Hartnett: The Time Has Come For MLS To Adopt A Pro-Rel System

While Top-Division Franchises Flounder With No Worries, USL Clubs Like FC Cincinnati Flourish With Nowhere To Go

By Sean Hartnett
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Major League Soccer is an oddball, single-entity league that is out of step with the rest of the world.

Its wealthiest clubs hog up all the riches with zero threat of relegation. Several high-aiming second-tier clubs deserve a chance to break through the glass ceiling and show their stuff in America’s top soccer division.

FC Cincinnati averages 20,000 fans per game in the second-tier United Soccer League. When Cincy hosted the Red Bulls in a U.S. Open Cup semifinal extra-time loss a few weeks ago, the Ohio club sold out all 33,250 seats in Nippert Stadium. FC Cincinnati twice drew more than 30,000 in previous rounds of the competition.

FC Cincinnati fans

FC Cincinnati fans cheer on their team during the match against Crystal Palace FC at Nippert Stadium on July 16, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch offered food for thought in a recent interview with ESPN analyst and former MLS MVP Taylor Twellman. When asked if he could change anything in the league, Marsch spoke in favor of a promotion-relegation system.

“I think it just raises the stakes and gives so much hope to some of these smaller clubs,” Marsch said. “We were just in Cincinnati; we saw what happened there, right? And I know that investors put a lot of money into organizations to be part of MLS. But they should have to continue to put money into it and invest in the right areas and do the right things to continue to be in MLS.”

MORECrooks: FC Cincinnati Is Doing Something Amazing — And MLS Has Noticed

The Sports Business Journal reported in June that MLS rejected a 10-year, $4 billion global media rights deal from international media company MP & Silva. The offer would have quadrupled the league’s current deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision. The offer came with the stipulation that MLS would have to introduce a pro-rel system once the league’s current media rights deal expires in 2023.

MLS has plans to expand from its current 22 franchises to 26 by the year 2020. Commissioner Don Garber also stated a desire to eventually grow the league to 28 clubs. Los Angeles FC will enter the league in 2018 and the expansion club will be guided by former United States National Team manager Bob Bradley. Former Arsenal forward Carlos Vela will be the first designated player in team history. Former L.A. Galaxy superstar David Beckham received an option to buy an expansion franchise for $25 million as part of his agreement to join MLS in 2007. Beckham’s Miami-based club could be announced as the league’s 24th team by summer’s end.

MLS is currently evaluating four potential expansion options and the 25th and 26th teams would each pay an expansion fee of $150 million.

But entry to MLS shouldn’t be exclusive to deep-pocketed investors. It should also be gained through on-field results. There is a romance about Huddersfield Town ending a 45-year wait to return to the highest level of English football by gaining entry to the Premier League.

If a promotion-relegation system was currently in place, the Galaxy and D.C. United, two best teams in league history, as far as championships go, would be in danger of dropping down a division.

No MLS club has won more championships than the Galaxy’s five. Right now, only a single point separates 10th-place L.A. from the last-place Colorado Rapids in the Western Conference. It has been a rough year for the Galaxy since head coach Bruce Arena departed to take the USMNT gig. L.A. has been in rebuild mode after losing Steven Gerrard, Landon Donovan and Mike Magee to retirement and opting not to re-sign aging goal-getter Robbie Keane. If a relegation system was in play, the Galaxy could not afford to take a step back and experiment with youth.

D.C. United won three of the first four MLS Cups and have four titles in all. The club has fallen on hard times and sits in last-place in the Eastern Conference with 28 points in 27 games.

Yet, there isn’t any threat to L.A. or D.C. in the current system. Their places in MLS and financial riches are secured.

But in a pro-rel system, every game during the stretch run would be vital in fending off a drop down to the second division. Of equal importance, the buzz in second-division cities would be at a fever pitch this time of year ,with USL fan bases dreaming of promotion to MLS. The trickle-down effect and growth in smaller, yet capable markets would be huge.

If a pro-rel system was introduced to North American pro soccer, every game would mean more and every team would get a fair and equal chance to shoot for the MLS stratosphere. Perhaps most important of all, MLS would be able to separate itself with an identity that is unique to rival American sports leagues. While eliminated NFL teams are tanking in the final weeks for draft positioning and cellar-dwelling MLB teams are playing in front of sleepy, half-empty stadiums, MLS would give its fans reasons to pay attention and support their teams all season long.

It’s time for North American soccer to get with the program.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey

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