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Guest Column: The argument for promotion and relegation in MLS

Here’s how the league can make the transition to pro/rel, and why it’s good for all stakeholders

Photo montage courtesy Corey Clayton

New York City FC supporters have had quite the quiet offseason after many key cogs in the machinery of the Pigeons departed, to the point where many fans are going a bit stir-crazy as they wait for any news of new signings to replace them.

Like a young child on Christmas Day, the City faithful wake and rip open their Twitter each morning, hopefully looking for a Tom Bogert-tweeted shiny package of hope that NYCFC will keep up their lofty standards this season, extending its streak of seven consecutive MLS Cup Playoff appearances.

While signs of good NYCFC news have been slim so far (sorry, Mitja Ilenic, I’m sure you’re great…), you’ll find yourself feasting on a buffet of other interesting storylines on the side – ReynaGate, GreggGate, NWSLGate (YatesGate??), MLS Season Pass on Apple TV…err, Gate, and so on.

But it was a tweet thread last week by Fox Sports soccer host Alexi Lalas that caught my eye, and sent my thinking down the proverbial rabbit hole.

I’ve been following Major League Soccer since 2013, when NYCFC was announced as the league’s 20th franchise, and ever since, the promotion and relegation conversation has intrigued, enticed, and frustrated the league’s fan base. Supporters all see the success foreign leagues have pro/rel, to use the term of art, with multiple-tier pyramids, and yearly movement of the top and bottom clubs between the levels, and ask “Why not us? Why not here?”

Well, not here, because no pro sport in America uses this system. For a multitude of reasons.

For starters, there are no self-sufficient lower-level leagues in America with clubs or media markets that compete with top-tier clubs. All of the minor leagues for the major sports receive huge subsidies from their top tiers, either directly from the league itself (ie the NBA’s G-League), or the big league clubs fund minor league affiliates to develop their prospects (AHL, Minor League Baseball).

And let’s not forget NCAA college athletic programs that train future athletes at no cost to professional leagues. And some of those athletes are now getting name, image, and likeness deals that pay them more per year than a minimum-salary MLS player gets.

In fact, the only exception to this would be the non-MLS soccer pyramid in America, in which the United Soccer League runs with three divisions, USL Championship, USL1, and USL2. But the USL has questionable stability at its bottom levels, with teams going defunct every season, and new clubs popping up in hopeful markets to replace them at the cost of an expansion fee, rumored to be $20 million for USL Championship entry.

But these have no way to earn entry into MLS on the field, other than by building a supporter base and petitioning MLS for an expansion market — and cutting a massive expansion fee check made out to MLS commissioner Don Garber. (Be sure to dot the I’s and cross the T’s)

But the question remains, if Major League Soccer WANTED a pro/rel system, with all teams meeting their high standards for entry, could they successfully pull it off while making the current league stakeholders happy?

Yes, I think they can. Here’s an imagining of how Garber and the league’s owners could make it a reality. For fun, let’s dub the new tiers MLS1 and MLS2.

Step 1: Expand like hell for 2026

You would need a top-tier of 18 clubs in MLS1 to have a round-robin schedule of 34 matches – so let’s cap the top tier at 18 clubs for its first year in 2026.

To fund this split you’ll need a lot of capital to pass around the league’s current owners to soothe some grumbles. But six (or more?) expansion teams could fund that when they pay their $400 million-plus fees. Those sums will fill a fund with $2.4 billion or more for various needs (which we’ll get to).

But the expansion teams won’t join MLS1. Instead, all of those clubs would earn automatic entry into MLS2’s inaugural season, which will kick off in 2026.

Possible expansion markets include Las Vegas (red-hot rumor), San Diego (expected in 2024?), Sacramento, Phoenix, San Antonio, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Long Island (NY), Indianapolis, Tampa Bay, Memphis, and Louisville.

But there’s really no limit to the clubs MLS2 could add to bolster that pot of capital needed to launch the split – just cap capacity for top-tier MLS1 at 18. Put bouncers at the velvet rope, and the line to get into MLS1 starts on the right in 2026.

Step 2: Set the dividing line

In early 2024, MLS will announce that 2025 will be the Division Season for MLS1/MLS2. All 14 teams in the 2025 MLS Cup Playoffs and the four top teams of a 16-team relegation playoff will form MLS1 in 2026, which will be MLS’s 30th anniversary.

The MLS Cup Playoffs and the MLS Promotion Playoffs would run concurrently, in a two-legs-per-tie bracket format. The league will stagger the schedule so there’s a playoff match every night from either tournament for roughly six weeks from late October to early December. AppleTV’s team will be kept very busy.

For this one epic season, the MLS Cup Final, The Promotion Playoff Final, and the Promotion Third Place Match would all be single matches, all held on the same weekend at a one-time neutral site – creating a Super Bowl-like feel for this showcase event.

If there’s an MLS CONCACAF Champions League winner in 2025, they would also be automatically placed in MLS1 in 2026, reducing the Promotion Playoff to only three winners (first to third places), making the Promotion Playoff’s Third Place Match more meaningful.

Step 3: Money talks

Also in 2024, MLS would also announce sweeping changes for the 2025 Division Season to the league’s Designated Player and salary cap system. A one-time salary cap increase of 50%, plus an extra DP slot and Young Designated Player, would be available to all teams, as well as relative increases to the Targeted Allocated Money and General Allocated Money afforded to each club.

The league would also have to set its roster rules for both tiers for 2026 in advance of the Division Season. MLS1 could offer an extra 20% to its salary cap, plus additional DP slots, to its top-tier member clubs. Also, MLS1 clubs would split 55% of the MLS TV deal revenue, while MLS2 would split 45%.

This would allow current MLS owners to take a good, hard look at their balance sheets in 2024, a year before the Division Season, and decide whether they want to invest in talent to better ensure their spot in MLS1, or if they want to sell their clubs to new owners ready and willing to make such an investment in the growth of America’s fastest-rising sport (other than pickleball).

To incentivize hesitant owners’ departures from the league, MLS would offer $50 million buyout payments from the expansion fund, on top of their sale revenue, to help soften the blow.

And to further soothe the pain of those twelve MLS club owners that get dropped into MLS2 after 2025, the league would give them each $50 million out of the expansion fund to start their reinvestment to return to the top tier. After that, all 30 clubs in 2025 would then get an equal share of the remaining expansion fund monies.

Looking at my napkin estimate, the $2.4 billion expansion fee fund will account for

  • $600 million in payouts to the 12 demoted teams ($50 million each)
  • $300 million in “goodbye, and best of luck” bonuses to the former owners of the six teams that sell (an estimate)
  • $1.5 billion to be divided among the 30 clubs in 2025, or $50 million to each club

Step 4: Let’s play!

After the 2025 season, the 14 MLS Cup Playoff entrants will breathe easy now that they’re in the top tier the next year. And for the rest of the league, their MLS1 lives can still be regained with one final push in the Promotion Playoffs.

After the biggest MLS Cup weekend ever, with the MLS Cup Final, plus the Promotion Playoffs final and Third Place Match, MLS would be ready to roll out their brand-new structure in 2026 – just in time for World Cup 2026 and its hype to embrace the United States once again and pique interest in the domestic top flight.

2026 will be a whole new world

In 2026, the 18 squads in MLS1 will play a full 34-match season, with the top 10 making the MLS Cup Playoffs. The top six will have byes, there will be knock-out play-ins between the next four teams, then there will be two-leg ties until the MLS Cup Final, which will be hosted by the club with the best record.

The bottom four teams in MLS1 would play in a Relegation Playoff at the season’s end, and the losers in the semifinal and final drop down to MLS2. The winners of these two would play in a Relegation Final knockout match at MLS Cup Final Weekend, at the neutral site of the MLS Cup Final host, with the winner staying in MLS1.

In MLS2, the top two clubs earn MLS1 promotion automatically, along with the winner of the MLS2 Cup. If the MLS2 Cup winner is one of the top two that receives an automatic promotion, then a Promotion Playoff would be held between the third- and fourth-place league teams to determine the final promotion to MLS1.

OK, got all that? Yeah, it’s pie-in-the-sky and likely never to happen, right?

But to be the first American sports league to have promotion and relegation between its two tiers, even inside of the closely crafted, safe, warm and cozy bubble of MLS, would be a brave move to capture the interest of every sports fan in America. And with MLS expanding to 36 (or more) clubs, they would have a regional footprint only baseball and its vast major-minor system could match.

And that’s even BEFORE a possible merger/partnership with Liga MX. But that’s another column…

Corey Clayton (@CoreyClayton on Twitter) is a former sports journalist and newspaper editor, currently a news industry social media executive, a Founding Member STH of New York City FC in Section 110, and a charter member of The Third Rail.