The week before Thanksgiving, Deloitte Consulting published a report that suggested American soccer would be better off if it introduced a system of promotion and relegation, a concept that is often referred to simply as “pro/rel.” It’s the system used in almost every country in the world: The best clubs from lower leagues move up to the top leagues, while the worst clubs move down. According to the report, and to the fervent backers of the idea, pro/rel would be a cure-all for all that ails American soccer.
It is a tempting vision, that there’s one panacea for the sport in the USA.
It’s also a false one.
The arguments for pro/rel generally go like this: A league — let’s say, England’s Premier League — has more fan interest, more investment and better players than Major League Soccer. England also has promotion and relegation. Therefore, it must be promotion and relegation leads to fan interest, more investment, and better players.
In reality, there’s no evidence that pro/rel is the root cause of all these benefits. If anything, the egalitarian history of the Football League prevented these things. The Premier League was founded in the 1990s specifically to distance the top clubs from the rest of the English establishment — and provide many of the same benefits that pro/rel would supposedly bring to America.
Backers argue that pro/rel would give potential owners an incentive to invest. But MLS has done just fine in that regard, as evidenced by the league’s nine-figure expansion fees and new stadiums. It’s hard to see how pro/rel would increase viewership; you can’t argue that fans are watching the Premier League to see if Sunderland escapes relegation again this season. And while pro/rel backers claim the system would help player development because of increased investment in players and coaches, any decent club — not just those in danger of relegation — is already doing those things.
The best evidence of a need for American promotion and relegation would be a strong second division, but America comes up short there. The North American Soccer League appears on the verge of folding, with the New York Cosmos, the league’s marquee franchise, reportedly in dire financial straits. There are several lower-division teams that have seen strong attendance, but MLS has shown interest in bringing each of them aboard. In a way, American soccer already has promotion and relegation; it’s just based solely on investment, not on-field results.
The talk about pro/rel obscures bigger problems with MLS, like the league’s single-entity structure and its miserly financial attitude toward its players. If anything, the “closed system” of MLS should be lauded for its stability, not criticized for stifling development. It’s one of the few things the league has gotten right. Someday, when there are too many solid, ambitious, well-run American franchises to fit in one league, perhaps pro/rel will be necessary. That day, however, seems pretty far off.
SOCCER SHORT TAKES
• Add the Carolina RailHawks — now re-christened North Carolina FC — to the list of MLS “promotion” candidates. Owner Steve Malik, who purchased the team a year ago, is expected to announce plans to build a new stadium and pursue both MLS and NWSL franchises for the Raleigh-Durham-Cary area. Assuming Malik can finalize a stadium deal, he would move near the top of the list for the next round of MLS expansion.
• Rumors have intensified that American striker Alex Morgan (above), the best-known player in the NWSL, is considering a move to the French league. Morgan reportedly underwent a medical with Lyon this week. It would be a blow for NWSL but probably a lucrative move for Morgan.
• The Chelsea-Tottenham game drew just over 1 million viewers last weekend, pretty good for any soccer game on American TV. The game’s viewership, though, was dwarfed by both legs of the Liga MX quarterfinal between Chivas and Club América, both of which were watched by about 3 million Americans. Four other Liga MX playoff games were in the top 10 for the week in soccer as well. It’s a reminder that neither the Premier League nor MLS is really America’s favorite soccer league.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Chelsea at Manchester City, 6:30 a.m. Saturday, NBCSN. Chelsea has won seven consecutive games and, with no European commitments, can focus solely on Premier League glory. City needs a victory more than Chelsea does, if for no other reason than to slow down its London rival. One of these two teams is likely to take home the English title this year.
La Liga: Real Madrid at Barcelona, 9:15 a.m. Saturday, beIN Sports. With zero losses and a six-point lead already in La Liga, it’s starting to feel like Real Madrid’s year to break Barcelona’s grip on the Spanish crown. Lionel Messi is back from injury for Barca, but at the moment, he’s the only player on his team who is playing well. Real Madrid can practically clinch the title with a victory.
Bundesliga: Schalke at RB Leipzig, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, FS2. Make it seven consecutive victories for RB Leipzig, the German upstarts who still haven’t lost a game this Bundesliga season. Founded in 2009, the Red Bull-funded team has spent its way from the regional leagues up through the German pyramid. It’s taken only a few months for it to move from curiosity to contender.
Serie A: Atalanta at Juventus, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, beIN Sports. One week after a shocking 3-1 defeat to Genoa, Juventus hosts one of four teams within striking distance of the perennial Italian champions. The hosts will be without defender Dani Alves, who broke his leg last week. The visitors will look to win their seventh consecutive Serie A game.