#Opinion

Pro/Rel in the Alternate Soccerverse

Welcome to the Alternate Soccerverse, where all of the Bluegrass Soccer Cast communities’ wild and crazy theories can become a reality! Today we will dive into what an actual promotion and relegation system could look like in America, or at least one with 4 divisions.

This topic has been inspired by the recent news that the owners will be meeting in August to vote about having the USL seriously explore bringing promotion and relegation to America for the first time. This bombshell news has led to many articles and podcasts discussing the topic in length on the pros and cons of Pro/Rel in the USL system, but I have yet to see many people look at how exactly promotion and relegation would work. I will be working in an ideal world for professional American soccer, so note that I do not ever foresee any of this happening in the near future. Still, it does not hurt to see what an alternative reality would be like.

The Alternative Soccerverse

Currently, there are 4 (technically 5, but I am not including MLS Next Pro) professional men’s leagues in America – Major League Soccer or MLS (Division 1), USL Championship or USLC (Division 2), USL League 1 or USL1 (Division 3), and the National Independent Soccer Association or NISA (also Division 3.) 74 active professional clubs exist across those 4 leagues – with expansion clubs on the way or at least hopefully could be coming one day. Those expansion clubs are MLS San Diego, USLC Milwaukee, Rhode Island FC (USLC), USLC Des Moines, USLC Northwest Arkansas, USL New Orleans, USLC Jacksonville, Santa Barbara Sky FC (USL1), USL1 Spokane, USL1 Wilmington, ULS1 Fort Wayne, and USL1 Brooklyn. {1} 

NISA does not have any planned expansion clubs that I could find, but they do have 3 current non-active clubs that they list on their website, which are on hiatus – California United Strikers FC, New Amsterdam FC, and New York Cosmos.{2} The USLC also has a club on hiatus – OKC Energy FC – who went on hiatus in 2021 and plan to return in 2026 upon completion of a stadium. Additionally, (as noted below with Fort Worth and Fort Wayne) while each league has reported respective expansion sides, that does not guarantee that they are happening. Some, like Des Moines or Brooklyn, are a partnership between the ownership group and the league. That partnership is that the league will award the ownership group a spot if a stadium can be built for the club to play in – but in this alternative reality, all clubs are up and running, ready to compete in the pyramid. {3}

Adding in the expansion and hiatus clubs, the amount of clubs per each league is as follows – 30 in MLS, 31 in USLC, 17 in USL1, and 12 in NISA. These numbers bring the total number of clubs in our beautiful soccerverse to 90 clubs with a 4-tier pyramid, with NISA moving to division 4 since it has the least amount of clubs.

Now that we have established our leagues and the number of clubs, we can look at how promotion and relegation would work in this alternative reality. I can see two systems of Pro/Rel that could exist in this alternative reality – the European Model or the American Model.

The European Model

The classic pro/rel system, the European Model, would redistribute the number of clubs per league to 22 clubs in MLS and USLC with 23 clubs being in USL1 and NISA. 3 clubs being promoted and 3 relegated each year. You could even keep America’s love for playoffs by having the promotion and relegation playoffs that various European leagues have, such as the 3rd promotion spot earned by taking the clubs that finished 3rd-6th in the table, as they do for the EFL Championship, the same with the final relegation spot by taking the clubs that finished 20th-22nd (or 21st-23rd for ULS1 down to NISA), but instead of needing 2 wins, like the promotional playoffs, a club would have to avoid 2 losses to avoid being relegated. The MLS would then operate like any other European league, and the winner of what is known as the Supporters Shield would be the winner of the MLS Cup, with the Supporters Shield moving towards being awarded to the winner of the league cup – one that is not played between the MLS and Liga MX.

With the European Model, the American soccer pyramid becomes like most of the world and creates a system that is easy to understand and follow. All that being said, that is the exact opposite of the American ideals of being different from the rest of the world and does not have enough playoff games for tv channels to spend millions of dollars on.

The American Model

This model is a lot more complex because it involves keeping the number of clubs per each league at what they are, keeping the same league formats they currently have (east and west conferences in the MLS and USLC), and bringing promotion/relegation into the mix. 

USL1 and NISA would keep their current formats, that is, one league table, but instead of a playoff to determine a champion, the 2 clubs with the most points would earn automatic promotion,  with 3rd-6th competing for the 3rd and final spot. For relegation from USL1, 3 clubs are going down to NISA, with 16th and 17th being automatic, and 11th-14th going into a win to survive the playoff. 

Now, the USLC (and the MLS with relegation) is where things get complicated because you would have two 15-club conferences in MLS and the USLC with 15 and 16-club conferences that do not play a balanced schedule like they would in NISA or USL1. There are 2 ways promotion and relegation could be done if you keep the 3 clubs up/3 clubs down model – Winner advances/survives on aggregate after a two-legged or 4-club playoff.

For relegation, the bottom club (15th 0r 16th in the USLC case, in the conference table) of each conference in the MLS and USLC is automatically relegated down, leaving one relegation spot left. For the two-legged playoff, the clubs that finish 14th in each conference would face each other, and the winner on aggregate (and no, I am not making the away goal rule) would survive. The 4-club playoff would see the 13th and 14th-placed clubs from each conference face off with the losers of both games playing each other to see who stays up.

The same relegation options apply for promotion out of USLC, just in reverse. The top club from each conference at the end of the regular season would be promoted. The two-legged matchup would be between the clubs that finish in 2nd. The 4-club playoff would have the 2nd and 3rd placed clubs from each conference faceoff, with the winner from the east facing the winner from the west in a winner-goes-up match.

The above methods for the 3 up/3 down pro/rel system are not necessarily American, just the league structure is – so how do we make promotion and relegation as American as possible? Madness, of course! Ask any sports fan, and they will tell you the best games are the winner take all game 7s or the upsets in the NCAA tournament during March Madness, and that same magic can be created for pro/rel with a system I like to call the Survival Playoffs. The Survival Playoffs would take the bottom 3 clubs of each league (besides NISA), and the top 3 clubs of each league (besides MLS) and have an all in, winner takes all match! No aggregate or guarantee of promotion/relegation – just one game to decide if you stay up or switch places with your opponent. I am getting goosebumps just picturing moments similar to those that we have seen in major tournaments or promotion/relegation battles in other countries (like Deeney’s goal to send Watford to Wembley or Super Mario Götze’s goal in the 113th minute of the 2014 World Cup final.) This system would also The matchups would be as follows – 

  • NISA vs. USL1 – It would be the clubs that finish 1st through 2nd from NISA facing the clubs that finish 15th through 16th (1st in NISA meets 16th in USL1, and 15th in USL1 would face 2nd in NISA), with the matches all at the USL1 club’s home grounds (I would say they should be at the lower level clubs home ground, but that is also not American.) The clubs that face off in the 3rd match would be the winner of the NISA promotion playoffs and the loser of the double-elimination relegation playoffs in USL1.
  • For USL1 vs. USLC – this one gets a little tricky with USLC having the conference split and USL1 not, but I see it going one of two ways. First, the clubs that finish at the bottom of both conferences of USLC would face 1st or 2nd from USL1, with the USLC side that has the lowest points facing the top USL1 side. Second, the 2 USLC clubs would meet 1st or 2nd in USL1, depending on which USL1 club is closest to them geographically due to the east and west split of the conferences. The 4-club playoffs would determine the 3rd USLC side that enters the Survival playoffs (because Americans love their playoff games). Then the club that loses both games would have one last chance to stay up by facing the USL1 side that wins the promotion playoffs.
  • For USLC vs. MLS – this one is much more straightforward than USL1 vs. USLC. The 2 MLS clubs that finish last in their respective conferences would face the two USLC sides that finish first in theirs. The 3rd spot would be determined by the 4-club playoff and the promotional playoffs mentioned above.

Either model is imperfect, especially since while pro/rel would finally exist within America, it would still be a closed system with a 4 tier pyramid. Both models are WAY better than anything we have now, but only it does not allow that small community club to work its way up the pyramid based on performance rather than how much money they have. The pyramid could expand even more if we wanted to include the various other leagues across America. Still, like in England (the English Football League runs the top 4 divisions, and the FA runs the 5 through 9), I am solely focusing on what would be considered the American Soccer League.

The Realistic USL Version

How would it look if the USL owners vote to start serious talks about pro/rel in August, and then it happens? That would be more complex, and we have to get more realistic; so the journey through the alternate soccerverse must jump to a bit more realistic world.

Based on the report by Tom Berget and Jeff Rueter in the Athletic, the USL’s 2 professional leagues, USLC and USL1, would remain, but a 3rd division would be added between them. Many people across social media have speculated that restructuring the 2 leagues into 3 would look like this: USL Championship would become the USL Premiere, the new league would be the USL Championship, and USL League One would remain the lowest division. {4}

How would the leagues be structured? What clubs would move into the new middle division? These questions, and many others, have been raised among the USL community since the article’s release on July 11th, and I will attempt to answer some of them.

Clubs will have to move leagues to balance them, but in terms of what clubs would move up or down into that middle division, I do not know precisely how they would determine it – the only fair way is if they base it on the previous seasons’ performance. Clubs should not be forced to move down if the USL does not establish the moves on performance merit; they should go down ONLY if they choose to do it themselves like the Richmond Kickers did when USL1 was launched in 2019.

Currently, 36 active fully professional clubs are in the USL – 24 in the USLC and 12 in USL1. As noted in the beginning, each respective league has expansion clubs linked to them (and 1 club on hiatus in the USLC), but it is less than we established for the alternate soccerverse. For the USLC, as noted on the league’s website, only 3 (and one could say NW Arkansas as well, but they are too new) expansion clubs are mentioned – Milwaukee, Rhode Island, and Des Moines. For USL1, only 2 are mentioned (Brooklyn is also too new to count) – Santana Barbara Sky FC and USL Spokane. The other clubs are either rumored or by many fans’ opinions dead in the water, so they cannot be realistically considered – USLC Jacksonville is likely the one that I see happening the most, but there is still a lot that needs to happen for them (fingers cross on all these clubs because it be AMAZING.)

These expansion clubs bring the total of current/potential clubs to 41, which is not an even number and not great to work with, but it is a reality. There are multiple ways to disturb those 41 clubs across 3 divisions, but I like the model of having 12 clubs in USL Premier, 14 in USL Championship, and 15 in USL1. I like this model because it makes the top division more difficult to get into and thus more competitive (the Premier League in England has only 20 clubs while the Championship through the National League has 24.) I would have evenly distributed more clubs among the divisions or at least USLC and USL1 if there were more clubs if there were more clubs to add, but I have to work with what I got.

My structure of the leagues also gets rid of a very annoying factor – regional conferences. All clubs should play each other home and away with no playoffs to reasonably determine a champion. Playoffs should be reserved for finalizing promotion and relegation (as noted in the alternative soccerverse with both models.) Due to the leagues having such a small number of clubs, the realistic model would include only 2 clubs going up or down.

For USL Premier, it would be the top division, so winning it would mean a team is the champion of the USL, and some may even see them as the true American champions, not whoever wins the MLS Cup. The club that finishes at the bottom of the table would get automatically relegated, followed by whoever lost a matchup between the 10th and 11th place clubs hosted by the higher finishing team.

For USLC and USL1, promotion would look precisely like relegation – the top team from each league would be automatically promoted, followed by the winner of the 2nd vs 3rd place match. USLC would be the only league with promotion and relegation, as USL1 is at the bottom. Relegation from USLC would be the same as that from USL Premier. 

After establishing this system, the amount promoted/relegated can be changed as expansion clubs enter the pyramid. Still, the clubs should enter in USL1, not within the new USL Championship as reported by the Athletic, because if you are going to bring Pro/Rel to America, then it needs to be as close to an open system as possible and not rich guys buying their way into the top division. In contrast, other clubs grinded their way there.

I am hopeful that the owners vote in favor of Pro/Rel in August, but the financial uncertainty that comes with the system worries me that it will not happen. However, those who advocate for it (like us here at Bluegrass Soccer Cast) have to make sure our voices are heard so that the owners know that we want it, and that we will support our clubs no matter what league they are in. 

How do you think Pro/Rel would look in America? Do you feel that the USL owners will vote in favor of Pro/Rel or against it? Tell us your thoughts either on Twitter or in our Discord server. And as always, make sure to follow Bluegrass Soccer Cast (@BGSoccerCast on all social media platforms) for full coverage of all things soccer in our beautiful Commonwealth.

{Notes}

{1} – Fort Worth (USLC) and Fort Wayne (ULS1) have been rumored/reported as potential expansion clubs. Still, both sides compete in USL2 (or at least there is a club based in those cities that compete in the USL pyramid) and have yet to join the respective leagues by the planned year. The other expansion sides have yet to reach the initially planned year, so we will see if they enter their respective leagues (fingers crossed for all clubs but MLS San Diego because they did the San Diego Loyal dirty.)

{2} – The New York Cosmos have been on hiatus since the end 2020-21, having only competed in that one year. New Amsterdam did compete in the 2021 NISA fall league but then went on hiatus. California United Strikers FC have been on hiatus since the end of the 2022 season. 

{3} – I would have included USL2, UPSL, the NPSL, etc.. within the pyramid but the differences between those leagues and the fully pro leagues are very fast. Additionally, there are just far too many clubs to realistically determine a pyramid that would include all of them. Lastly, I personally do not know enough about each league to determine which level of the pyramid if I were to expand it they would be at. 

{4} – The article by the Athletic also mentions that the USL could be seeking Division 1 sanctioning from the USSF, but I do not realistically see that happening due to the deep pockets of the MLS.

Author

  • Jon Hunt

    Jon Hunt is an avid and enthusiastic soccer podcast host. Originally from the Detroit area, he now resides in central Kentucky. Jon brings passion and his love of soccer history to the Bluegrass Soccer Cast community. His ultimate goal is to continue the growth of soccer in America with a focus of the thriving soccer scene in Kentucky. #ProRelForUSA

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