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

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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.

[ MORE: Phoenix, SD get Garber bump ]

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.

[ MORE: Garber “hopeful” Crew will stay in Columbus ]

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?

NISA seeks new leadership as Wilt leaves to start USL D3 club

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Peter Wilt is leaving his gig as founding hero of upstart pro/rel league NISA to bring a USL D3 side to Wisconsin.

[ MORE: PST’s PL Best XI ]

Big Top Events announced the hiring of Wilt on Thursday, and the executive is leading a drive to name the club for Madison Pro Soccer.

NISA, the North American Soccer League who widely advocated promotion and relegation but has hit some bumps along the way, now seeks a new leader. The organization announced a committee of club owners will lead a search.

“I wish the NISA teams and new leadership well,” Wilt said. “I am proud of the strong vision we developed and now others will need to carry it forward. I am hopeful that my stepping away will allow the disparate open system groups to unify around a shared vision.”

Wilt, who has launched five professional soccer teams in the closed system is returning to his roots the United Soccer Leagues. He will lead Madison Pro Soccer as Managing Director of Big Top Events’ soccer division. Previously, Wilt served as President, General Manager and part owner of the USISL (now USL) Minnesota Thunder. He has also launched USL’s Indy Eleven, NWSL’s Chicago Red Stars and MLS’ Chicago Fire.

NISA announced eight markets in August but has yet to announce a start date. It’s an intriguing idea, but — for better or worse — could undertake some monumental changes without Wilt in the driver’s seat.

As for Madison, Wilt knows what he’s doing when it comes to starting a club, so this is a solid get for the city.

Wolfsburg beats Kiel 3-1 to boost Bundesliga survival hopes (video)

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WOLFSBURG, Germany (AP) Wolfsburg took a big step toward Bundesliga survival with a 3-1 win over visiting Holstein Kiel in the first leg of a relegation/promotion playoff on Thursday.

Goals from Divock Origi and Josip Brekalo in the first half and another from Yunus Malli in the second put Wolfsburg in a good position ahead of the second leg in Kiel on Monday.

Kingsley Schindler had briefly pulled the visitors level.

[ MORE: France’s loaded World Cup squad]

Kiel had a late penalty appeal when Rafael Czichos, the captain, appeared to be shoved by counterpart Maximilian Arnold, but referee Deniz Aytekin allowed play to continue and there was no intervention from the video referee.

Wolfsburg, which finished third from bottom in the Bundesliga, is playing in its second playoff in as many years. The Volkswagen-backed club defeated Eintracht Braunschweig to stay up last year.

Kiel, the third-place finisher in its first appearance in the second tier since 1981, is bidding to reach the Bundesliga for the first time to cap a remarkable ascent. The northern city club was promoted from the third division last season and from the fourth tier four seasons before that.

Aston Villa holds off Boro, moves onto playoff final

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Playoff finals are old hat for Steve Bruce, but a new event for Aston Villa.

The Birmingham club beat Middlesbrough 1-0 over two legs, the second a 0-0 draw at Villa Park on Tuesday, to advance to meet Fulham in the Championship Playoff final at Wembley Stadium on May 26.

Stewart Downing‘s 89th minute free kick off the cross bar was Boro’s only sniff of the goal.

[ MORE: The season of Salah ]

Villa is in just its third season outside of the English top flight since 1975, though Bruce managed Hull City and Birmingham City to the Premier League through the playoffs.

Boro scored plenty under Tony Pulis in the season, but it was a case of traditional Pulis stats in the playoffs. The notoriously stingy manager saw his side manage just two shots on target over two legs, with both coming in the home leg.

Lewis Grabban of Villa had the two best scoring chances of the match, but Darren Randolph made a pair of saves.

Villa won the first leg on a Jack Grealish to Mile Jedinak goal.

On Monday, Fulham flipped a first leg deficit to Derby County on its ear to clinch its space at Wembley.

Who can finish where on the table on Championship Sunday?

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The Premier League has one match day left, with 10 matches on 10 different NBC family stations beginning at 10 a.m. ET Sunday.

[ MORE: Championship Sunday TV schedule ]

We know Man City and Man Utd will finish first and second, but only two other table positions (sixth and seventh) are locked in place.

Bold teams are locked into their table positions.

1. Manchester City (97 pts, at Southampton)
2. Manchester United (78 pts, vs. Watford)

3. Tottenham Hotspur (74 pts, +37 GD, vs. Leicester)
Highest potential finish: 3rd
Lowest potential finish: 4th

4. Liverpool (72 pts, +42 GD, vs. Brighton)
Highest potential finish: 3rd
Lowest potential finish: 5th

5. Chelsea (70 pts, +27 GD, at Newcastle)
Highest potential finish: 4th
Lowest potential finish:

6. Arsenal (60 pts, at Huddersfield Town)
7. Burnley (54 pts, vs. Bournemouth)

8. Everton (49 pts, -12 GD, at West Ham United)
Highest potential finish: 8th
Lowest potential finish: 9th

9. Leicester City (47 pts, -3 GD, at Spurs)
Highest potential finish: 8th
Lowest potential finish: 9th

10. Newcastle United (41 pts, -11 GD, vs. Chelsea)
Highest potential finish: 10th
Lowest potential finish: 15th

11. Crystal Palace (41 pts, -12 GD, vs. West Brom)
Highest potential finish: 10th
Lowest potential finish: 15th

12. Bournemouth (41 pts, -17 GD, at Burnley)
Highest potential finish: 10th
Lowest potential finish: 15th

13. Watford (41 pts, -19 GD, at Man Utd)
Highest potential finish: 10th
Lowest potential finish: 15th

14. Brighton and Hove Albion (40 pts, -16 GD, at Liverpool)
Highest potential finish:10th
Lowest potential finish: 16th

15. West Ham United (39 pts, -22 GD, vs. Everton)
Highest potential finish: 10th
Lowest potential finish:17th

16. Huddersfield Town (37 pts, -29 GD, vs. Arsenal)
Highest (realistic) potential finish: 15th
Lowest potential finish: 17th

17. Southampton (36 pts, -18 GD, vs. Man City)
Highest potential finish: 15th
Lowest potential finish: 18th

18. Swansea City (33 pts, -27 GD, vs. Stoke City)
Highest potential finish: 17th
Lowest potential finish: 20th

19. West Bromwich Albion (31 pts, -23 GD, at Crystal Palace)
Highest potential finish: 18th
Lowest potential finish: 20th

20. Stoke City (30 pts, -34 GD, at Swansea)
Highest potential finish: 18th
Lowest potential finish: 20th