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What If… Major League Soccer Had Relegation?

Who would have gotten the boot from Major League Soccer if relegation existed in the USA?

2012 Cascadia Cup by Sharat Ganapati is licensed under CC BY 2.0

What If… Major League Soccer Had Relegation?

Estimated Reading Time: 9 Minutes

Liverpool have wrapped up their Premier League title with 20% of the season still to play. Seems like there is no reason to continue watching English football this year, right?


In the Premier League and others across Europe, there is more to be decided than who will lift the cup. Spots in upcoming European competitions are up for grabs and individual resumes can still be bolstered.

The most intriguing story-line still at play, however, is at the bottom of the table:

The Battle to Avoid Relegation

A foreign concept to American sports fans, relegation sends the three lowest performing team at season’s end down to a lower division of the football pyramid.

To keep the number of teams in the league level, the top three teams from the second division get promoted and are given a chance to try their hand in the big leagues.

Take a second to think about that.

These teams are literally playing for the right to continue to exist in their league. This is a HUGE deal for these clubs, and an AWESOME story for fans to follow, albeit a nerve-wracking enterprise if your team is near the drop zone.

Relegation could mean the difference between hosting home matches against Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal or trying to entice fans to pack the arena for a showdown with Sheffield Wednesday (that’s the full team name, not the day of the game).

There are huge ramifications for a team’s financial standing and supporter following, not to mention the pride and history of the club.

Let’s Do That Here!

“Wouldn’t it be fun if the Marlins or the Browns were relegated after yet another crappy season?”

It’s fun to talk about bringing relegation to America, but the truth is that the Big 4 sports could not support it.

There’s no place to relegate to or promote from.

Clubs in the second levels of the soccer pyramids in Spain, England, Italy, and Germany operate as their own entities, signing and developing players in their system.

Minor league teams in America similarly represent different, often smaller cities around the country.

But teams at the second and third levels of professional baseball, basketball, and hockey are not viable relegation options.

The minor league structure, in which teams are affiliated with big league clubs, means that all players in the system are owned by the same entity.

If the Pawtucket Red Sox won the International League and got promoted to MLB, players within the Boston Red Sox organization would have to play against their own team.

The Red Sox would also lose the ability to call up and send down players to their farm system.

Football, of course, has no minor leagues. In addition, the enormous infrastructure of the NFL economy would not support the moving parts that come with relegation and promotion.  

That leaves us with one option: Major League Soccer.

The System is Already in Place

The United States soccer pyramid is set up just like those in Europe, making promotion and relegation an easy proposition.

MLS is the only sanctioned Division 1 league in the country, so there is no debate about who is at the top of the soccer pyramid.

United Soccer League (USL) works almost identically to the EFL (English Football League), which oversees the leagues involved in England’s promotion and relegation system.

Like the EFL, the USL operates the Championship (Division 2), League One (Division 3), and League Two (Division 4).

With apologies to the other minor leagues at the third and fourth levels of the pyramid, the USL system would be the obvious choice as the conduit for relegation and promotion in American soccer.

It May Be Slipping Away

The time to pounce on relegation and promotion for American soccer is now. Beginning in 2013, MLS and USL began to integrate MLS Reserve teams with the USL Pro structure.

Under the new agreements, each MLS club was expected to either affiliate with an already existing USL team or operate their reserve team as part of the league.

Currently, 13 of the 35 teams in USL Championship are affiliated with MLS teams.

Many have the same name as their parent club, including Atlanta United 2, New York Red Bulls II, Philadelphia Union II, Sporting Kansas City II and Portland Timbers 2.

Nearly all of the other MLS clubs have “minor league” teams in the USL League One.

There are still plenty of teams that could be candidates for promotion, but this is the time to sort out this issue before soccer goes the way of the other major sports in their minor league structure.

Who Would Go?

Let’s take a look at the teams that would have been relegated from MLS each year.

Although MLS has mostly existed as a two-conference league, these relegation decisions were taken by selecting the three teams with the lowest point totals in the overall table. The tiebreaker for teams tied on points was goal differential, as it is in European leagues.

1996: Columbus Crew, New England Revolution, Colorado Rapids
1997: New England Revolution, NY/NJ MetroStars, San Jose Clash
1998: San Jose Clash, Kansas City Wizards, New England Revolution
1999: NY/NJ MetroStars, Kansas City Wizards, New England Revolution
2000: San Jose Earthquakes, D.C. United, Columbus Crew
2001: Tampa Bay Mutiny, Colorado Rapids, D.C. United
2002: D.C. United, NY/NJ MetroStars, Kansas City Wizards
2003: Dallas Burn, Los Angeles Galaxy, Columbus Crew
2004: Chicago Fire, New England Revolution, Dallas Burn
2005: Chivas USA, Real Salt Lake, Columbus Crew
2006: Columbus Crew, Kansas City Wizards, Real Salt Lake (LA Galaxy & New York Red Bulls win goal differential tiebreaker over Real Salt Lake)
2007: Toronto FC, Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy
2008: San Jose Earthquakes, LA Galaxy, Toronto FC
2009: New York Red Bulls, San Jose Earthquakes, Kansas City Wizards
2010: D.C. United, Chivas USA, Philadelphia Union
2011: Vancouver Whitecaps, New England Revolution, Toronto FC
2012: Toronto FC, Chivas USA, Portland Timbers
2013: D.C. United, Chivas USA, Toronto FC
2014: Montreal Impact, San Jose Earthquakes, Colorado Rapids
2015: Chicago Fire, Colorado Rapids, Philadelphia Union (NYC FC wins goal differential tiebreaker over Colorado, Philadelphia)
2016: Chicago Fire, Houston Dynamo, Columbus Crew
2017: LA Galaxy, D.C. United, Colorado Rapids
2018: San Jose Earthquakes, Orlando City SC, Colorado Rapids
2019: FC Cincinnati, Vancouver Whitecaps, Orlando City SC

Relegation Totals:

San Jose Earthquakes/San Jose Clash: 7
New England Revolution: 6
Columbus Crew: 6
D.C. United: 6
Colorado Rapids: 6
Toronto FC: 5
Kansas City Wizards/Sporting KC: 5
New York Red Bulls/NY/NJ MetroStars: 4
Chivas USA (defunct): 4
LA Galaxy: 4
Chicago Fire: 3
Real Salt Lake: 3
Philadelphia Union: 2
Orlando City: 2
Vancouver Whitecaps: 2
Dallas Burn/FC Dallas: 2
Houston Dynamo: 1
Portland Timbers: 1
Montreal Impact: 1
FC Cincinnati: 1
Tampa Bay Mutiny (defunct): 1

Never Been Relegated

In the 24 years of MLS, only five teams have never been relegated. Three of them (Atlanta, Minneosta, LAFC) have only been in the league for 2-3 years. Miami Fusion existed from 1998-2001 before folding and would have stayed in the league in each of those seasons.

The Seattle Sounders, founded in 2009, are the only team with significant time in the league that never would have been relegated.

For comparison, only three teams (Athletic de Bilbao, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid) have never been relegated since the formation of Spain’s La Liga in 1928.

Relegated in their first year of Existence

One issue with bringing relegation to the MLS is the ability of teams to adjust to an increased level of competition. Putting aside the three teams relegated in 1996, five teams would not have survived their inaugural seasons in Major League Soccer.

FC Cincinnati (2019), Philadelphia Union (2010), Toronto FC (2007), Real Salt Lake (2005), and Vancouver Whitecaps (2011) would all have been bounced after their first year of existence. Newcomers NYCFC was saved by the goal differential tiebreak after joining MLS in 2015.

Nearly every team in the English football pyramid was formed before 1950. Most have been around since before the turn of the century.

The relegation system has been well established in Europe and fans are used to the ups and downs of divisions for teams that are often on the bubble. While it is still a significant change, there is enough good will built up for these clubs to keep pressing on.

Here in America, MLS is still in building mode. Eight teams have been added in the last five years, with two more set to join in 2021 and another two in 2022.

Relegation would hamper the ability of these new teams to succeed and build a following at the MLS level without a few years to adjust to the top division. Quickly relegated teams might never find their footing and would struggle competitively, financially and from a marketing and infrastructure standpoint.

If MLS were to institute relegation, they should include a safety net, such as a three-year safe window for new clubs before they are eligible to be relegated.

Who Would Come?

If we are examining who would be relegated from MLS, it would be prudent to see who would have joined the top division this year through promotion.

Phoenix Rising FC ran away with the 2019 USL Championship regular season title, topping the Western Conference table by 18 points and besting Eastern Conference winners Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC by 10 points.

Nashville SC were the third team to qualify for promotion, though they were already slated to join Major League Soccer for the 2020 season. The Indy Eleven would have been next in line to take an MLS spot in a 3-3 swap with the relegated teams.

As noted, there is a bit of promotion at play already, as several teams who have found success at the USL’s top level have found their own way to MLS.

Nashville was an expansion team in the USL in 2018 and stayed for just two years, finishing second in the East in 2019 before becoming the 24th MLS franchise.

FC Cincinnati joined the top division in 2019, a year after winning the regular-season title with just three losses. Cincinnati was in the USL for just three seasons, but reached the playoffs each year, and made it to the semifinals of the US Open Cup in 2017.

So Will This Actually Happen Here?

No, I don’t think that we will see relegation in American soccer, despite there being precedent and processes already in place.

What I would imagine that there isn’t a lot of, is buy-in from the owners, the players and the fans.

As I mentioned, franchise building is at an all-time high in MLS right now. Sports franchises in America are very valuable, and owners are investing time and money to build these clubs to compete at (and earn revenues from) the highest level of American soccer. They will not want to make those investments if there is a chance that their team could lose their spot at the top of the pyramid, even after a buffer period.

Major League Soccer has worked for years to get a higher level of talent into the league. But signing with last year’s MLS champion is not like signing with FC Barcelona or Manchester United, where relegation is not even a remote possibility.

The parity in the league has shown that every team is at risk of relegation from one year to the next, and that factor could affect the decision of top players to come ply their trade in America.

Finally, while it’s fun to talk about relegation and promotion here, do we really think that when an MLS team lands in the relegation zone, the fans of that club will take it lying down?

I highly doubt it. They will whine and complain, bemoaning the relegation process as stupid and unfair.

I just don’t think American fans are ready for this sort of thing. They may well never be.

What do you think? Could relegation work for US Soccer? Let us know in the comments.

Craig has spent the last ten years as a sports information professional, working for several schools across New England at the Division 3 level. A native of Peabody, Mass., Craig is a life-long Boston sports fan. He is also an avid player of fantasy football and baseball, and commissioner of the AKA Family Fantasy Football League. Like most other Turf team members, Craig has a penchant for theater, spending his high school and college years as a set designer, sound designer and theater shop worker. He became a father shortly before the coronavirus pandemic, and as such, hasn't really left his home since last December.



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