Of all the things that might make Major League Soccer seem weird and perhaps off putting to English football fans perhaps the one difference most of all that does so is the revelation that there is no promotion or relegation into or out of our league.
And the reality of the sport in North America is that there will not likely be any sort of conventional promotion/relegation any time soon, at least in any way you might be familiar with. Here is why.
Unlike the “club” system as it exists in for example England, the teams that play in MLS are “franchises”. Each franchise in the league paid a fee to MLS for the privilege to play within it. The team I support, Toronto FC, paid $40 million in 2006 to MLS for a franchise that started playing in the league in 2007. The club did not exist in any form before that date. There was no stadium, no academy, no coaching staff and no fan base extant from which to build the club. Once the expansion fee was paid TFC was able to sign players and they also partially stocked their team with an “expansion draft” whereby they were able to pluck some unprotected players from other MLS teams. They also were able to take part in the annual draft of North American College/University players that has long been a primary way for the teams in the league to acquire young prospects.
In essence the payment of the fee to the league gave the ownership group the green light to go ahead and establish the team. And today the club plays out of a 22,000 seat stadium, they have broken ground on a $20 million state of the art Academy facility and they have signed dozens of players from all over the world such as Laurent Robert, Torsten Frings, Julian de Guzman and Danny Dichio to name but a few.
If you would have for example told the owners of Toronto FC in 2006 that they might get relegated a year after joining the league and cutting such a massive payment to MLS for the privilege to do so me thinks that payment might never have been forthcoming and in retrospect the team might not exist today.
Relegation to where?
A club like West Ham gets relegated from the Premier League last season and they take a step down into the Championship and fight for promotion back to the top flight this season. A pretty simple concept right? And you might ask why could that model not work in North America? Welt the simple answer is that there is not really a league like the Championship, or Serie B or a Segunda División for that matter that relegated MLS clubs could go to if they were relegated. The same scenario exists in the Australian A-League. In North America there simply are not leagues like the Championship that exist that would allow relegated clubs to both go to and survive.
There are leagues like USL Pro and NASL that do exist but they are not comparable to the lower leagues as they exist in Europe and are frankly poor imitations to MLS in the strength of their franchises and the quality of play. There is not over a hundred years of established club football to call upon on this side of the pond that could see your style of a promotion/relegation system develop here the way it has there.
Furthermore promoting teams from lower leagues into MLS without the franchise fee being paid is simply not something that the league would probably countenance anyways.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber, in the lead up to the now unsuccessful American 2022 FIFA World Cup bid, did tell FIFA that MLS was looking at instituting some sort of hybrid promotion/relegation system to bring MLS further into lockstep with the way the sport works for the most part in the rest of the world. After that bid failed there has been little to nothing heard about it since from Mr. Garber. Many pundits have hypothesized how you could simulate something like promotion or relegation and most thought it would look something like this:
MLS could be split into two tiers, shall we say “MLS1” and “MLS2”. The top half of the MLS table in one season would be placed in MLS1 and the lower half in MLS2. The clubs in MLS1 would have a greater opportunity to get into the playoffs and there were be a correspondingly lower amount of playoff slots available for MLS2. And then at the end of the season they could promote clubs from MLS2 into MLS1 and vice versa. Not a perfect solution but one that would at least bring some of the benefits of the European system to the North American game.
Would I personally like MLS to have the same sort of system of promotion and relegation that exists in Europe? I for one would and many of the more engaged MLS supporters out there likely agree with me. However the reality as is exists in places like North America and Australia preclude it at least for the immediate future.
So now you know. We do not do things differently in North America just for the sake of doing so.
Tim Drodge is a Toronto Canada based blogger who writes about all things Toronto FC on his site http://viewfromthesouthstands.com . You can also follow Tim on Twitter @bgnewf