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USL rebrand sets league up perfectly to eventually implement promotion and relegation


The USL announced a pretty significant rebranding of all three of their leagues on Tuesday afternoon, and everything about it puts the league in a position to experiment with promotion and relegation at the professional level here in the United States in the future.

Pro/rel hasn’t seen any traction at the professional level for many reasons, mostly the money investors spend on MLS clubs with the promise of remaining a profitable, major league sports team. The other significant cause is the lack of organization below MLS and the huge gap in finances and talent from MLS to the lower divisions. The new USL branding and league system is trying to fix both those problems, setting itself up perfectly to wade into the pro/rel waters.

As for the USL’s new branding itself, it mimics that of England’s Football League system in almost every way, right down to the fact that the real top division more or less runs the whole pyramid as the Premier League does across the pond.

The top level will be the USL Championship and will occupy the second division in the American professional league system. League One, formerly known as USLD3, will be the professional division right below it in the third tier and what has been known as the Premier Development League (PDL) will be rebranded as USL League Two. The only real differences are that League Two will still be an amateur league focussed on developing players looking to go pro and the lack of a promotion and relegation system between leagues.

But the potential implementation of pro/rel isn’t as far off as once thought. The league even addressed the possibility on its FAQ regarding the new setup:

“Currently the United Soccer League is focused on establishing a successful new third division in USL League One to help fill out the professional U.S. soccer structure, which is a necessary precursor to any implementation of a promotion and relegation system. That said, the new structure does lend itself well to some form of promotion and relegation in the future,” the site reads.

Now, don’t get excited thinking that the league is dead set on getting such a system rolling right away. A few things still need to happen to make it truly work and all those things will take several years to iron out, but the start of a pro/rel system is already in place.

First, and foremost, the USL needs to stabilize itself. There has been a rush of expansion over the past few years, but there have been quite a few clubs folding during that time as well. Just the past couple winters have seen the Rochester Rhinos go on hiatus with money problems, the Wilmington Hammerheads folding outright, and MLS teams like the Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact being unable to operate successful teams at that level.

That said, the USL Championship and USL League Two are already highly successful leagues. It’s only the brand new USL League One that truly needs to prove itself. They’ve targeted small markets that lack professional soccer like Madison, Wisconsin and Greenville, South Carolina, but it’s hard to tell if pro soccer can work in these small towns. As it is, the league already hasn’t gotten it right everywhere. Plenty of controversy has arisen from their confirmed club in Chattanooga, Tennessee and a potential one in Lansing, Michigan thanks to the treatment of already established clubs in the area.

However, there’s no reason to believe the league can’t rise above a couple of missteps thanks to some well established teams joining the fold. MLS reserve squads Toronto FC II and Orlando City B have already committed to the league, the Richmond Kickers are self-relegating themselves from the Championship into League One, and the Rochester Rhinos plan to end their hiatus and join the third tier for the 2020 season. These teams are capable of giving the newcomers to the league a boost much the same way adding MLS-2 sides to the USL propelled them to where they are today.

Once there’s stability, the league and clubs need to devise how the system would actually work. If they decide to give pro/rel a shot, don’t expect it to be something intense that sees three or four teams moving out of a division each year. Expect it to start off slow, with perhaps a last-place team in the Championship dropping down and being replaced with the winners of League One. The teams currently in the Championship spent a lot of time and money to get to where they are and they wouldn’t agree to a system that could easily see all of that effort thrown away in one bad season.

League Two probably wouldn’t be involved right away, either. It needs to close the gap between amateur and professional if they hope to participate. The PDL currently boasts 74 teams across 11 regional divisions that primarily use college players in a short season that lasts from May to August. A promoted club would suddenly see most its players unable to join a professional league and the length of its season more than double in size. This increasing operating expenses without the promise of enough added revenue. That’s an issue that will take many years to fix, but as the system develops, it isn’t impossible to ask.

The important thing is the basic framework is now in place for the USL to eventually try a pro/rel system. It has a successful top division and their lower leagues show a lot of promise despite a few flaws. All three leagues are united under one administration, which can ensure clubs work together to ensure the success of the entire system regardless of which division they play in. Adding promotion and relegation won’t shock the system once it’s all stable and established.

If you happen to be one of the many soccer fans out there who constantly clamors for pro/rel here in the United States, keep an eye on the USL and its new structure. It might be just what American soccer needs to finally adopt the system used by almost every other soccer country in the world.


    • bring the whole family. park close to the stadium. inexpensive concessions. sit near the touch lines. opportunities to let your kids meet the players. and pretty good soccer on the field if you’re not being a total snob about it.

      i highly recommend it.

  1. This is great news for soccer in the US. We will probably never see pro/rel in MLS because of how the league is structured. But if the lower leagues consolidate like this it could make for some unique and exciting soccer at the d2 and d3 level. This will provide a platform for many more young players to play pro soccer and for fan bases to grow in markets outside the biggest cities. Great potential. Now if only we see an article proclaiming the Crew is staying in Columbus…

    • They will be in Austin if not next year it will be the following year. The owner wants it the commissioner wants it, and the city is at least ok with it.

    • +1 agree, jb. and do any “old” people here remember contract negotiations between the players’ union and the league a few contract negotiations ago? especially with regards to free agency? remember don garber and several key owners saying “no way”; “never” to free agency in mls? and then it happened. the players got free agency. true, with limitations (after 8 years Playing in the league, for example). but still, for some, free agency. so hey there’s hope for pro/rel in mls, too, maybe? anything can happen. yes?

    • Pro/rel can work at the minor league level because less is at stake and the fans are probably less elastic to the quality of the opposition any given year. I mean, the implication of this idea is one minor league team in one market is good as another.

  2. Pro/Rel is not happening, probably ever. It is too much of a financial risk for current members of the league. Yes, its a financial hit in other countries, but the tradition of the system outweigh the concern. The MLS single entity system just makes it so impossible. MLS would have to purchase every player from PDL through MLS, or it would have to dissolve its contract structure.

  3. I’m glad we have positive and constructive comments on this extremely important development tool which is pro/rel. It can’t work like it does in England but it can work within a system based on geography and finances/attendance. I believe MLS will go to pro/rel in the future as well but it can’t happen until that league reaches 38 clubs. That looks like another 8-10 years to achieve in IMHO.

    • because everyone talks about splitting mls up into mls 1 and mls 2 with some kind of pro/rel between them, yes?

  4. think of wrestling or boxing. athletes compete generally by WEIGHT CLASS. the feather weight boxing champion, for example, does not get “promoted” and box in the middle weight class the next season, does he? conversely, the middle weight boxer with the worst record at the end of the season does not get “relegated” and box in the feather weight class the next season, does he? in fact, the only way for a wrestler or a boxer to change weight classes is TO GAIN OR LOSE WEIGHT.

    to classify soccer clubs, instead of weight, which club metric might be used? how about club “average attendance”?

    this is what i am proposing. it’s similar to wrestling and boxing and it’s different than soccer pro/rel in most other countries. i propose the following:
    1) the usl choose a metric to be used to classify their clubs. suppose they choose “average attendance”.
    2) the usl collects “average attendance” information from each and every usl club AT EVERY LEVEL.
    3) every year, one week after the seasons end and all winners lift their respective cups, the usl will review the “average attendance” information once again FOR EVERY CLUB AT EVERY LEVEL.
    4) based on the fact that some clubs’ attendance figures would have gone up and others’ would have gone down, the usl would in some specific cases PROMOTE OR RELEGATE CLUBS up or down one level in their system.
    5) the key point here: notice that in this implementation, pro/rel HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH WINNING OR LOSING. IT IS ONLY BASED ON CHANGES IN THE MEASURED CLUB METRIC (in this example it is “average attendance”).

    • let the champion usl league 2 club (pdl) lift the trophy AND STAY IN LEAGUE 2 (pdl) NEXT YEAR. why? as explained by joe hojnacki in the article, the reasons are of different lengths and therefore the league 2 (pdl) clubs really need to stay where they are.

      similarly, let the champion side in league 1 lift their trophy and – if their “average attendance” did not increase greatly – then LET THE CLUB STAY IN LEAGUE 1 AND COMPETE THERE AGAIN NEXT YEAR.

    • similarly, if a club has “average attendance” above the threshold for the usl championship, say that threshold is 10,000 or more per game; and suppose that club finishes the championship season with the worst record, but maintained an “average attendance” of 10,000 or more per game, THEN LET THIS CLUB REMAIN IN THE CHAMPIONSHIP AGAIN NEXT SEASON.

    • this kind of pro/rel i recommend. call it “criteria-based pro/rel”, “managed pro/rel” or “classification pro/rel”. advantages: clubs compete against other clubs with similar resources (the system produces “fair fights”).

      • So NYRB II who is in roughly 15th place by performance and has almost unlimited resources would get relegated because no one goes to their games. Pittsburgh is in 3rd place in the Eastern Conference but has bad attendance so they get relegated? Las Vegas would be in line for promotion because they have good attendance but the team is awful. What your suggesting is like saying the top 64 attendance teams in the NCAA get to go to the tournament regardless of record.

    • johnny_razor, correct, that is my suggestion for usl pro/rel.

      when ny red bulls 2 grow tired of playing in their “attendance class” then they can use their great resources to get more hinies into seats and get promoted and play in a higher “attendance class” (where, i agree with you, they probably really belong).

      i have no sympathy for these low attendance mls 2 teams, do any of you guys?

    • johnny_razor, yes, pittsburgh would probably be perennial threats to win the title after they get relegated down one level into their “attendance class”. who knows? winning the title a few times just might bring more fans into the seats. if the usl would make the “attendance promotion threshold” public, can you imagine the viral hashtag campaigns that pittsburgh fans would create? similar to (where was it, cincinnatti?) “fill the bowl” campaign or lafc’s home game “black out” (everyone wears a black t-shirt to the games) etc. i think think the pittsburgh fans would 1) WANT PROMOTION and 2) “get” the CLEAR CONNECTION (attendance=promotion) and they would know just exactly what they need to do to make that happen. can you imagine the organic tifo that would come spontaneously and naturally out of the fan base in pittsburgh? i think it would be something AWESOME to behold. and when the attendance threshold would be reached, and promotion granted, the fans in pittsburgh would CELEBRATE and know that THEY REALLY EARNED IT. and i think the fans and the club would CHERISH IT and work together to KEEP ATTENDANCE UP so they NEVER LOSE IT.

      i mean think about it. i think it would be AWESOME!

    • promotion generally means more profit for the club owners (MUCH better tv contracts, selling more tickets=more revenue). so obviously the club would 100% support any organic fan efforts to get more people to come to games. i mean if the goal is “let’s get x people into the stadium at every home game this year” the club would be 100% supportive of this effort and you would have a situation that is AWESOME TO BEHOLD (ownership and supporters groups working together to achieve a common goal) and probably CANNOT FAIL.

    • johnny_razor, yes, i guess las vegas would then feel great pressure from fans to field a much better team. how, then, would the las vegas management respond to this pressure? certainly, they would have some hard decisions to make. but i think we all know that blocking off half the bowl to drop down into a lower “attendance class” is a cop out. and i don’t believe they (or any) club would ever do that. if they can fill their bowl, they can field a good team. that’s what i say. “the ball would be in their court” as they saying goes.

      • Of course attendance doesn’t actually prove revenue either. One club may charge $20 a seat while another $8. Another club may give away a bunch of free tickets. Most of these clubs also must sign leases, a club that leases a high school stadium is going gross more than the club leasing a baseball stadium or college stadium. Just because a team has better attendance doesn’t mean they are making or spending the most. Red Bull II will never compete for attendance with cities without an MLS team spending money to market that would wasting money.

    • johnny_razor, not sure about the basketball, but, you certainly seem to understand my suggestion for usl soccer pro/rel.

  5. A bold step forward that signals the beginning of the end of the “wildcat” days of lower division soccer. The pieces are being set, the path is clearer. Kudos to the USL. Now let demographics time bring the revenue and stability. I predict 5-7 years and we see pro/rel between USL Championship and USL One.

    • My own sense is that in MLS pro/rel will happen when MLS starts hitting 30+ teams…and starts pushing for 40. What I think could easily happen then is that you see the league decide to either remain divided between East and West…or, more likely, to divide between MLS 1 and MLS 2…with maybe the few teams needed to flesh out MLS 2 being provided by promoted USL Championship sides…and a guaranteed “hard floor” of MLS teams that have paid their franchise fees not being allowed to fall below MLS 2…no matter how bad they are.

      Over time, even that will probably be eroded, as more franchises buy in. The will to go full pro/rel is there, and it’ll eventually happen…but I think there’s a lot of steps between here and there. But this new USL structure is a good start.

      • +1 yeah i think it’s possible except for “single entity” as johnny_razor points out and the expansion fees that you and johnny_razor both point out. yeah, in mls, the first clubs paid 10 million to join the league, now it’s up to i read 150 million. pretty big difference, yeah? so as you said, how to resolve that issue? i think in order to relegate a club, the league will have to GIVE THE MONEY BACK (the expansion fee that was paid, whatever amount it was). how else to resolve it?

      • refund the difference. suppose the expansion fee for mls 1 is 150 million and the expansion fee for mls 2 is 50 million. then to relegate an mls 1 club to mls 2 (suppose the paid 150 million) then i think the league needs to give them the difference, 100 million. do you guys also think so?

    • this would work if it also worked the other way: if when the league would promote an mls 2 club to mls 1, if the league would collect a 100 million “promotion fee” from that club (if they could afford it). then if one club goes up and another one goes down, then the league could basically just give the promotion fee from the club going up to the club going down as their refund.


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