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.