If the MLS is to Ever Compete, a Structural Overhaul is the Only Way

Seattle Sounders from stocksnap

On the final day of the European football season, fans do not know where to look.

As each fixture kicks off at the same time, television viewers can flick between ten separate matches. Tensions reach a crescendo until they erupt into a public outpouring of euphoria and despair, as the whistle is blown for the final time that year.

The euphoria is a familiar sight to any American sports fan. A cup is lifted, a champion is crowned. Sport would not be sport if we could not crown a champion.

The despair is not so familiar. Or at least, not this kind of despair. In European football, it is the staple image of the season’s conclusion. The image is usually a fan sitting alone in an emptying stadium. Wearing the jersey he put on that day with hope and optimism, he sits motionless with red eyes, as if he is stuck to his seat. Having finished at the wrong end of the table, his team has been relegated, ejected from the league. Next season they will play in an inferior division, it will remain that way unless they are promoted back. The team will see less money, fewer fans, and far less glamour.

If the MLS is ever to be considered as one of the world’s top football leagues, it must abolish its current structure and introduce this relegation and promotion system, mirroring the top European leagues.

The term “relegation” is largely foreign in American sports. You could hardly imagine the Yankees being demoted to the minor leagues after a bad season. If relegation did exist in American sport, I’m sure that the phrase “The Cleveland Browns” would by now be long vanished from most sporting vocabularies.

Nor has it ever existed in Major League Soccer (MLS), the USA’s top division since its foundation in 1995. When it was founded there were ten teams in the league, not enough for U.S. Soccer to establish a relegation and promotion structure. Instead, the MLS followed its ice-hockey, American football, basketball and baseball counterparts in creating one finite league with two conferences and a playoff system.

Now, more than twenty years later, the MLS has grown to 23 teams, with another three to be added in the coming two years, more than enough for two tiers.

To understand the MLS’s dilemma, you need to understand that it simply cannot be compared to the MLB, NFL, NBA or NHL. The markets are too different. In each of the “big four” American sports, there is no compelling need to improve the quality of the major league, as that league faces no serious competition from abroad. The MLS does not just face competition abroad but is dwarfed by that competition. For example, in 2017, MLS games broadcasted on Fox drew an average of 263,000 viewers. By contrast, NBC’s broadcast of English Premier League games reached an audience of 449,000 per game.

This asks the question, “Why are Americans choosing to watch football played in another continent when they have their own league that seems to be growing by the year?” The answer is simple; the quality in the European leagues is far greater. Up until this point, the MLS’s solution has been to keep adding new franchises. Since 2010, nine teams have been formed and added to the league. After the impending additions of the Miami, Cincinnati, and Nashville franchises, the league will have added 12 teams in just over a decade.

Back in 1995, when the league was created, this may have worked. At the time, a large proportion of teams’ revenue was generated by ticket sales. More franchises meant more tickets sold. But for long-term growth, this no longer matters. The real money is in broadcasting deals. In the 2016-2017 season, for instance, English Premier League teams collectively earned over $5.8 billion from TV money alone. To improve the standard of the league, the MLS needs to follow the money. To acquire big-money broadcasting deals, the league must become more competitive.

And what is the most effective way of making the MLS more competitive? By creating a top division with solely the best teams in it, where the country’s best talent play closely contested fixtures.

Supporters of the MLS would point to the ever-more-frequent arrivals of veteran international stars in its ranks as a mark of progress. Indeed, it was once inconceivable that the MLS could draw reputable names such as Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who have both moved to the U.S. in the last year. However, this has not caused a marked improvement in the quality of the division, but rather an imbalance of talent. While the number of high-profile players in the MLS has more-or-less increased in sync with the total number of teams in the league, the players the league has attracted have been almost exclusively attackers. This is not surprising; the league wants high-profile players who can make headlines, and high-profile players are not prepared to move to a lower quality league if they will not do so. Defensive imports are, therefore, scarce.

As the MLS adds more franchises, the league requires a larger pool of home-grown defensive players. Quality defenders are now spread thin between the MLS’s 23 teams, and each time an attacking star arrives, this becomes more evident. Goals are flying in, and therefore the games are not closely fought but decided by large scorelines seen more often in baseball or ice-hockey. If you look at last season’s goals-per-game ratios in the top European leagues, the numbers are remarkably similar (2.67 in the English Premier League, 2.68 in Italy’s Serie A, and 2.69 in Spain’s La Liga). In the MLS, this figure is significantly greater: 3.15 goals-per-game.

If the MLS were to introduce a relegation and promotion system, splitting their teams into a first and second division, the top division would have no need for sub-standard defenders. The games would, in turn, become closer, and the league more competitive.

After all, people follow sport for the competition. Without winners or losers, there would be no fans. People often start following a team when they see them fighting for silverware. Right now, in the MLS, there is not enough fighting. The final has been contested by the same two teams for the last two years. The newly formed teams at the bottom of the league have little to compete for. If those teams were fighting for promotion, or to stay in the top division, people would be more compelled to follow them.

It would be easy for the MLS commissioners to continue to follow the league structure of the major American sports, but it would also be arrogant.

When you have the majority of the world’s top talent in your league, you do not need a relegation and promotion system. However, when the world’s top best footballers play in the leagues against which you are competing for viewers, you cannot rely on a one-division league structure that is unproven in any other major football league.

Instead of simply increasing the quantity of teams, the MLS must take bold steps to improve the quality in its game, and a promotion and relegation system would be a start in harnessing football’s still largely untapped potential in the United States.


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