What’s the long-term plan for MLS, USL, and USL D-III?

Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel via AP
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The Premier League previews have yet to begin, Major League Soccer is on its All-Star break, and international soccer is gone for a spell, so allow this writer to take you on a tangent.

For about as long as the promotion and relegation war cry has methodically danced around social media, I’ve had a difficult time believing Major League Soccer expansion would stop anywhere short of a similar system to the one employed by the rest of the world.

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As MLS partnered with the USL raised its maximum number of teams to its present stated goal of 28, it became clear that one of two things would happen:

  1. The number of teams would grow
  2. The league would eventually employ a system of pro/rel

Whether that’s years or decades away, it’s hard to say. What’s easy is that MLS knows it can capture the interest of two markets that are currently keeping it arm’s length at best by switching up its system: Soccer fanatics ignoring the growing quality of MLS play because pro/rel is their priority, and casual sports fans curious about an experiment.

I’d put myself at about 90 percent confident of that before something clicked following this article on SocTakes which lays out the growth of the USL and the challenges still facing its individual owners.

The strength of any group of teams lies within its league, and I’m not talking about the chemistry between its group of owners. The people who control and work for the actual league have to possess power, with a reservoir of funds, and avoid the arrogance that comes with the first two.

Make no guarantees on the third part, especially given that the second part of the famous “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” line is “Great men are almost always bad men.” That’s not a shot at anyone specifically, just a judgment on the nature of business here.

The only option outside of the pro/rel model that includes league growth eliminates plenty of draw for the top flight: Either clubs begin playing each other once a year, with no return date until the next season, or they expand the conferences with limited interplay and another unbalanced schedule.

Nuh-uh.

Clearly the USL is building up power and reserves, as MLS has done that already. Most of its top-end teams aren’t amongst the MLS B-sides and have the look of top-tier sides (FC Cincinnati, Sacramento Republic, Phoenix Rising).

At some point, the MLS-B sides are going to disappear or head to USL D-III (or IV). The bottom half of USL average attendance is littered with those squads, even with high-performing on-the-field sides Real Monarchs and Red Bulls 2.

Neutral fans don’t want that. Shoot, I wouldn’t want to market that my local team is facing a must-win match against some MLS club’s guys 25-40.

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So MLS “stops” at 28 teams. There’s 20-26 in USL, who will announce promotion and relegation between it and D-III. USL D-III will have another 20, and the way out of that place will be promotion.

That’s where the experiment begins, with USL teams and the American soccer landscape seeing if pro/rel really is something that drives crowds.

This happens out-of-the-way of MLS, as owners continue to build up reserves to eventually serve as parachute payments for relegated teams.

That money becomes available because MLS lifts its cap and entire salary structure. Teams like the LA Galaxy, Red Bulls, and NYCFC can spend and sell as much as they like and are buttressed by their academies.

This lifts parity, once considered the jewel of the league, and makes the race to avoid the bottom a real thing. The MLS teams are still superior in salary and talent to the USL teams, so instead of Bottom 3 down, Top 3 up, MLS deploys some sort of promotion/relegation playoff similar to Germany.

Naturally, the teams toward the bottom of MLS are going to be the ones who refuse to spend. So, yeah, it could be a San Jose having to deal with upstart FC Cincinnati for the right to get a top flight spot? Something tells me the spending will increase. Fight or flight (back to the bottom).

Can it all be so simple? I really do think so. Maybe MLS can continue to expand, a couple of markets at a time, for 10 years. It can add to the schedule, maybe 40 games, but there’s a finite number of games it can add and have each team play home-and-away.

And wait til you tell a team owner from the East that it might not see Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the two or three seasons he’s here because of an unbalanced schedule. I don’t want to be in the room for that.

MLS is growing in renown, and will continue to do so for some time, but it’s not going to reach its potential without building legitimate powers via letting big spenders spend. The Supporters’ Shield will become a bit less interesting for some clubs, but the final playoff spots and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup will become even more prestigious.

As for the pro/rel part, it’s one of the things keeping nascent leagues alive with hope, and clubs/fans outside its system refusing to play ball. It makes too much sense and, over time, we’ll find out it was the plan all along. And the arguments from the peanut gallery, including this King Peanut, will keep things buzzing while it waits for its roll out.

The longer the league waits, the better chance a competitor tries and it gets some momentum. With the NASL lawsuits on the stove now and NISA without a leader, there’s no competition. That’s not to say an upstart rival league couldn’t be squashed by MLS, but why risk it?

It’s going to happen, really. Otherwise, why would Alexi Lalas say things like this to his boss?