The Ups and Downs of the Game (except in the USA)

Last week,  after Paris St Germain surprisingly trounced Barcelona 4-0, a friend of mine asked me what this meant for Barca’s season. This person is an avid sports fan but is a minimal follower of soccer, keeping up with the sport mainly because so many of his friends and family are involved.  I replied that , barring an amazing comeback in the return game, this finishes Barcelona’s Champion League experience for this season, but they still have a shot at winning the Spanish league title and they are in the final of the Spanish cup tournament, the Copa del Rey. This initiated a discussion of the difference between American sports and their single-objective seasons ( play league games, make playoffs, win the championship) and the multiple-objective seasons of most of the world’s soccer teams (play league (win league or avoid relegation),win cup or cups,win regional league) . When I discussed another major difference….promotion/relegation…. my friend expressed at first…surprise…and then an appreciation of the concept. “Wow, they should do that in here and in other sports”.

The idea that the bottom teams in a league should be relegated to a lower division is standard to the world’s soccer leagues along with the promotion of the best lower league teams to the next highest division. This concept is a major point of discussion among fans of the professional game here in the United States, at least concerning the men’s game. It has been a topic numerous times on virtually every soccer talk show, with views both for and against. Soccer purists tend to want promotion/relegation , mostly because it is used in the rest of the world and they consider it to be a part of the sport. But there are more concrete arguments both for and against it’s inclusion in the American professional soccer structure.

One consideration is the basic structure of the sport. As an example, even if the NFL wanted to incorporate this movement of teams at the bottom of the league, the lack of minor league professional football would be a stumbling block to any immediate implementation. But the USSF has the setup in place. Most casual American soccer fans know of the Major Soccer League, but the national organization has designated two other leagues as Division 2 level ….to complement the Division 1 MLS. The North American Soccer League (NASL) and the United Soccer League (USL) are Division 2 and could act as ladder steps in a promotion/relegation system. So, if the leading figures of the sport wanted that setup, they could implement it.What are the pros and cons to joining the rest of the world in this type of league organization?


Excitement: American professional sports leagues attempt to build excitement during the season by dividing their leagues into divisions or conferences and qualifying a specific number of teams for post season play.If the leagues are lucky, the competing teams are very even in competition and the races for playoff spots go to the last game. But in most years there are at least a few teams ( and in some years it is more than a few) that are out of the competition for the post-season long before the end of the regular season. For those teams and their fans the season drags on and occasionally teams are even accused of losing games purposely in order to increase their draft positions. But in the world’s soccer leagues the bottom teams drop into the next lower division and the battle to avoid relegation goes on , often to the last day. In the English Premier League this season, going into the February 25 games , there is only 7 points separating the bottom 7 sides. The last 3 teams at the end of the season are going down, so although these teams have no real chance of winning the league, the battle to maintain a place in the top division is just as compelling as the championship race.

The bottom of the English league is very tight at this point.

The bottom of the English league is very tight at this point.

Minimal Complacency:

Even if a sports organization does not achieve success on the field or court, the mere existence of that organization as a major league member may be enough to satisfy its owners. American sports have been continually populated by franchises who didn’t care about winning. The basketball Clippers, the football Cardinals, etc were not-so-shining examples of sports teams who continually occupied the lower rungs of their league ladders and , by all actions, just didn’t give a hoot about it. But they did care about their place as major league teams and about getting the benefits that come from playing at those levels. International soccer teams can’t be so complacent about their results. If they want to remain in the highest divisions of their sport or even in whatever division they occupy, they need to achieve some level of competence.

The American Dream

Ironically, its the ability to rise through the ranks, to start from scratch and achieve the highest levels, that constitutes the proverbial American Dream and is a possibility for international soccer franchises, but not for those in the USA unless an expansion spot opens up. Example: since the 1920’s an small Italian team, Empoli, toiled in the lower divisions of Italian soccer. Empoli is a town about the size of Utica, NY. Two years ago, Empoli reached the top level in Italy, Serie A, and last season finished in the middle of the division. Example: the English second division, the Championship, presently has two teams in the top 3 that have never been in the top league in the country. One of them, Brighton, didn’t even have a stadium 20 years ago. Yet, they both stand excellent chances of reaching the Premier League next year. This type of advancement offers fans the opportunity to support and dream for their teams , even if small and “minor league”, in a way not possible for small club fans in the US.

Brighton and Huddersfield could reach the Premier League for the first time next season.

Brighton and Huddersfield could reach the Premier League for the first time next season.


Increased Stratification

As we have discussed, the multiple goals of the typical international soccer league can create more excitement and interest during the whole season for more teams than the single objective setup used in the USA for most of our sports. And we haven’t even mentioned the additional goal of qualifying for regional competitions the next season. These competitions often carry the biggest prizes of all… championships of  whole continents. But the additional objectives can also produce a satisfaction with lower achievements. Faced with possible relegation, fans of many teams will be happy with remaining in the present league of a team, especially if it is the top division in the country. While some organizations strive for the highest goals, others are happy with lesser achievements. American sports use limitations to create comparatively even competition as epitomized by the NFL’s “on any given Sunday” mantra. Drafts and salary caps can give any smart franchise the ability to win and make it difficult to achieve year after year. Soccer in the rest of the world typically has none of these limits. If an organization can obtain enough financial backing and is smart in their acquisitions, they can compete at the top year after year. As a result, many leagues consist of teams at mediocre levels of performance which seem to satisfy the team and its fans. One wonders how American fans would react to a team that aspires to the “achievement” of not getting relegated each year. Which brings up another possible drawback here in our country.

Growth of the Sport in the USA

One of the success stories of the MLS has been Orlando City. The Lions have drawn terrific crowds despite not qualifying for the playoffs in its short two year history and playing in a less-than-perfect facility. But here is the problem……Orlando is not a new team. The Orlando Lions played in lower divisions for years, doing so very successfully on the field and producing a small (compared to MLS crowds) but avid fan base. The presence of an existing franchise helped get Orlando the expansion slot coveted by other cities. So why the sudden jump in interest and the accompanying crowds? Unfortunately it wasn’t the sport alone, it was the major league nature of the team. If Orlando City were to be relegated back to the lower divisions where it came from, what would happen to it’s support? Back to 5,000 fans a game from the 31,000 the team averaged last year? What would happen to any of the MLS franchises given a minor league scenario? Soccer is not the cultural institution in this country that it is around the world.

60,000 fans attended Orlando City's opening game last year

60,000 fans attended Orlando City’s opening game last year

MLS owners are not inclined to take the chance that minor league play means drastic reductions in crowds and interest in their teams. The chance of promotion/relegation becoming a reality here in the USA is very small, if nonexistent, at this time. Perhaps, if the sport grows to where large crowds and successful marketing are possible regardless of the level of a team’s competition …then this system… used throughout the world, might become a reality. But that is a very big MIGHT.








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