Relegation in the MLS

To increase competition and viewership, the MLS needs to implement this feature of the game.

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The MLS, or Major League Soccer, was founded on December 17th, 1993. The league was created with one simple goal in mind: start a passion for the beautiful game in the world’s most infamous country. European soccer is very different structurally than many sports in the U.S., with one key aspect being relegation. As the aspect of the game that keeps all matches competitive, the MLS needs to adopt a relegation system into its foundation. 

Relegation systems in Europe are extremely popular, with almost every major league having a system unique to them. However, the premise remains mostly the same; if you aren’t good enough the previous season, you are demoted.

Take the English Premier League, for example. The English FA (football association) recognizes 11 leagues within the country, with all of them having the chance to be promoted or relegated from their current leagues. The Premier League, or EPL, is the top flight of English soccer. With 20 teams, the bottom 3 each year are relegated to the EFL Championship, or the second  division of the system. 

This system is important for multiple reasons: the most important of which is that it keeps  every match competitive, no matter the teams. In the MLS, a late season match between 2 bottom-feeders in the standings would hold little to no significance, as both teams are guaranteed a spot in next year’s competition. However, in Europe, this match would be a thrilling game with high stakes, as each team fights for its life in the top division for another year. 

Keeping lower divisions relevant is another reason why a relegation system is so key to soccer leagues. In the EFL Championship, the second  tier of soccer in England, the league hosts 24 teams a season, with 3 going up to the EPL, and 3 going down to a lower league come season’s end. The top 2 finishers receive a guaranteed spot in the top flight, while teams 3-6 are in the a promotion playoff, with 2 wins taking you through. 

During the 2020-21 season, English side Brentford F.C., which haven’t seen the top division of English soccer since 1947, found themselves in third  place, securing them a spot in the playoff. After a shaky 3-2 win against Bournemouth, Brentford found themselves 1 win away from reaching the top for the first time in 74 years. Faced against Premier League regulars Swansea City, Brentford defied the odds and gained promotion, in a 2-0 win. 

Unfortunately, in the current system of the MLS, these types of underdog stories will never happen. Teams face no consequences for having poor seasons, and the same cycle of teams repeat itself. 

This current MLS system is also unfair for smaller, second and third tier clubs. No matter how good of a campaign a team puts on throughout the season, they will never truly be rewarded for their efforts, and instead receive a championship trophy that doesn’t feel all that special. 

Fortunately, relegation is a simple way to fix this flawed system, and the MLS already has the makings of one. In American soccer, there are 3 main tiers, MLS, USL Championship, and USL League One. The easy way to format this would be that 3 teams go up, and 3 teams go down from each league each year. However, this is not as surface level of a problem as it may seem.

One major complication with this task is the owners of MLS teams. When buying these teams, unfortunately most owners had one objective in their mind, which was profit. With a relegation system, owners put that profit at risk. If a team performs poorly and gets relegated from the MLS to the USL Championship, that is a massive profit loss for the owners, as they are not playing at the top anymore. Whilst it may be frustrating from a fan perspective, many owners are simply not willing to risk that loss of profit, when the current system supplies almost no risk at all.

Another issue with the relegation system coming to the US is the amount of teams in each league. In England, each of the 4 major leagues have a minimum of 20 teams, so there isn’t too much shuffling when relegation and promotion occurs. However, the American Soccer system does not have that luxury, with the USL League only having 11 teams competing annually. However, this can be fixed fairly easily. Because there are 28 MLS teams, 27 USL Championship teams, and 11 USL League One Teams, you can divide all of the teams into 3 leagues of 22 based on last season’s performances. 

There is one final issue with the MLS incorporating a relegation system, and that is club size. Take Forward Madison FC for example, a USL League One team who play at Breese Stevens Field in Madison, Wisconsin, which houses a maximum of 5,000 guests. Compared to the MLS, however, with an average stadium size of around 24,100 people, there could be an issue with sizing. But this can be fixed simply, and that is with popularity and competition. If more people see that Madison, or other smaller clubs across America now have a chance to reach the top, 

They will be more interested in the sport, which leads to more revenue and upgraded clubs. 

All in all, relegation in the MLS would be a fantastic opportunity to grow the game in America, and capitalize on the recent growth of the sport in the past few years. With more competition overall, giving every club something to play for, and an entertaining experience for the viewer, incorporating a relegation system into American soccer is a no brainer.