If you’ve spent any amount of time around soccer fans in America chances are you’ve heard the topic of promotion/relegation, or pro/rel come up. Now, depending on how much you know about soccer, you either know exactly what they’re talking about or it sounds like you’ve wandered into a conversation about theoretical physics. The topic of promotion and relegation is a bit of a Pandora’s Box here in the U.S., and people have very strong opinions about it. What exactly is the promotion/relegation system? Why do people feel so strongly about it? How does promotion/relegation work? We’ll get to that — but first a brief history lesson and overview of how the English leagues are set up.
The Football Association was formed in 1863 and is the governing body of English football and is just like U.S. Soccer in that respect. The FA also puts on the “Emirates FA Cup” or as its more commonly known, the FA Cup. The Football League was formed in England in 1888 and governed all four of the professional divisions until June 14 ,1991, when, according to the Football League, “16 First Division clubs signed a document of intent to join the newly formed Premier League, and eventually all 22 top-flight clubs tendered their resignations from The League. By September, the breakaway league had become official.” On May 27, 1992, all 22 clubs in the First Division resigned from the Football League and joined the newly established F.A. Premier League.
The relationship between the FA and the Football League was strained at the time of the First Division split. The FA saw that backing the new Premier league as a way to weaken the Football Leagues’ position. At the start of the 1992-1993 season, the FA Premier League operated one league and the Football League operated the other three. Nothing else changed in the sport. The bottom three teams in the top-flight still went down to the next division and the top-two, plus the winner of the playoff from positions three through six, came up — and it was the same across the leagues that the Football League operated. Now the Football League has done some rebranding in recent years. It’s no longer the First Division, Second Division and Third Division, as those names are long gone. The leagues are now called the Championship, League 1 and League 2. According to the league’s website, the Championship is the fourth most watched league in Europe behind the Premier League, the Bundesliga, and La Liga. (2009-2013: A New Era)
What is Promotion/Relegation and how does it work and who’s for it:
Promotion/relegation systems are set up like a pyramid. The top-flight league is at the peak with the smallest number of teams in it and the further down you get from the top the wider it gets. The way it works is quite simple. The three teams with the lowest point totals at the end of the season automatically drop to the league below them, and the top two teams and the winner of the playoff of positions three through six go up to the next league. As long as your team doesn’t finish in the bottom three, you don’t have to worry about dropping — and trust me, no one wants to drop because that can cost you a lot of money.
We have three official tiers and 2 unofficial tiers here in the US: MLS (D1), NASL (D2), USL (D3), and then the unofficial fourth tiers NPSL and the PDL. The PDL is affiliated with the USL. Here in the U.S., MLS would be at the top, followed by NASL, then USL and finally the NPSL/PDL. Yes, we do have other leagues, but they’re not sanctioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation.
Let me give you a quick example of how promotion/relegation works:
Bottom three in the MLS at the end of the season is RSL, Chicago Fire and Philly Union. All Three teams will play in the NASL next season. Ottawa Fury FC and New York Cosmos automatically qualify for promotion to MLS and Atlanta Silverbacks FC win in the playoffs to join them. Indy Eleven, Carolina Railhawks and the Tampa Bay Rowdies finish with the lowest point totals and all three drop to the USL next season. The Rochester Rhinos and Louisville City FC automatically qualify for promotion to NASL, and Oklahoma City Energy FC win in the playoffs to join them. Real Monarchs SLC, Toronto FC II and Wilmington Hammerheads finish with the lowest point totals and drop to the NPSL/PDL. Michigan Bucks, Charlotte Eagles qualify automatically, and Kitsap Pumas win in the playoffs to join them in the USL.
Now, in the English pyramid system, if a team drops below the fourth tier they’re no longer in the Football League but in the Football Conference. The bright side is once you’ve dropped you can always fight your way back into the league you came from.
Bill Peterson, the president of the NASL, wants to bring promotion/relegation to the US — and he’s prepared to do it alone if he has to. He spoke to the Telegraph in August and explained why he thinks that we need a pyramid system here in the US.
“I don’t think we become the soccer powerhouse that we can until every community is engaged in the pro game through a tiered system that has promotion and relegation. When that happens, we become the largest soccer economy in the world bar none. At that point a lot of interesting things can happen,” Peterson said in an interview with the British paper.
Peterson went on to say that, because of our country’s size a pyramid system here might look exactly like it does in England. It may also look a bit different, but every community has to be engaged with professional soccer and we have to have a tiered system in place if we are to reach our fullest potential.
Peterson isn’t the only who feels this way. You can count the U.S. Men’s National Team boss, Jurgen Klinsmann, among the proponents of promotion/relegation. Goal.com quoted Klinsmann saying that he thinks his European-based players have an advantage over the US-based because “something is always at stake week, week out.”
The comments from this past summer aren’t the first time that the former German international has spoken about this topic. In October of 2014, The Sporting News ran a piece about his feelings about the tiered system, or lack there of here in the US, and how he doesn’t always observe the traditional pecking order of U.S. Soccer.
What if we had a pyramid system here in the U.S.? How would it change the face of soccer here in the U.S.? Could it attract players like Messi, Lukaku, Kane, Müller, Ronaldo, Lahm and Bale to play here before the age of 33? Would it spell the end of the three distinct professional leagues? That last one is certainly a yes.
If we had a tiered system here, the teams would certainly have something to fight for, like Klinsmann said, week in and week out. The teams who are constantly finishing last would take a massive financial hit and the owners would have a choice: sell the club or start investing in players and coaches who are going to get you results. The financial rewards for the clubs that win promotion are equally massive, but it’s not all about the money.
The quality of soccer in this country would grow exponentially. We have the potential to attract the world’s greatest soccer players — Messi, Müller, Bale, Lahm, Lukaku, Sterling and Mata while they’re all still in their prime. One of the things that is stopping that concept is not having a system of promotion/relegation. Having players of that caliber playing here would only serve to bolster the quality of the players on our national team because they’d be playing against the best players in the world in their prime — week in and week out — which would only serve to make them better.
Some of the most exciting matches of the season would have fans flocking to games. Not to see who’s going to win the top-flight title, but to see who’s battling to stay in the top-flight or to see who’s fighting the hardest to go up to the top-flight from the NASL, USL or NPSL. Those are the matches that I want to watch because I want to see RSL and Philly Union put it to the other clubs ahead of them as they fight to stay up instead of dropping to the NASL. At this point in the season, the MLS has gotten boring.
Are there opponents to this? You’d better believe it, and one of the chief opponents is MLS commissioner Don Garber.