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Fans’ View: Relegation realities — It looks so easy on TV

Photo: Paul Rudderow

I’ve long been a proponent of the MLS conforming to more established, worldwide norms. I envisioned MLS, NASL, USL, etc. right on down your local beer league in neatly stacked 20-team flights with balanced schedules and a promotion/relegation system. I wanted it all. (Except the winter season—F that.)

These days? Well, I’ve gotta say, I’m rethinking the whole damn thing. It’s one thing to dread not making the playoffs. It is quite another to fear for your team’s chances of actual survival. That gets real.

It brings back a recurring nightmare I had as a child. Two friends would be lined up on parallel conveyor belts by some unseen force. As the friends entered a warehouse, a fire was lit. One would be pushed into the fire. The other would go insane watching. I remember thinking, “I can make it. I won’t go crazy when they push him in.” It never even crossed my mind that I might be chosen for the push. Of course, when our turn arrived, it was me who was shoved in (always waking first thankfully).

I’ve always been for relegation without it ever dawning on me that it could be MY team relegated. It was always supposed to be the other guy. I guess I didn’t learn the lesson of the nightmare.

But here we are. The Union sit right in the theoretical relegation zone. While they are playing better ball, only time will tell if they truly are reborn, or just some Zombie Squad briefly reanimated through the dark magic of Novak’s departure and splitting the ghost of Le Toux into separate parts French and No. 9.

If relegation loomed, there would be no time to figure out if this were a second chance or a dead cat bounce. There would be no time to test things out. No time to let players develop. No time for a new manager to find his footing. No time for anything except grabbing a life preserver as the whole thing went down.

I don’t need that much reality in my sports life.

After relegation, the crowd drops from 18,000 to 16,000, to 14,000 and down to 6 or 8,000 on the best day. The away games are not televised. Merchandise is not in stores. Talent moves away. The front office decide to go after the minor league, family crowd and tamp down S.O.B. activities in order to try to survive as Philadelphia Union, kings of the USL.

Count me on the other side of the argument now. We bought our place in the top flight fair and square, and you’ll never take it away.


  1. James "4-3-3" Forever says:

    Nah, relegation is fine. Of course, I say that being of the opinion that a system such as that will NEVER happen in the USA, at least not decades.
    But it ain’t like lower league teams dont have fans. Its simply a sporting reality. Just as we live with the reality that the Eagles have never won a superbowl, or the sixers were miserable for the last ten years, etc.
    And on the other hand, I think the threat of relegation would make promotion, or avoiding it, or finishing in the top 10 for the first time – all those little achievements that most teams in top leagues can only hope for – all that sweeter.

  2. crosswiredmind says:

    There have been rumblings to remove promotion and relegation from the EPL. I would say that would be far more likely that the US ever adopting a promotion/relegation model.

  3. I am in favour of relegation… but in quite a few years. I’ve seen it happen to my local team Chester City.. but that wasn’t due to bad performance but a corrupt FO and an owner that was eventually arrested for tax ‘issues’ and assaulting a police officer.

    Me and all the other Cestrians were devastated as the club had been going for 120yrs. (It was at this time I found the Union and became an S.O.B.)

    So, while I realise that relegation is an issue, there are other, more drastic ways to see your club go down.
    I think while MLS is going from strength to strength, a club going down to the NASL may see the actual business fold. There needs to be more years of tradition, parents and kids habitual attendance, and a MUCH stronger NASL. The trick isn’t to fear the drop.. but to realise (in the case of the EPL) that the drop isn’t that far. In the case of the MLS/NASL the drop is huge and would be enough to put clubs out of business. In my honest opinion.

  4. The notion that promotion/relegation may happen here someday is Eurosnob nonsense.

    I don’t understand why anyone thinks it’s a good idea for the USA. Battles between crappy teams playing bad soccer while trying to stave off relegation will always be a hard sell to the American public. I don’t see America ever catching on to watching these Loser Bowls. And while promotion would being excitement to the lower level leagues, MLS and, more importantly, the TV networks wouldn’t want to have a bunch of teams from minor markets end up in the league. Could you imagine if New York or Los Angeles teams ended up getting relegated? ESPN and NBC Sports Network would drop their MLS contracts like a hot potato.

    • Richie The Limey says:

      Eurosnob nonsense? What is that? Is it similar to Yankarrogance?

      The franchise model of American sports is the only sustainable way for soccer to survive. I chose the word survive very carefully. There just isn’t enough interest in the game in the USA and the MLS gets that. The NY/LA biases alone make a mockery of real competition in the league so why consider introducing the competition element of promotion and relegation?

      It is a non-starter. Silly article.

      • Nate Emeritz says:

        Richie, you might be right about the level of interest at this time, which could support relegation being a “non-starter.” I also agree that MLS has certain NY/LA biases, which are arguably justifiable, but I don’t see how that precludes considering any form of improved competition. I also don’t see how MLS lacks “real” competition by any measure.

        1- Real competition does and always has existed in MLS: NY has never won a championship, and it took LA many years to win their first, so whatever policy bias exists has not translated into these teams’ dominating to a point where there is no real competition. LA certainly has a powerhouse at the moment, but historically hasn’t won as many championships as DC, and hasn’t had the dominant run that DC had in the first four seasons.

        2- Sports often thrive on big rivalries. People love to hate the spending differences between big and small clubs (Yankees vs. Royals, ManU vs. Reading). But the greatest interest, best media ratings, and most intense competition often arises from focused competition among a few big frontrunners- not among a league of equals. I don’t like the bias that disfavors my team, but it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t lead to “real competition.” While MLS bias toward NY/LA appears to have failed (Point #1), the intended competition is just as “real” as, and could have been better than, an egalitarian league.

        If what you mean by “real” is ‘equal’ in terms of salaries, player selection, or performance, MLS probably provides some of the “realest” competition of any soccer/sports league domestically or abroad. Let NY have Djorkaeff, Matthaus, and Marquez… MLS/Open/CONCACAF Cups: DC-4/2/1, LA-3/2/1, NY-0/0/0.

        For team salary comparisons:
        US leagues 2010-11):
        Article on La Liga:

      • Richie The Limey says:

        By real competition I do mean the disparity in salaries and the structure of the league / playoff system.

        Point one. Look everywhere in the world and the teams that are consistently at the top of the leagues are the ones with the highest salaries (read ‘Soccernomics’ if you haven’t already done so – highly recommended). While NY has no cups both they and LA do have the stars which draws more people / sponsorship / media attention and thus even more dollars to spend on more stars. The Union can not compete with either team for star power. That is not real competition – it is PR and spin from MLS headquarters.

        Point two. The imbalances in the schedule and conferences do not provide a level playing field which again dilutes the idea of a true competition. The playoff system further allows weaker teams to succeed and the rules seem to change yearly – yet another factor in making the competition seem less ‘on the up’.

        That is what I mean by “real” competition. For me MLS is more of a sports entertainment product than a true sporting competition.

        I love going to see the U and I am thrilled that we finally have a team to support – don’t get me wrong. C’mon the U !

      • NY has never won anything in 17 years. LA has probably been one of the two best franchises in the history of the league but hasn’t dominated. And soccer is one of the fastest growing sports in the country. In 10-15 years relegation will be a major issue.

  5. Promotion/relegation can’t work in this country because of several reasons. Number 1 is the country is too large. Teams can only be centered in the largest cities with the largest TV markets to sustain not just success but survival. If a team or two every year is expected to be relegated, say in the NFL, who would ever want to buy season tickets or watch? Number 2 is that because of this, we’ve almost completely eliminated minor leagues in every sport that could reasonably be competitive if a hypothetical promotion/relegation structure existed. It would have been possible in major league baseball in the pre-expansion era. There were minor league teams in non-major league cities, especially in the West and South that could have beaten AL and ML bottom dwellers like the Browns with no change to the lineup. Hell, there were Negro league teams that could have competed. But because of the size of the country, and the appeal of having a major league team, the leagues went with expansion instead of promotion. Only MLS has essentially in everything but name only “promoted” the last 4 out of 5 expansion clubs (Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, and Montreal). But the clubs had years to prepare. It wasn’t a promotion based on performance in the league the previous year. Number 3 is that promotion/relegation persists in Europe because it’s just been that way for a 100 years or whatever. Because soccer football is the biggest sport in almost every country, every good-sized town has at least 3-4 clubs competing in every league, if not 2 or more in the same league. The differences between the smallest EPL club and the biggest Championship club is not that much. But imagine if promotion/relegation occurred in say NCCA football. To go from BCS to FCS is much more massive.
    Imagine if Philadelphia was like most big cities in England. We’d have 2 or 3 clubs within the city. The smaller satellite cities like Norristown, Trenton, Camden or Chester would all have their own. Kind of like Bolton in relation to Manchester, etc. Some might be in the top flight, some might be in lower leagues. But this brings up an interesting scenario. Back when the Eagles were being really annoying, people would complain about somehow forcing the team to try to fire Reid. But hell, what other option was there if you were a football fan but did not want to support the Eagles? If we were like an EPL town, you’d have options aplenty. Now, of course, it might be akin to a New York scenario where there’s no way a Mets fan would root for the Yankees and vice versa, but hell just the chance of that happening would make things a lot different.

  6. i don’t think relegation would be accepted by clubs who paid the expansion fee(Union, Portland, Seattle, Montreal etc.).And since Garber has stated the expansion fee for the 20th MLS club will be $100 million, I don’t think it would be fair to send down a club who just paid MLS all that $$$$$

  7. I agree with those who say that relegation/promotion wouldn’t work in the US the way the league is currently structured. For one, there really aren’t enough teams, and for another, the league works hard to promote parity – meaning that random flukes, injuries or even simply one Polish coach gone crazy can turn a playoff-caliber team into one that hits the relegation zone the next year. Those teams shouldn’t be punished (or rewarded) for one fluke of a season.

    That being said, if you tweaked the relegation/promotion rules to take into consideration multiple seasons (say, each year the two teams with the lowest/highest average records over the past 3-4 years change divisions) coupled with a more aggressive national level youth development program, one that tied into the MLS and could actually support and pay players for lower divisions, that might catch on and even help the league develop in the long run. But not as it’s currently structured, I think.

  8. Oh really….and how about that photo that paul rudderow shot!

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