MLS: SuperDraft

Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley stunned world football in coming to Toronto FC in MLS. It’s like, totally happening guys! MLS has “arrived” (no it hasn’t, that doesn’t mean anything).

Except whenever things go relatively well (at least in appearances) for MLS in terms of big name(ish) transfers, an old, smelly debate resurfaces: should MLS go mental and blow up single-entity so that clubs can’t spend whatever the hell they want to attract the world’s best players? Not only that, should it introduce promotion and relegation to North American soccer to punish the weak and reward the strong?

The problem with this kind of “debate” (beyond the endless time consuming and soul-immolating back and forth) is that it rarely follows a coherent framework, on both sides of the divide.

For example, some backers of the current single-entity model in MLS (it’s too exhausting to explain single-entity again, so just read this and come back after) attack promotion and relegation as a system in its own right, rather than focusing on whether it would work in America. This is absurd: you don’t need to crap on a model that has served the vast majority of football-playing nations decades in order to argue against it working in a North American context.

Additionally, boosters will often argue pro/rel’s merits without explaining just how exactly it would be realistically implemented in the US, in 2014 (or 2015, or whenever)—just in the same way it’s easy to keep yelling “public healthcare!” in the United States, but nearly impossible to get it past a House of Reps painted red Republican. The legal problems alone are staggering—what happens to the players’ unions? Does the USSF just ignore MLS and go ahead and set up a separate league pyramid?

At the same time though, backers of single-entity often conflate arguments against the practicality of implementing promotion and relegation in the US with arguments against promotion and relegation per se. Despite the braying (and boring) presence of the Westerveltians on-line, it isn’t necessarily obvious that pro/rel in US soccer would be the unmitigated disaster we all smugly assume it will be.

How, therefore, should we go about this?

To begin, I hate pie-in-the-sky arguments, so I think it’s best to only argue for a pro/rel scenario that has a hope in hell of getting approved one day. So it makes sense to get word on the subject from those with the power to implement it.

So, here’s MLS commish Don Garber in 2012:

The topic of promotion and relegation is something I am asked about regularly, along with the league moving to a single table and possibly changing to a European calendar. While I personally think promotion and relegation would be very exciting, the professional soccer landscape in the United States and Canada is not mature enough to support this type of system, and therefore it is not something we are contemplating.

And here’s the head of the United States Soccer Federation Sunil Gulati in 2009:

I used this analogy with [FIFA president] Blatter: He said the U.S. played two different halves against Brazil in the Confederations Cup final. I said that I was turning 50, facing the second half of my life. U.S. soccer is still in the first half of its life. Twenty-five years ago, in 1984, we had big attendance at the Olympics the eventually led to 1994 and the World Cup. For us, 2009 is still the first half. Questions about promotion/relegation, schedule — they are second-half issues. We will need to be more mature. Maybe 10 years down the road with a couple more southern teams, maybe one dome, more passionate fans. Is it the next year or two? No.

Now, maybe there’s some sort of diplomatic reason for this “someday, maybe” view here (certainly FIFA would like it), but I’m going to take them on their word. So it seems both Garber and Gulati sort of form of pro/rel one day, but not yet.

I also think we can agree that you can’t introduce pro/rel without also dispensing with single-entity, for obvious reasons—a league can’t co-own a team which can theoretically drop out of said league.

Using this framework to guide us, over the next few weeks I want to explore in a little more detail the kind of questions I posed rhetorically in this post from last year (last year!) on this subject. I’m not a fan of projections (Black swans), but I think it’s reasonable to look at the status quo and make some straightforward inferences, of the kind I couldn’t be bothered to six months ago. Until next week…