The United Soccer League, or USL, will continue to ponder adding promotion and relegation to establish a true pyramid of soccer in the United States. Currently, the United States is one of the few countries to not use promotion and relegation in its top soccer divisions. Instead, Major League Soccer is a closed league. The 29 teams in the 2023 campaign, and 30 in 2025, are at no risk of losing their status.

In July, The Athletic reported USL was contemplating adding promotion and relegation. There was a date set for a vote among the owners of the clubs in the USL system. However, that hit a delay. Consequently, there is no timetable for a vote to bring an open league to the United States. Still, that does not rule out the eventual possibility of it coming.

Instead, USL President Paul McDonough is using the new time to look into the logistical chaos that would come with adding promotion and relegation. No other sports league in the United States uses the concept, so there is no prior example of how it would work in the country.

“I love the fact that it happens everywhere else in the world,” McDonough recently told The Athletic. “But I understand that it’s a massive move in this country. So we’re at a stage now where we’re really just having a lot of conversations with owners. Some people love it. Some people hate it.”

Keeping momentum in USL strong

Across the world, promotion and relegation provided incredible scenes. Moreover, it affords smaller markets the chance to compete on the biggest stage. For example, Luton Town played out a draw against seven-time UEFA Champions League winners Liverpool at Kenilworth Road. Ten seasons ago, Luton was losing at home to Braintree Town while in the fifth tier. That rapid ascension remains one of the best stories in all of sports.

McDonough says bringing promotion and relegation to the United States honors the game. Furthermore, the USL President said he does not want to Americanize the game. He wants to put fans at the forefront.

“Promotion and relegation brings us relevance. People are really, really intrigued by it. I’m not a real proponent of trying to take a global game and Americanizing it. I think you have to respect the global game and the way it’s done in the rest of the world.”

Phoenix Rising won the 2023 USL Championship title over the Charleston Battery on Sunday, Nov. 12.
Phoenix Rising won the 2023 USL Championship title over the Charleston Battery on Sunday, Nov. 12.

Phoenix Rising won the 2023 USL Championship title over the Charleston Battery on Sunday, Nov. 12.

McDonough told The Athletic that USL remains on an upward path. attendance continues to climb and the league recently signed a new TV deal with CBS. In the multi-year deal that runs from 2024 to 2027, CBS will air 100 games per season across its different platforms. Over 20 games will be on CBS Sports Network, and 75 games will be available on the free CBS Sports Golazo Network.

If promotion and relegation were part of the system in USL, it could gather another facet to help this steady growth.

Promotion and relegation are not seamless for USL

Despite ample praise for promotion and relegation in American soccer, McDonough said it will not solve every single problem. Promotion is a great feeling as teams and owners rise up the league system. There are inherent risks related to promotion and relegation.

Relegation means teams lose money, promotional ability, talent and momentum going into future seasons. Clubs in Europe have long-established fan bases that will support them no matter what. Relatively young franchises may struggle to retain attendance levels if there is no early success to drive support.

If USL does split into three divisions, it would signal a massive change for American soccer. USL would have a differentiator against Major League Soccer that could draw in a different fan base.