Many soccer fans on this side of the pond seem to think that we need to copy everything that's done elsewhere in order to have the sport grow here. In particular, the debate over promotion and relegation continues to simmer.
I think it’s a false debate. It’s clear neither the MLS or the NASL are there yet. In fact, a deeper look reveals a few obstacles to making pro/rel a reality in North American soccer. And let me be clear: the "sophistication" of the football audience in the US or Canada is NOT an issue. Most are fans of other leagues and know what relegation would entail.
Let’s look at what would need to happen before pro/rel could realistically be entertained,
1- There would need to be between 32 and 40 clubs with soccer specific stadiums holding 12-15,000 seats or more. Progress is being made (from Sacramento to DC) but we're not quite there yet.
2- There would need to be the formation of a continental (US-Canada to start with ...) soccer league where interests from the MLS and the NASL could be arbitrated/represented. With a tier one division (Continental Premier League?) set up with 20 or so teams and a second tier division ( Continental Super League ?) with about the same number of teams, eventually other lower divisions would need to be created/absorbed as well (USL, PDL, etc)
3- There would be a need for better national TV rights deals in both US and Canada to finance the new set up and provide clear incentives to stay in the top division or try to get there. The current MLS deal, while a good one, cannot sustain that step.
4- There would need to be a single table format in each of the top two divisions. Soccer fans here are ready for that and there are enough games from all competitions (US/Canadian cups and others) to sustain regional rivalries. The MLS Cup playoff format could be changed to have the top 8 teams in the new single table play for a new Premier League Cup after the regular season ends.
5- A common sense follow up to the previous requirement would be to drop current air travel restrictions for MLS teams and allow charters to facilitate a truly North American competition where the 20 best teams compete against each other , no matter where they are based.
6- The salary cap would need to be substantially increased or abolished altogether. With less restrictions, clubs would be able to spend what they need to stay up in the top division or fight to get there. Yes, there would be disparity in financial wherewithal but it's a fact of life in most football championships around the world.
MLS oddities like the DP rule, TAM and GAM, and the astoundingly stupid "discovery" rule ...would likely disappear.
7- The new top divisions would have to respect international breaks not to dilute the quality of play. With a new "Continental Premier League" poised to rival top European and South American leagues, there wouldn't be any other options.
How likely is all this to happen? Not very but it’s a fun exercise to think about it especially if you take into account how the pro/rel could actually work. Would it be based purely on the positions of teams in the table? Or taking into account the winner of the Soccer Bowl (2nd division playoffs) or some other arrangement? What about including teams from Mexico?
Only one thing is sure, the debate will go on ... What do you think?