With MLS Cup among us this week, coupled with commissioner Don Garber’s recent visit to Cincinnati, PLUS news of the New York Cosmos folding, I thought now would be a great time to explore ways to make the game of soccer even better here in the United States. I think we can all argue that what we have now in this country is pretty great. There are some minor tweaks that could elevate MLS to one of the best leagues in the world.
Step 1 – Introduce a Single Table to Major League Soccer
Soon the league will have 24 teams playing in it by the end of the 2018 season. 24 teams in a single table? How? Well, let’s take a look at leagues around the world. Currently in English soccer, the Football League has 24 teams in each division, EXCEPT for the Premier League which has 20. That means that teams in those leagues are playing 46 matches every year. That’s just in league play and doesn’t include FA Cup and EFL Cup matches. That’s a LOT of games to play if you consider the season to run from March to the end of November for MLS. That averages out to just over 5 matches a month. Meaning a club would have a match every weekend plus one midweek, which is very doable.
If the league decides to go to single table, then what do you do with MLS Playoffs? I’ll touch on that a bit later.
Step 2 – Expand the League
Expand the league and play single table? It’s not a crazy idea. MLS has already stated that they would like to expand to 28 teams by 2020. However, there are more cities that want MLS than would be available if the league sticks to 28 teams. Cities like Cincinnati, Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Nashville, Tampa, San Antonio have all stated claims at some point that they would like to join the MLS ranks. That’s at least 9 cities for 4 available slots. Expand the league to 32 teams and have single table play? Impossible. You’d have to get extremely creative.
Step 3 – MLS Premier League
Wait. What? I said you’d have to get creative. Expand MLS to 32 teams and then create two leagues with one being called the MLS Premier League. It would be a 16 team top tier league and a 16 team 2nd division, we’ll call it MLS League 1. This would help clear the scheduling congestion mentioned above. I’ll explain in detail a bit later.
Step 4 – Introduce Promotion and Relegation
I’m sure you were wondering when that topic would introduce itself into this discussion. Promotion and relegation is something a large portion of American soccer fans would like to see introduced into American soccer. In a recent study put together by Deloitte and commissioned by Miami FC from the NASL, it states that of 1000 American soccer fans polled, nearly 90% support an open system in US soccer.
Step 5 – Playoffs
So a lot of folks, especially around the time MLS Cup comes around, argue whether or not a playoff system is good for MLS. Those who watched the Toronto FC and Montreal Impact Eastern Conference final last week point to that crazy series as a reason to have the playoffs. Others point to the fact that the MLS Cup playoffs somewhat diminishes the regular season. The Supporters Shield winners almost rarely win MLS Cup. It’s only happened 6 times in the 20 MLS Cups awarded with the most recent team being the 2011 LA Galaxy. If you go back to 2003, it’s only happened twice.
ESPN’s Taylor Twellman himself has pointed out that the regular season isn’t all that important during a recent interview with Cincinnati Soccer Talk.
“Credit to the Seattle Sounders they’re in MLS Cup for the first time in franchise history, but they have literally wrote the book on the last two years of saying the regular season actually doesn’t matter. It only matters what you do pretty much from July 1st on.” says the former New England Revolution striker.
The Portland Timbers in 2015 squeaked into the playoffs and got on a hot streak in November and won MLS Cup. They were nowhere close to being the best team in the regular season. Which begs the question, how do you make MLS regular season games more important?
Make Games Great Again
One way is to offer promotion and relegation between the two MLS leagues. The other is to place importance on finishing with the best record in MLS by limiting the amount of teams playing for MLS Cup. My personal preference is to award the championship to the team with the best league record. However, since I know we Americans like playoffs, this new format would have the top 2 teams in the MLS Premier League play for the cup. I’d also award the Supporters Shield winner with home field advantage. If that’s the case, what would teams who finished in 3-13th be playing for? Spots in the CONCACAF Champions League? It makes finishing with a better record all that more important. The top 4 teams in the MLS PL would get automatic entry into the competition.
Who gets Relegated?
If you’re into the playoff format, this is where it gets exciting for the bottom of the MLS Premier League table and the top of the MLS League 1 table. The team that finishes at the bottom of the MLS Premier League would automatically be relegated to League 1. Then The two teams finishing in 15th and 14th place would have a 2-leg home and home playoff for MLS Premier League survival.
The bottom 2 teams of the MLS League 1 table would also play in a 2-leg playoff for survival with the loser dropping out of MLS and into another tier, most likely being USL. This is where you could see MLS expanding into other cities not even mentioned previously. Cities like Chattanooga, Ottawa, Charlotte, Indianapolis could have a shot at joining MLS depending on how they fared in USL or NASL (if it’s still around). Why only 1 team dropping from MLS League 1? That way Don Garber only has to apologize to one of his owners rather than 3 or 4 of them. It would be refreshing to see a new city pop up into the league each year.
Who gets Promoted?
The MLS League 1 team that finishes with the best record would gain automatic promotion into the MLS Premier League. Teams 2 and 3 would playoff in a 2-leg home and home series to earn the 2nd promotion spot into the MLS Premier League.
The argument that I hear all the time for not having promotion and relegation is “These owners have paid millions of dollars for the right to be in MLS”. First of all, my response would be to hire the right soccer people to make the good soccer decisions. You should be punished for poor results. It’s the owner’s job to make sure that they get a good return on investment. Not rewarded with top draft picks or being higher up on the Designated Player priority list. Of course this portion of the promotion and relegation plan would require some changes within USSF. A true soccer league pyramid would need to be established. This would be to ensure that movement within all leagues could occur.
Step 6 – Scheduling/Travel
This one’s pretty easy. 30 game seasons for both leagues, with both playing home and away matches with every team in the league. As far as travel goes, every MLS team already travels around the country. It wouldn’t change travel much, other than I would scrap the current travel rules regarding flying. I would allow individual MLS teams to plan and charter their own travel.
Step 7 – Introduce an Additional Tournament
Right now there are 3 major competitions that MLS teams play in. MLS Cup, The US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League. I propose that to make up for the 4 league matches lost in this new format, you introduce a secondary cup, that only teams from USL, MLS League 1 and MLS PL are eligible to play in. We’ll call this the Audi Cup. And, since MLS 2 teams aren’t able to compete in the US Open Cup this secondary tournament would include them as well.
That’s potentially 64 competing teams. The 32 MLS sides will each be paired up with a USL opponent and the knockout tournament begins from there. Every match would be played at MLS stadiums, unless there are 2 USL sides that have advanced. If you were to win this new cup, that’s the potential for 6 additional matches. Depending on the draw, it could be more home match revenue as well which would create incentive. If you don’t consider this cup a priority these could be additional matches where you can see some of your bench/role players get some valuable minutes.
Step 8 – Television
I don’t know about you, but if there’s a soccer match on TV, I’m watching it. I don’t care which league it’s in. I’ll even watch Liga MX games in Spanish. My guess is that MOST soccer fans are the same way. Soccer is on TV so little that when we do get games on TV, we watch them. With networks like BEIN Sports, Fox, ESPN and Univision you could negotiate a pretty solid deal to have both MLS leagues covered. I would also leverage the continuation of online streaming of games across all networks and sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. You could negotiate the rights to have the Audi Cup and US Open Cup televised as well. If BEIN can air England’s FL Championship matches, it could air MLS League 1 matches.
I understand that this is all a pipe dream but this format would have it all. MLS could expand into new cities. The fans who are super passionate about promotion and relegation would finally get their wish. And those who enjoy the current MLS Cup playoff format would still get to watch important matches in a playoff type atmosphere. It feels like this could be a win-win for every fan involved.
Nick Seuberling is the host of the Cincinnati Soccer Talk podcast. You can listen on iPhone and Android devices. You can follow him on Twitter @nickseuberling.
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