Promotion and relegation in MLS has been a hotly debated topic in US soccer circles for years. Fans and pundits alike engage pretty much daily across social media in a seemingly endless back-and-forth. But what does the head honcho at MLS, Commissioner Don Garber, have to say on the subject?
A former NFL executive, Garber has been Commish at MLS since August 1999. His early tenure saw the league shrink from 12 to 10 teams, but by the mid-2000s an upward trend began that continues today. Soccer specific stadiums have been built across the country, and the league will soon have 30 teams. But what of the game itself under his tenure?
Shortly after he took the reins in 1999, the league dropped the hockey-style shootout and countdown clock. In 2004, when getting rid of overtime in regular season games altogether, Garber stated in a press release “This decision reflects our focus on continuing our alignment with the world’s game…”
As the league stabilized and grew in the back half of the first decade of the 2000s, one topic, a principle element of the “world’s game,” kept popping up: “When, if ever, will MLS adopt promotion and relegation?” For his part, while being diplomatically appreciative of the concept at times, Garber has been fairly consistent over the years.
“I think it would be an exciting thing for us to be able to achieve. But…”
Initial comments from the league’s leader sounded relatively optimistic on the eventual inclusion of promotion and relegation, but always came with the caveat of being a long way off, or next to impossible:
NEWS: MLS' Don Garber says league hopes to "eventually" include promotion/relegation; and is exploring Euro ties: http://bit.ly/MQppF— FOX Sports Hub (@FOXSportsHub) October 8, 2009
“Unfortunately our country does not have the infrastructure to support promotion/relegation at this time. We’ll continue to monitor this, but it will likely be at least 10 years before promotion/relegation could be considered…”
After his remarks in 2009 (shown above), here’s what Garber said during a State Department foreign press center briefing in 2011:
“[It’s not going to happen] anytime soon. I think it would be an exciting thing for us to be able to achieve. But the structure of American leagues are such that it’s almost impossible to think of that at any time soon. I think the rest of the football community thinks it’s odd that all of the sudden the Vancouver Whitecaps appear in our league. We sell them an expansion team, and all of the sudden they’re playing as opposed to moving up.
“Our challenge is this sport on a professional level is very immature in North America. There is no strong second division. There’s no teams to promote, let alone what would happen to relegate them. Where would they go? What league would they play in? That second division doesn’t have a television contract. It has no sponsorship. It’s not developing players. It doesn’t have the hundreds and hundreds of years of history that exist in the rest of the world. But it would be exciting if we could pull it off.”
Garber’s comment’s about there being “no strong second division” failed to mention that at that time, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Montreal, all well-supported second division sides, had been plucked from USL/NASL to move up. Since then, five more teams (Orlando, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Nashville, and St. Louis) directly or indirectly moved from USL or NASL to MLS. Another, Sacramento, was announced but that deal has since fallen apart.
A third of the MLS league table is made up of teams that have been “promoted.” Teams proving themselves (off the field anyway) before they join is certainly attractive to MLS. But more on that later.
Alas, as more of these franchises have been added, for ever-higher expansion fees, remarks such as “maybe someday” have stopped being said.
Don Garber on promotion and relegation in MLS
As mentioned above, Garber was more dismissive about the chances of pro/rel happening. In 2012, see tweet below, it was off the table.
RT @LeanderESPN: MLS commish Don Garber to me on promotion/relegation being on the table: "Definitely not."— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) January 12, 2012
This was followed in 2014 by Garber, as quoted in the Washington Post, remarking that pro/rel wasn’t happening on his watch:
“Ever is a long time so I don’t know what will happen when they kick me out of here. It’s not happening anytime soon.”
When speaking with the Canadian newspaper Globe & Mail in 2015, Garber doubled down.
“I believe that we can expand and manage a league far larger than we are today without having to contemplate promotion and relegation. I will certainly tell you in the near term, and that near term is a long time from now, there’s not going to be promotion and relegation. It makes absolutely no sense. There is not a developed secondary division. We have union agreements …national television deals …have investors that have put in billions of dollars. It is not going to be something that could be managed in any time soon.”
Later in 2015, then Garber made a memorable gaffe at BlazerCon:
“If you’re investing billions and billions of dollars, which we are now at about $3.5 billion invested [in MLS] in twenty years, to build something in Kansas City and they have a s****y season, to think they might be playing in Chattanooga in a stadium of 4,000 people on a crappy field with no fans, makes no sense.”
Chattanooga FC, an amateur team in NPSL, had only recently played their final match of that season in front of over 18,000 fans – more than several MLS teams were pulling in on average at the time. In fact, that figure is higher than the 2022 average of 12 current MLS sides. Those 12 include massive markets such as New York (both teams), Chicago, Washington DC and Miami.
The future landscape
As we barrel towards 2026 and the US co-hosted World Cup, MLS will likely have 30 teams (or more). It now controls it’s own two-year-old professional third division that it claims will have independent sides as well (there is currently still only one such entrant).
Promotion and relegation was developed in Europe in the first place due to there being more teams than you could neatly make a single schedule/league for. So as MLS almost certainly keeps cashing expansion checks across its two leagues, could we see some sort of internal pro/rel within MLS? Well, don’t get your hopes up.
Asked MLS commissioner Don Garber if, in the event the league eventually gets beyond 30 teams, a two-tiered promotion/relegation system might be feasible. His answer? “No.”— Doug McIntyre (@ByDougMcIntyre) February 26, 2020
It’s entirely feasible that the league uses MLS NEXT Pro as a place to park prospective MLS ownership groups. Using their own league, instead of USL, as a proving ground to really suss out markets and owners before awarding them a prime spot in the top division makes a lot of sense. But, unless FIFA and/or US Soccer decides to step in, don’t count on anyone actually being able to win their way into the American D1 anytime soon.
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