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What About 2nd Divisions Not Being Ready?

One of the constant criticisms about promotion and relegation in the US is that the 2nd division isn’t good enough from a team health or league infrastructure stand point.  Rather than answer that generally (which quite honestly, cannot be done), we’ll answer it in respect to the proposal put forth here last week at https://mlsprorel.wordpress.com/2014/02/23/a-proposal-for-full-us-promotion-relegation/

The plan we created has four main points that will help with 2nd division issues:

  1. It doesn’t start for 8 years, which provides plenty of time to get stadiums and team health in order;
  2. It prevents 2nd division teams from traveling too much and the costs associated with that;
  3. The are strict requirements to being eligible to be promoted that include financial and stadium requirements;
  4. It’s really hard to get promoted, those teams have to prove it against higher division teams first;

Let’s focus on that last point.  In the plan we proposed, there is no automatic promotion and relegation.  Just because you win your regional league doesn’t guarantee you 1st division soccer.

2nd division league winners would need to be entered into a group play format and each of those groups include a 1st division team (that is in danger of relegation, but they get the chance to avoid it).

So you involve more of the country with fan bases that can get on board with a team that has a chance of making it to the 1st division, but the table is slanted towards the incumbents.

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Proposal

A Proposal for Full US Promotion & Relegation

We previously proposed a limited promotion & relegation system for MLS only.  Truthfully, we would prefer it not be limited to that.  So here we’ve decided to expand this system to support the entire landscape of soccer in the US. Below is a proposal for a United States (and access for Canada) National League with a pyramid of regionalized leagues participating in promotion and relegation.  It includes issues like MLS, pyramid structure, financial regulations, etc.

League Structure

The league will be comprised of 1 National League, made up of 20 teams, and 7-10 regional leagues (1 being Canada).

An example soccer pyramid with regions

An example soccer pyramid with regions

National League

The national league will be made up of teams from the continental United States and Canada.  Due to the burden of travel expenses on regional leagues, Alaska and Hawaii cannot be granted access.

Regions

First, let’s deal with the question of why regions at the 2nd tier in the pyramid.  While many advocate for a 2 tier national system, I don’t see it making sense.  All sports in the US, outside of the NFL, are followed at a more regional level.  Even today, a baseball fan in Minnesota isn’t very likely to watch a World Series between the Red Sox and Diamondbacks.  By regionalizing higher in the pyramid, more interest will be generated for teams in the areas they are located, as opposed to be being spread out nationally.

Each region may have multiple levels on the pyramid.  Each level will be required to meet the following sizing guidelines for their top flight:

  • Anywhere from 9 to 11 teams.  In this case, each team will play 2 home and 2 away games against each team in the level, for a total of 32 to 40 games.
  • Anywhere from 16 to 20 teams.  In this case, each team will play 1 home and 1 away game against each team in the level, for a total of 30 to 38 games.
  • Each season, after promotion and relegation has been sorted out, the region levels may need to re-size to accommodate the changes to these structures.

Canada will act on its own accord for how to manage their pyramid.  Later, we’ll see how they gain access to the National League.

Expected regions include:

  • New England + New York
  • Mid- Atlantic
  • Great Lakes
  • Southeast (may need to be split into 2 regions)
  • Plains
  • West Coast (may need to be split into 2 regions)
  • Canada
Regions for soccer pyramid

Regions for soccer pyramid – excuse the awfully drawn lines

Each region will have rights to enter into their own broadcast deals as they see fit.  This money will then be distributed to teams as the regions deem necessary.

MLS

One of the obvious counter points to promotion and relegation has been: how would that work with MLS and the money they’ve invested?  MLS will be the initial starting point for the National League.  As MLS is expanding to 24 teams, 4 teams will need to be relegated to the regional leagues (assuming there are no teams that want to disband at this point).  This will be determined by the final 3 years of MLS.  The 4 teams with the lowest accumulated points over those 3 years will be relegated to the regional leagues.

Promotion and Relegation

Considering the fact that we are advocating regionalization at such a high level in the pyramid, direct promotion and relegation is not possible.  Therefore, this proposal includes a playoff system among the qualifiers from the regional leagues as well as the 4 lowest finishers from the National League.

The regions will be awarded anywhere from 0-2 automatic qualifiers in a manner similar to UEFA Champions League spots per country.  Regions that have no automatic qualifiers will need to participate in a playoff for the 1 non-automatic spot.  Canada will have 1 automatic qualifier awarded via a system of their choosing.  This will result in a total of 16 teams in the playoffs.

Eligibility for making playoffs will include: stadium capacity and financials capability to pay travel escrow.  There will likely be other qualifications necessary.

Therefore the qualifiers are as such:

  • 4 teams from National League (places 17-20)
  • 1 team from Canada
  • 1 team from non-automatic qualifying regions
  • 10 automatic qualifiers from 6-8 US regions (no region will be allowed more than 2 qualifiers to the playoffs)

Note: should there not be any non-automatic qualifying regions, there will be 11 automatic qualifying spots available.

These 16 teams will be entered into 4 groups of 4 teams.  Each group will include 1 National League team and 3 randomly drawn teams.  Each group will include home and away matches between each team, for a total of 6 games.  The winner of each group will play the following year in the National League.

In the case where a National League team does not win their group, they will be returned to the regional league associated with their location.

An Example

Group A Group B Group C Group D
NE+NY Region 16 pts National League place 18 18 pts National League place 19 16 pts Plains Region Place 2 12 pts
National League place 17 12 pts Southwest Region Place 2 9 pts Southeast Region Place 1 9 pts Great Lakes Place 1 8 pts
Canada Region 7 pts Northwest Region 7 pts Mid-Atlantic Region 6 pts Southwest Region Place 1 8 pts
Plains Region Place 1 0 pts Southeast Region Place 2 4 pts Great Lakes Region Place 2 4 pts National League place 20 6 pts

In this example, the 4 teams in red have won their group and will all be playing in the National League the next season.

Financial Qualifications

While salary caps will not be included, FFP-similar statutes will be put in place to prevent over the top spending.  Teams will not be able to spend more than they take in via endorsements, transfers, media, apparel, and game day sales. Outlays include salary, transfer costs, and travel escrow (and possibly others).

Infringement of this policy will result in denial of access to promotion playoffs, automatic relegation, or denial of access to Champions League play (see next section).

Champions League

Access to CONCACAF Champions League will be granted to the following teams:

  1. Winner of the National League
  2. Winner of a playoff between places 2 through 5 of the National League
  3. Winner of the League Cup
  4. Winner of the United States Open Cup

League Cup

A league cup among the 20 National League teams will be conducted each season.  The top 12 teams from the previous season will earn automatic byes to the 2nd round.  Places 13 through 16 will be matched up against the 4 promotion group winners from the previous season in the first round.

Timing

This new national structure would begin in 2023, the first year after the new MLS contract is to end.  Starting in the 2020 season, MLS teams will begin accumulating points towards access to the National League.  The 4 teams with the lowest point total over the 3 year period of 2020-2022 will be relegated to their respective regions.

This will additionally provide time for the region leagues to fill out their ranks, allow teams to construct stadiums that meet the requirements of promotion, and to sell media rights.

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Proposal

MLS: A Proposal for Promotion/Relegation with New Expansion

mls-pro-reg

A lot of MLS soccer fans want promotion/relegation in the league. Most likely, there isn’t a single owner who does. Why is that? Well money, of course. So how would these owners be affected with promotion/relegation? Let’s reel off a few:

  • No playoff games. That’s an obvious one.
  • Not playing the more dominant team that have the best (and most marketable) players.
  • Not getting on national TV.

Those are legitimate concerns for a single entity league where owners pay to get into the league. Now for a lot of folks, that description alone is the real problem. And I can’t really argue against that point. People like Ted Westervelt have done a lot, a lot, of writing and talking on this subject. I can honestly say I’d rather see his plan introduced, I just don’t think it will. The plan laid out here is made with the assumption that MLS will never give in to Westervelt’s plan (but here’s to hoping they change their minds).

Necessity

In truth, there’s not much necessity for promotion/relegation, within the current MLS structure, at this point. With the current 19 teams, all of those teams could easily fit into a single table. 10 of those 19 teams are making the playoffs at this point. That’s more than half the teams. And another handful are involved up until the last weekend vying for those last couple of spots.

You’ve pretty much got a large amount of the fan base involved up until the very end.

But, the league is changing. It was recently announced that the league is expanding to 24 teams by adding 4 more over the course of the next 7 years (plus the previously announced New York City FC). That will most likely leave us with 2 conferences (the dream of a single table is kaput at this point) of 12 teams each.

While they could easily keep a similar ratio to what they have now in the league, by expanding to 12 teams in the playoffs, is that really what most people want? More undeserving teams making the playoffs? I can’t imagine so (unless of course it’s your team squeaking into one of the last spots).

A Proposal to Make Everyone Happy (mostly)

So how do we make both the fans that want promotion/relegation and the owners who want money, happy? How about a hybrid?

We put 12 teams into both Division 1 and Division 2. That’s the easy part. Let’s get into some of the more interesting aspects.

Schedule

Each team plays home and away against the other teams in their own division. That’s a total of 22 games. You then take a page out of the NFL, play all the teams in the other division once, splitting half the games at home and half away. That will make for a total of 34 games in the season for all teams in both divisions.

This plan allows the owners of the Division 2 teams to be guaranteed at the very least a TV game with the best players in the league against your team (minus injuries of course, or Chivas).

Playoffs

This is going to take a divisive twist. 6 teams from Division 1 will make the Cup Playoffs. On top of that, we’re going to take the top 2 teams from Division 2. This is most likely going to be divisive on a couple of fronts: with fans AND players. How are the fans and players going to feel about teams 1 and 2 from Division 2 making it to the playoffs over team 7 in Division 1. I don’t know, and I frankly don’t care. It’s necessary for the greater good.

There’s more! Taking a page from the lower divisions in Europe, how about playoffs for the last Division 1 spot? We’ll get into that in the next section under Promotion and Relegation.

That will put 12 teams into the playoffs, but only 8 of those in the Cup Playoffs.

Promotion and Relegation

The easy part is that the top 2 teams from Division 2 will get promoted (along with making the Cup Playoffs) to Division 1. Subsequently, the bottom 2 teams in Division 1 will get relegated down to Division 2.

But to spice it up a bit more (money for the owners, and interest for the fans), we’ll introduce the Promotion Playoffs. Team 10 from Division 1 and teams 3-5 from Division 2 will go into some manner of playoff for the last spot in Division 1. I say some manner, because I would be open to any of a single game elimination tournament, home and home, or even group play.

An Example

For this exercise, we’re going to pretend the expansion teams started in 2013 and were uniformly awful and occupying the last 5 spots of Division 2. Let’s take the 12 teams with the highest point totals from 2012 to make up the divisions for this past season:

Division 1:

  1. San Jose Earthquakes
  2. Sporting KC
  3. DC United
  4. Real Salt Lake
  5. New York Red Bull
  6. Chicago Fire
  7. Seattle Sounders
  8. LA Galaxy
  9. Houston Dynamo
  10. Columbus Crew
  11. Vancouver Whitecaps
  12. Montreal Impact

Division 2:

  1. FC Dallas
  2. Colorado Rapids
  3. Philadelphia Union
  4. New England Revolution
  5. Portland Timbers
  6. Chivas USA
  7. Toronto FC
  8. New York City FC
  9. Orlando
  10. Miami
  11. Atlanta
  12. Minneapolis

That was a fair bit of editorializing on my part for the 4 unknown expansion teams, but what the hell, why not? Isn’t this whole thing?

So if we take the final standings of the 2013 season, how would things shake out?

Your Cup Playoff teams would be (first 6 teams all seeded from Division 1 by standing placement):

  1. New York Red Bull
  2. Sporting KC
  3. Real Salt Lake
  4. LA Galaxy
  5. Seattle Sounders
  6. Houston Dynamo
  7. Portland Timbers (1st place from Division 2, automatic promotion for 2014)
  8. New England Revolution (2nd place from Division 2, automatic promotion for 2014)

Your Promotion Playoff teams would be (winner plays in Division 1 in 2014, other 3 teams play in Division 2):

  1. San Jose Earthquakes (10th place team from Division 1)
  2. Colorado Rapids (3rd place from Division 2)
  3. Philadelphia Union (4th place from Division 2)
  4. FC Dallas (5th place from Division 2)

Automatic relegation goes to D.C. United (12th place from Division 1) and Columbus Crew (11th place from Division 1). Both teams would play in Division 2 for 2014.

Other Bits

It will be important that the league continue to share money in an equal share to all teams and keep the salary cap the same for all, even in Division 2. Again, this isn’t something most fans care about, but without this, there is no way ownership would ever sign onto this.

The draft could potentially be part of this, perhaps the last place team of the Promotion Playoffs? This would give teams a reason to push to continue to win games in Division 2 to get into the playoffs. And then what team is going to intentionally tank it with an opportunity to get into Division 1? No one, that’s who.  Then again, getting rid of the draft altogether would be nice.

Who would the 1st and 2nd place teams play in the playoffs? The newly promoted teams or the 5th and 6th teams from Division 1? The argument could be made that those 5th and 6th place teams from Division 1 are weaker.

National TV will need to guarantee some cross division games so the Division 2 teams don’t feel slighted.

This system would also allow for more expansion (talent pool issues aside). But it would require that an even number of teams be added during any expansion. Those teams would need to enter into Division 2 and an extra team would need to be promoted (perhaps no playoff that year?). This would obviously raise scheduling concerns though.

Conclusion

A lot of us would love to see a true promotion/relegation system in the US. I’m not sure I believe that’s ever a real possibility, so I worked around that constraint.  But hopefully, this gets a foot in the door towards at the very least multiple, separated (not the hybrid I’ve proposed) MLS divisions. Then, possibly the full blown deal.

What’s the effect of all of this? We still get 12 teams into “playoffs”, it’s just that we haven’t completely sullied the Cup Playoffs with all 12 of those teams. The owners are assured of getting an opportunity to earn playoff money, even from Division 2 and they are guaranteed games against all the best players in the league. The fans get a form of promotion/relegation. And for some of the “mid-table” or lower teams, they still have a lot to play for until the very end of the season.

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