramid while Canadians and Puerto Ricans would be, as Steven Sandor pointed out, up the proverbial creek. Itself a long shot, such a setup might be better than nothing but, for Canadian fans, not much.

Obviously promotion and relegation would be terrific in North America, as it has been everywhere else in the world. The North American sports palate is not as coarse and unrefined as Don Garber would have you believe. Take it from me, who cheers for many a last-place team: if I could honestly urge my lads to win at the end of the season rather than lose for the sake of a draft pick I’d be overjoyed, even if relegation was the price of failure. Leagues with business models based off collecting franchise fees will be have to find another way but that’s a feature, not a bug. Likewise with anti-labour concepts like discovery lists, allocation orders, and SuperDrafts which a real pyramid would make untenable.

The discussion, however, is academic so long as professional team owners are more interested in prestige and soccer-like sports entertainment than building a system that might hurt individuals even if it’s a collective boon. Which is why you don’t see much pro/rel ranting on this website: clearly pro/rel can’t be beat, but equally clearly it would require a shift in the North American soccer landscape of such scale that any forecast is essentially a personal fantasy.

Hell with it, let’s fantasize. Tomorrow morning Don Garber, Bill Peterson, Victor Montagliani, Sunil Gulati, and USL president Jake Edwards walk into my apartment. “Ben,” they say, “we’ve read your blog, we really like it (especially the blasphemous Photoshops), and we have therefore appointed you generalissimo of North American soccer. Your mandate is to implement promotion and relegation in Canada and the United States. The catch is that you don’t really have any new money and if you stomp all over the owners they’ll launch a coup, establish an Emergency Government of National Security, and hang you from a lamppost. What’s your plan?”

Major League Soccer need not give up its primacy. With promotion and relegation giving any club a route to the top, a professional domestic division developing domestic players, and the roster rules of a North American pyramid with three soccer nations (Canada, the United States, and Puerto Rico) as equal partners, most objections to our all-consuming top division disappear. Successful teams will thrive, the unsuccessful will fail, and if a Canadian team decides to focus entirely on foreign players, that team a couple divisions down nurturing local talent will have every chance to eat their lunch. Many MLS rules, like a salary cap and designated player slots, might remain in place all the way down the pyramid: what we’d lose would be favouritism between domestic players in different countries and the shady deals, weighted lotteries, and suspicious bursts of undocumented cash that make MLS such a joke.

The much-discussed Canadian second division is essential without promotion and relegation and would be essential with it. Hopefully the prospect of promotion would attract NASL loyalists FC Edmonton; in a pro/rel universe we couldn’t really hook them onto the American ladder forever. If not I guess we’re selling the nice china and pawning our guitars until we can buy the Faths out. As for the Puerto Ricans, the existing Liga Nacional de Fútbol de Puerto Rico is a good starting point for a third division. Their league structure is a hot mess right now, with traditional powerhouses Bayamón F.C. having to join the mainland NPSL, and as an ignorant outsider it seems unlikely that they’ll have a league at second division standard in the near future.

Amateur and youth levels, such as USL PDL, are left out. They don’t belong in the discussion of an open-age professional structure, even if some teams are plenty talented enough to compete at a third-division standard. Their role is an independent one, though doubtless some teams more interested in entertaining the community than developing college players will move over.

Canada United States Puerto Rico
Division 1 Major League Soccer
24 teams
Division 2 Canadian Premier League
8+ teams
North American Soccer League
10 teams
Division 3
Top reserve level
regional third divisions
(PLSQ, L1O, etc.)
United Soccer League
18 teams (plus reserves)
Liga Nacional de Fútbol de Puerto Rico
12 teams
Division 4+ local premier leagues National Premier Soccer League
65 teams
local soccer?

A thorny practical problem is how to determine who gets relegated. (This is where I’m glad I’m generalissimo.) Your standard three-up-three-down rule would be poorly received by MLS owners who’d paid huge expansion fees, and competitively unfair given the sometimes dramatic gaps in quality between different levels. Then there’s how to deal with three soccer nations under one roof.

I would put the three last-place MLS teams into an annual playoff with the top two NASL teams and the Canadian champion and have them play off, home and away. The last-place MLS team and the three second-division teams play one round. The winners face the second-last and third-last MLS teams. The winners of that play next season in MLS; the losers get a last chance third-place game. The big-money MLS teams would have every chance to keep their place, and if they took the drop in spite of everything it would be their own damned fault. If the NASL/Canadian teams are completely uncompetitive they’ll get wiped out in the playoff and, hopefully, come back stronger next year. It’s a conservative format which favours the existing powerhouses, but that’s okay if it gives everyone an honest chance.

This would happen without prejudice to nationality. If a Canadian league team wins promotion and it’s all American teams in the relegation pot, there’s one more Canadian team in MLS that year. The reverse applies when Toronto FC inevitably comes unglued and gets themselves sent to the U-Sector outdoor league. The numbers favour the Americans (remember, the NASL gets two entrants to the promotion playoffs to Canada’s one), which is probably only fair. Combined with their competitive advantage Americans need not fear a Canadian takeover of their national league, but if a Canadian team punches above their weight like this year’s Ottawa Fury then they can be justly rewarded.

The principle applies further down the pyramid. The USL and Puerto Rican champions play the bottom NASL teams: USL is far stronger than the Puerto Rican league but the playoff will shake out most pretenders. In Canada, let our regional semi-pro champions battle to send somebody to a promotion playoff against the basement-dwellers of the national league. Clubs would need the right to decline promotion for financial or other reasons, and reserve teams should probably not rise higher than the third division. It would also be important that Canada has a semi-pro league for every region, lest FC Edmonton be relegated to League1 Ontario, but that’s something that has to happen anyway.

Theoretically this could lead to regional leagues running short of teams: if League1 Ontario has a good run and half their teams get promoted, that would be inconvenient for the smaller number brought up to replace them. There would therefore have to be provision for extra promotion to keep leagues viable. Indeed, as the strength of the second and third divisions grow, both Canadians and Americans would doubtless want to bring additional teams to a higher level rather than stick with the relatively small NASL and Canadian league numbers forever.

At the bottom we integrate the various men’s amateur leagues that are currently thriving across Canada and the United States. Why shouldn’t Sunday players in the smallest communities have the chance to enter the semi-professional ranks if they’re willing and able? No doubt most of these teams would be incapable of winning promotion and be obliged to decline it if they ever could; the point is to give the exceptions a chance and allow grassroots teams, maybe even supporter-owned ones, to rise in stature and support until they’re on the biggest stage.

MLS teams would play more must-win games than ever before, bringing in fans and television viewers. A community in the driver’s seat for promotion would be captivated rather than trying to remember what the NASL regular season championship is called*. More teams at more levels would have more ways to draw more fans than in any other format, and when an underserved community could support a professional club they could make it on their merits rather than wait for a patron to pay an expansion fee. This all sounds brilliant, until you’re New York City FC, you just paid MLS a $100 million expansion fee, and there’s a real chance you’re swapping places with the Cosmos next year.

Indeed, the selfishness of empire-building ownership and league front offices is why our soccer pyramid is stuck in imagination. You’d have to be a much better politician than I to make it real.


* — It’s the Woosnam Cup, by the way, after the late Phil Woosnam, US Soccer executive and commissioner of the first North American Soccer League.

[1] — Williams, Bob. “NASL commissioner Bill Peterson vows to ‘take action’ to introduce promotion and relegation in North America.” The Telegraph, August 10, 2015. Accessed August 11, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/usa/11791370/NASL-commissioner-Bill-Peterson-vows-to-take-action-to-introduce-promotion-and-relegation-in-North-America.html.

[2] — Sandor, Steven. “NASL Commissioner’s pro-rel comments don’t mean ‘going up, going down’ happening anytime soon” The11.ca, August 10, 2015. http://the11.ca/2015/08/10/nasl-commissioners-pro-rel-comments-dont-mean-going-up-going-down-happening-anytime-soon/.

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