Soccer, or more commonly known around the world as Futbol, is the most popular sport in the world. When the World Cup is on, people worldwide stop what they’re doing and watch. However, in the United States, it’s just that. For the World Cup, everyone in the US watches, but most don’t take a second to look at the MLS. Fans in the US follow other leagues and more popular teams, such as, FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool FC, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Manchester United, Juventus, and the list could go on and on.
The question we ask when looking at the lack of popularity in the MLS starts with how it’s set up. When you look at the structure, you can ask yourself, what is the MLS lacking? Truthfully it’s simple, a relegation system and legitimacy. In every major league worldwide, there is a relegation system. Finish last? You’re dropped to the second-tier league. Finish with the most points? You win the league. Cut, dry, and straightforward. However, it’s unlikely that the MLS goes through with a second league or a relegation system.
This is unfortunate, but here is why a relegation system would prompt more fans in the US and worldwide to take the MLS seriously and not just as a retirement league. For this argument, I’m going to use the system that is in German football, the Bundesliga.
As it currently stands, there are three major leagues in German football with several other leagues down below, which also hold the possibility for promotion and relegation. The same applies in various other leagues worldwide, but with less or more “major leagues.” For example, the Premier League in England has four major leagues, and La Liga in Spain has two. Let’s break the Bundesliga, 2. Bundesliga, and 3. Liga down piece by piece and show examples of how this might work in the MLS.
-Top German league
-Current champion: Bayern Munich
-The first place wins the league, 17 & 18 place get demoted, 16 plays a playoff game to stay up top.
The Bundesliga doesn’t compare to Spain’s La Liga or England’s Premier League when it comes to worldwide stature. However, German giants Bayern Munich won five trophies, including the Champions League, during 2020. The 2020 UCL win put Bayern as one of four clubs to win six or more UCL titles. The German league is also still considered one of the top five leagues in the world. Unless you go to Twitter, where everyone calls it a “farmers league,” I guess they haven’t seen Serie A yet. When we evaluate the table from this season, this is how the standings in the bottom-3 look like on Matchday 9.
As we currently stand just eight games in, if the season had to end today 1. FC Koln and FC Schalke 04 would be automatically relegated down to the 2. Bundesliga as they hold the 17 & 18 spots on the table. This would also mean that Arminia Bielefeld would also face a playoff relegation fight to stay up top. The MLS likes to make things complicated when it comes to standings, but if we took all of the teams and found the bottom three teams from this past season, FC Cincinnati and the Houston Dynamo would be automatically relegated with D.C United fighting to stay afloat.
-Second-tier German league
-Current champion/promoted: Arminia Bielefeld
-Follows similar rules to the Bundesliga
I ask you to stay with me a little here as the names start to get a little harder to pronounce. The top two leagues in Germany have played the same amount of games at seven ahead of Matchday 9. If we took the table as it is now, Hamburg SV and Grether Furth would be instantly promoted in place of Mainz and Schalke, and Vfl Osnabruck would play Bielefeld in the playoff to decide who goes up or stays put. There isn’t much to compare directly to the MLS with the bottom two German leagues. However, they’re essential for developing and promoting Germany’s young talent, which is key to the leagues success. Young talent developing in a separate professional league bodes well for the five major leagues, it could do the same in the MLS.
-Last hope for teams in the major leagues before a demotion to the amateur leagues
-Current champion/promoted: FC Bayern Munich II (the Bayern Youth Team…)
It had the same situation as the first two leagues. Winners go up, and losers go down. In this case, the losers would be demoted to the fourth tier of German football. The only difference is that the bottom four of the 20 club league go down to the fourth tier. No playoffs for them to stay. It’s an automatic relegation. The top two teams do get automatically promoted, and the third team would face off for promotion. We did see an abnormal table last season when FC Bayern Munich II, the youth team for Bayern, won the league. However, due to rules from the governing soccer body in Germany, they’re not allowed to be promoted any further than the third division.
What benefits does a relegation system provide?
Why does it matter if a team gets relegated? Essentially why should you care about relegation or promotion. Well, It’s a situation that would be uncommon to major sports leagues in the US and something that even LAFC coach Bob Bradley would welcome.
There is a certain passion, as most fans of teams in these worldwide leagues will tell you. The feeling of having the last matchday of the season mean relegation, promotion, or winning the title is a feeling like no other. This goes from fans to the players. The fans build a connection with their team. They embody the club and everything it stands for. The passion they hold for each match is important no matter what the competition.
If the MLS requires the playoffs, then create a separate cup for the top four teams. Running each game as a two-legged affair (except for the final) with teams getting one home and away game. With away goals making the difference as they do in every league worldwide.
When we related this to the 2019 MLS season, LAFC would’ve won their first MLS title, and the “MLS Cup” would be played between LAFC, NY City, Atlanta United, and the Seattle Sounders. LAFC would’ve faced the Sounders in a 1 vs. 4 seed matchup both home and away. NY City and Atlanta facing off in the 2 vs. 3 seed matchup with the same home and away fixture. Also creating more money, just saying. Make teams earn their spot in the league’s history and don’t allow a 7th place team into a playoff while undeserving.
Breaking it all down:
For this same situation as the German leagues, we would be breaking down the MLS into three (or four) separate leagues instead of their one-tier league. Each team would play each other twice, and at the end of the season, the team at the top of the table wins the MLS title. It makes each game important during the season and, as the season progresses, leaves little room for error.
The USL Championship already has a system in place with multiple leagues. The MLS could adopt the USL into its system while replacing the youth teams for each MLS team and make a youth league for the MLS. They could even keep the four league system.
- MLS Championship
- MLS League One
- MLS League Two (Or just a youth league with their own cup but no relegation)
This would allow the MLS to keep a top tier league and include the chance for poor placing teams to be relegated to the championship. Not only this, but the US Open Cup already includes both USL teams and MLS teams. Why have a cup that is including both leagues but no relegation?
There are currently 26 teams in the MLS, with expansion on its way with four more teams, and realistically we’d want the league to be around the 17-20 team range. All of this would be extremely difficult to accomplish, and it would be hard to break down the monetary distribution for the league(s), but it’s possible.
Interest in the MLS is low in the states and worldwide. Again, it’s considered a retirement league to just about every country in the world. Wayne Rooney came here and essentially retired before moving to Derby County as a player-manager. David Beckham retired with the LA Galaxy, Thierry Henry with the NY Red Bulls, and the league thought it claimed its most recent victim in Zlatan Ibrahimović. The latter played two seasons with the Galaxy before returning to A.C Milan for a second stint in the winter transfer window. Star players from Europe come here to chill out, relax, score some goals, make some money, and retire. Even Gonzalo Higuaín and Blaise Matuidi have no European future and are now Inter Miami C.F. players.
In an excellent article by Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune, he mentions that money is starting to entice the world and, most notably, South American players to come to the MLS and eventually move on to Europe. Let’s say the MLS moves from a retirement league to a developmental league with more reputation and prestige than before. Well, it’s had its success in players like midfielder Miguel Almiron and winger/full-back Alphonso Davies who both moved to Europe in the last few years from the MLS. Almiron moved to the Premier League from Atlanta United and Davies to the Bundesliga from the Vancouver Whitecaps. Davies, a Canadian international, is 19 years old and the starting left-back for Bayern. The MLS can do it, but the biggest question is whether they can keep the casual fan.
When Zlatan made his move to the Galaxy, he was on nightly talk shows, and he instantly became the face of the MLS while players like Carlos Vela and Josef Martinez had better overall seasons. Zlatan was the star with the Galaxy and even mentioned he was, “a Ferrari amongst Fiats”. He left, and now outside of LA who is truly following the Galaxy, or even better, did you hear anything from them at all this season?
They brought in Chicharito to replace that star talent they lost in Zlatan but still lack defense, which was a significant flaw the Galaxy had last season. Which is another problem the MLS faces when building teams. There is too much focus on star power and not the team. What more could Zlatan do without a team around him? They continued their lackluster performances this season without Zlatan, who is back in great form with A.C Milan scoring two-goals against Napoli this past weekend.
To use the City of Miami as an example of why the MLS lacks in its popularity, I ask you to take a second and think about the types of jerseys you see in stores. What are the team jerseys most commonly worn? The top two teams are, without a doubt, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. Ask any kid who loves soccer what their favorite team is, and it’s most likely one of those two top teams in La Liga. You could honestly throw in Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool F.C, Bayern Munich, Juventus, and Paris Saint Germain to the mix. Especially with most of those teams collaborating with shoes, clothing lines, etc. They’re more popular in the US than the MLS is by a mile.
All of these teams do US tours, and each time they get ideal audiences. Barcelona and Madrid played an El Classico game in Miami, and the crowd was huge. Mind you, it was just a preseason game. Relegation is not why these teams are popular, but their league gets credit for the competition and how every single game matters. The same with the Premier League and the Bundesliga. Each dropped point matters, each mistake, every missed goal, they all provide context for what happens in a team’s season. Currently, the MLS has no reason for teams to panic or even care what happens if they finish last. Adopting a relegation system will ultimately provide more competitive games, bring legitimacy to this “retirement league,” and make each game matter more.
Helping United States soccer grow:
Finally, we finish with one of the bigger issues. In the United States there is a big issue with the men’s team producing soccer stars. This is an issue in the MLS and how soccer is treated in the states. As it currently stands, the US team has many promising players, and most of them are playing in the Bundesliga (or have before). Top young prospects like Giovanni Reyna and Josh Sargent play in the Bundesliga right now. Reyna just recently signed a new 5-year deal with Borussia Dortmund and Sargent played a huge roll in the 1-1 draw against Bayern this past weekend.
One of the most popular and successful of the current young stars, Christian Pulisic, plays with Chelsea in the Premier League after moving last summer from Dortmund. Even Weston McKinnie moved on loan from FC Schalke 04 to Juventus. US soccer prospects are moving to Germany to make a living for themselves, and rightfully so. The US gives them no path to make a name for themselves here.
Top US prospects have grown and have shown the ability to get their name out there and make the most of their opportunities. All are playing outside of the country without any clear development provided in the US right now. They’re also learning the system they will hopefully play through for the rest of their lives. Having a league in their backyard that provides quality football and is respected worldwide would help a younger generation of players fall in love with soccer and develop at an earlier age.
There is a need for an ability to show a younger generation of people in the US that they can be a successful star in soccer and allowing them to do it in their backyard is the chance of a lifetime. We had Dempsey, Donovan, and Howard in recent years, but none were as successful internationally as Pulisic is now. Create a relegation system, bring legitimacy into the league, and give young stars the chance to succeed here.