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Could a hybrid promotion/relegation system work in US soccer?

hybrid promotion/relegation

Is there legitimacy to a hybrid promotion/relegation system in North America? World Soccer Talk’s Kartik Krishnaiyer breaks it down.

The discussion around promotion and relegation, and the potential of it being implemented in the US/Canadian leagues has grown in scope and intensity over the last few years. One camp of fans and analysts clearly state that American sporting culture is different than what we see in Europe or South America, and that promotion and relegation simply can never fit our system. This camp argues that investors that pour millions of dollars into franchises cannot be expected to expose this investment to the potential of “their” team being relegated.

A second camp argues that the closed system of Major League Soccer has kept the game from truly exploding in this nation. This camp argues correctly that hundreds of thousands of fans watch soccer from Mexico or England every weekend without even the slightest interest or passing knowledge of the domestic game in the United States. This camp argues that promotion and relegation is the only way to fix this problem, since many fans have no incentive to support local professional or semi-professional soccer in a closed pyramid system.

These two camps make lots of noise on social media and on blogs. They tend to drown out any voice of moderation. But a third way does exist, and that is the camp I fall into.

Hybrid promotion/relegation system

While professional soccer has a rich history in the United States, the current iteration of the truly professional game is only two decades old. It took years for Germany and England to get the systems right and Scotland arguably still has not. Promotion and relegation is worthy of discussion, and to be a long-term goal. However, lower division soccer in the United States and Canada is not yet at the level it needs to be at to implement a true promotion and relegation scheme.

A real effort to invest in the development of lower divisions and the clubs in smaller and medium-sized markets must be made before such an idea is implemented. The current second division in the United States, NASL, has opted to try and bring its league to first-tier markets rather than focus on medium or smaller sized ones. Until the map is completed with leagues committed to their respective roles in the pyramid, we cannot have promotion and relegation.

Comparison to world soccer

It’s important to understand why leagues in Europe and South America developed promotion and relegation through the years. It’s also important to weigh the possibility that promotion and relegation in its current form quite possibly will not exist forever in the more visible leagues of Europe. For example, as more foreign investment comes into English football, the likelihood grows that eventually those buying clubs will want some security against a Luton Town or Portsmouth-like slide down the divisions.

I believe we might eventually see the league in England sealed off to somewhere between 54 and 62 teams playing in three divisions with promotion and relegation only within that self-contained structure. In the future, a small side like Bournemouth may not be able to achieve three promotions in four seasons. It simply may not be permissible.

Tonight on Divers and Cheats at 9pm ET, we’ll have a frank discussion with Ted Westervelt who has been the foremost proponents of promotion and relegation within the US system. We invite you to participate with us on Feel free to post your questions or comments in the Rabble thread either before or during the audio show.

Editor’s note:

Divers And Cheats is hosted by Kartik Krishnaiyer. Every week, he tackles a controversial topic that many in the soccer media ignore or don’t want to touch.

Listen to the show live every Thursday from 9-10pm ET at, the show’s sponsor.

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  1. Hammster

    October 6, 2015 at 1:03 am

    “Hybrid Pro / Rel” = When a child is told by his parents (or any other person in a position of fiscal responsibility) that he can’t have a pony, he asks for a puppy.

  2. toryblue

    September 12, 2015 at 4:05 am

    the day you introduce promotion and relegation into soccer in the United States is the day you kill soccer in the United States. no owners will tolerate their investments into soccer teams turning into worthless mush if they get relegated. and no fanbase will stick around to watch the equivalent of their major league team demoted to the minors. the culture of sports in the United States is different from the rest of the world, and it must be adjusted to. that means no promotion or relegation. but if you want to see soccer, a sport always on the razor’s edge of failure in the United States, fail yet again, then be my guest and implement it.

  3. USRufnex

    September 12, 2015 at 12:25 am

    I’d like to see a hybrid version of Pro/Rel in which a combined USL/NASL is divided into regional “pods” with 3 or 4 teams each playing four times a year, regardless of division, but all other games would be against teams in your upper or lower division… you could see situations arise in which a 3rd Division team is playing its 2nd Division regional rival to get a promotion spot or as a spoiler to get the 2nd Division club relegated the next year…

    Pods like Louisville/Indy/Cincy or StLouis/OKC/Tulsa or San Antonio/Austin/Rio Grande or Tampa/FtL/Jacksonville to encourage rivalries and reduce travel costs, then the remainder of games would be against the clubs in your 2nd or 3rd division, followed by playoffs to determine the champion of D-2 and D-3 as well as to determine teams that would be promoted to D-2.

  4. Kei

    September 10, 2015 at 8:24 pm

    Intriguing read. I personally identify myself as being in the second camp, though I can definitely see just how daunting of a task it is to topple the current structure.

    I do have a couple of questions though, some of the key points you made:

    “lower division soccer in the United States and Canada is not yet at the level it needs to be…”

    What would constitute an acceptable level at which a relegation system consisting of multiple tiers can be implemented? There’s a lot to be said about market sizes, average attendance, revenue streams, stadium plans, etc etc — but even the idea that those things matter in terms of what constitutes a “legitimate” second or third tier seems absurd to me.

    “A real effort to invest in the development of lower divisions and the clubs in smaller and medium-sized markets must be made before such an idea is implemented.”

    Doesn’t the inverted pyramid that we have here in the States inhibit that level of investment to begin with? Save the Cosmos, the only lower division owners throwing their fair share of money into their teams are the ones who only intend to stay in those leagues for a few years before buying their way into MLS — basically a bogus form of promotion. Doesn’t that result in an inherent instability in the lower divisions?

    Truth be told, I think the whole league structure here in North America is totally ass-backwards and severely f—ed up. In any other footballing nation worthy of its name, the fans can afford to take it for granted that the bottom-up football pyramid will exist in its current form forever. Here? We have a governing body [sic] that has allowed one league to pit itself against another, while every other team is resigned to their third or fourth-rate status. Where else does that kind of situation take place? It’s a completely rotten system.

    Anyways, I’ll be tuning in tonight. Ted taking center stage alone should make it a doozy.

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