NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson gave a wide-ranging interview on an array of topics related to the second division in the United States and Canada to The Telegraph newspaper this week. The most talked about and controversial comments by Peterson relate to promotion and relegation within the league system in North America.
For five plus years, the NASL has courted the fourth division NPSL as a potential partner. These discussions, which began in June 2010, intensified after a partnership was announced between first division Major League Soccer (MLS) and third division USL. This partnership involves the loaning of players and the parking of MLS reserve teams within the USL structure.
Commissioner Peterson states in the interview that he will appeal to the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) to try and push for promotion and relegation. Currently USSF bylaws do not provide for promotion and relegation based on league place. However, five of the last seven new franchises in Major League Soccer were formerly lower division sides that were “promoted” to the top division for strictly economic purposes. Additionally, five former second division clubs are currently playing third division soccer having self-relegated for economic reasons at various points over the last decade.
Peterson’s feeling that the NASL could set up a promotion and relegation scheme with the NPSL is a bit naïve. While Chattanooga FC drew close to 20,000 fans for this past weekend’s NPSL final, most NPSL sides hardly have enough market penetration or the types of facilities that will sustain a second division club financially for even one season. Additionally, the NPSL itself has always been a bit of an ad-hoc league with various regional divisions having virtual autonomy under which to operate and schedule matches. This likely would not fit cleanly with the NASL’s team-driven yet strong league office model.
Regional considerations must play a role in any discussion of promotion and relegation in North America. Most fans in this part of the world that advocate promotion and relegation look to Europe for inspiration. But the trip from Newcastle to Swansea , the longest possible trip in the Premier League, is shorter than any road trip Orlando City currently makes in MLS.
Travel budgets are the single biggest expense for second division clubs and the sprawling nature of NASL’s map is one of the reasons several clubs have self-relegated to the more regionalized play of division 3 USL. Peterson rightly understands this dilemma and that is why, despite the constant pressure to add teams on the west coast, he is wisely waiting until he has several sides ready to play before pulling the trigger. A single geographically isolated club like Edmonton in NASL or Orlando in MLS can rack up incredibly expensive travel bills. For smaller sides that barely get by as is, the increased exposure of being in a higher division is unlikely to completely offset the need to travel cross-continent.
Simply put, the infrastructure to implement a promotion and relegations scheme does not currently exist within the United States or Canada, and changes will need to be made structurally over time to make it possible.
Still, a large number of American soccer fans and players would like to see promotion and relegation eventually implemented. The logistical challenges are immense, but by starting the conversation, perhaps Peterson can frame a discussion that logically looks at how to achieve this goal over a 10 or 15 year period. Investment in lower division soccer in North American must increase and at some point MLS’ number of teams must be capped. With this in mind, promotion and relegation remains a commendable goal, but currently too many inequities exist in lower division soccer, especially when it comes to travel, to push for an immediate change. However, if NASL and USSF were to team up and state, let’s say, by 2025 or 2030 promotion and relegation should be implemented, perhaps that would give NPSL enough time to improve their structures and investment while allowing MLS owners to get used to the idea.
The other possibility is that NPSL and NASL implement promotion and relegation without MLS and USL participating. That might provide a short-term novelty but probably has long-term viability issues particularly for the promoted NPSL clubs. It also would essentially break the league structure within North America in two and that is something that the USSF should be working to avoid at all costs.
The promotion and relegation conversation continues to evolve within American soccer circles. Every passing year brings more discussion and that’s probably a good thing. However, the system is not strong or mature enough yet for implementation anytime soon.
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