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by Dean Mitchell

t seems so simple. MLS detractors post derogatory statements about everything that they hate about the league with the hashtag #ProRel. I guess they think this alone constitutes a plan and it’s the simple solution that will bring success and riches to all. I suspect many are young and never witnessed the soccer dumpster fire before MLS. They demonize MLS Single Entity and SUM and paint them as an evil cabal that’s hoarding all the riches. To me, those were brilliant plans to create a viable league that wouldn’t go bankrupt like each and every pro soccer league before it. They solved a problem and created a sustainable pro league. 

After 27 years maybe it’s time to take off the training wheels and grow into a world class league—but in an American way. There are many Promotion/Relegation proponents, but there aren’t many problem solvers with actual plans on how to achieve it. 280 character snarky tweets are easy but the devil is in the details. 


I’d like to see us get there, but I never want the sport to return to the dark ages of teams folding left and right. What works in England (and developed over 130 years) doesn’t automatically work in the US and Canada. Pragmatically, how could we get there? Lets consider just a few of the myriad obstacles Promotion/Relegation would need to hurdle:

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    1. MLS is in 2 countries, not just the USA. Logistically challenging to say the least (see item #7 below for more). This would involve federations in 2 countries to come to an agreement.

    2. How many Div 2 teams have the financial ability to ramp up to D-1 level? The TV Revenue reward isn’t there yet so the bank account needs to be substantial. Pro soccer cannot afford to have under-funded teams folding mid season. How many Div 2 teams have 18,000+ seat stadiums (or a game-plan to ramp up quickly?). Ideally, for ProRel to be feasible, USL Championship would need 12-18 teams “Ascension-ready”.  This could actually force the issue.

    3. TV revenue needs to grow and become more significant. Ideally, that revenue would be distributed like the EPL or NFL in which all teams receive an equal portion (No separate deals for Super Teams that plagues many of the world’s leagues). 

    4. MLS Equity: Face it, MLS owners invested huge sums stabilizing the pro game and building Soccer Specific Stadiums (SSS). How do you compensate these pioneers? Especially Philip Anschutz and Hunt Sports who propped up the league with millions of dollars until it was able to stand on its own. Here’s my humble opinion on how that split might happen.

      1. After establishing that #ProRel will be added to MLS, a date should be established when the league will split, giving teams 4-5 years to plan and adjust (this date could be pushed back if goals are not being met).

      2. Upon that date, MLS cashes out to all its owners/investors and single entity ceases to exist. Figuring this out will be very difficult and litigious. Single entity was neccesary to establish the league and not follow the un-controlled spending path of its failed predecessor, the North American Soccer League (NASL). Maintaining a salary cap would be essential to survival of the North American pro game.

      3. The top 24-32 MLS teams would start Y1 of “MLS Premier”. Personally, I prefer the lower number and a more balanced schedule.

      4. The remaining bottom of MLS teams would relegate to “MLS Championship”. Of course, parachute payments, similar to EPL teams would be paid to relegated MLS teams to help compensate with this transition. These parachute payments would be a permanent part of the plan for relegated teams, otherwise they run the risk of folding like many Mexican teams have.

      5. The American Sports league concept of Indemnity (protection against new teams encroaching on a market) would need to go away—For example, if we wind up having 3 “MLS Premier” teams playing in a metro area like Dallas, so be it.

    5. 12-18 USL Championship teams who meet the D-1 criteria would round out the MLS Championship (D2). To buy in to the equity MLS has established, they would be required to pay a large entrance fee like the ABA teams did when they were absorbed into the NBA (and likewise, when WHA teams joined the NHL). This would basically be a merger forced by a challenger league. The NBA, NHL and NFL all thrived after similar peace treaty absorptions. None of the major sports leagues in North America have taken on such an ambitious merger though.

    6. Q: When would we be ready for this?  A: When there are between 48 and 64 teams that are “first-division-worthy” between USL and MLS.  Every team in England’s second division meets this criteria. In Mexico, their second division “Liga Expansion” only has one of its sixteen teams rated as worthy of Ascension—Leones Negros of Guadalajara. Mexico stopped Promotion/Relegation largely because of this issue.

    7. Back to the Canadian Teams:

      1. Should they leave MLS and create a similar ProRel in Canada with the Canadian Premier League? That would be a very small league, Canada’s  “Premier League” boasts eight teams. Adding 3 teams makes eleven, now split that in half and you see where I’m going with this. Figuring this out will be very difficult and litigious.

      2. If so, how will they be compensated for losing Equity MLS Membership? Toronto FC certainly deserves to be recognized as the first great expansion team in MLS that launched the current Golden Era. There could be a US benefit: This could create 3 spaces for additional US markets in “MLS Premier” but it would be very costly to the deserving Canadian teams in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto.

    8. How many teams are Promoted/Relegated? Should it be 3 like in England or as little as 1 like in Mexico (until recently)? Or maybe how the Bundelisga does it, the top two teams in the lower division ascend and the 3rd place team plays the 16th place Bundesliga team in a play-in to determine who gets the third spot. I’d prefer three. Painfully, the MLS Cup will need to be eliminated which means the traditional playoff format would disappear and the Supporters Shield would determine the Champion. Hey you asked for ProRel didn’t you? I don’t think playoff races and relegation races should compete, do you?

    9. Consider this, before blowing everything up in a #ProRel vacuum, are there lessons to be learned from similar domestic leagues (development-wise) who have already solved this problem that we can emulate (A-League or J-League for example?)

    10. Finally, if ProRel actually happens will the eurosnobs leave their barstools and couches to actually support MLS? I have my doubts. But, there is a much larger percentage of the American soccer culture that might really like it. 

I am pretty happy with MLS as it is now after seeing every team I previously ever cared about fold and disappear. I love the stability it has brought to the game. But, I also believe that there are plenty of forward thinking soccer fans in North America that would like to see an American version of the soccer pyramid. 


In Part 2 I will offer up examples of an alternative history had ProRel been in place the past decade and the consequences it would have created to the growth of the sport.