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Will USL Pro/Rel vote give the league an edge MLS lacks?

Select provides the official match ball for the USL Championship
Courtesy New York Red Bulls

The SoccerWarz™ never end.

The United States soccer system is potentially heading for its biggest shift since the formation of Major League Soccer in 1996. Last night, Tom Bogert and Jeff Rueter (thanks for the follow on Twitter btw) of The Athletic reported that the United Soccer League (USL) is set to hold a vote on the implementation of promotion and relegation, commonly known as Pro/Rel. The system would take effect within the USL’s lower division men’s leagues, which includes the USL Championship (D2, 24 teams) and USL League One (D3, 12 teams).

No modern professional soccer league in the United States, either men’s or women’s, has ever implemented Pro/Rel.

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USL Pro/Rel vote to be held next month

According to the article, the actual vote will not be on implementing promotion and relegation immediately. Instead the vote at the USL’s board of governors meetings on August 9 and 10 in Colorado Springs, CO, is more of a statement of intent. It will “confirm whether ownership at the leagues’ clubs has enough collective interest” in moving forward towards the new structure.

In essence, the vote boils down to “Are we still down to move in on this?” rather than working out the details.

Pending the vote results – sources are optimistic, but not certain that it will pass – a new three-level structure could be a reality as soon as 2024. The article also claims that next season’s USL results could be used to determine where teams will be in the newly created system.

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Flirting with Pro/Rel for years

The USL has not been a stranger to the topic of Pro/Rel. Following the then-named United Soccer League’s jump from Division 3 to 2 in 2017, former league president Jake Edwards wasn’t shy to discuss the system’s potential implementation. The league was planning the launch of USL League One at the time, and the idea of connecting the two first surfaced in 2018.

“I think it would be very interesting to look at pro-rel between those two divisions,” Edwards said to the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. “We certainly could do it now and I think there’s an interest to do it among our board.

“I think that’s going to take a little bit of time. We’ll get that done, and then I think as we’re doing that, we’re going to look at integration opportunities. Then, beyond that, if the structure is in place and lends itself for it [Pro/Rel], then it’s absolutely a possibility.”

Edwards regularly reiterated this point during his tenure as president, including in a 2019 article with the late Grant Wahl. Edwards stepped down from his position earlier this year and later joined Huddersfield Town AFC as CEO.

At the league’s mid-year meetings in 2021, the organization formally proposed working toward incorporating promotion and relegation between the USL Championship and USL League One.

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Will the USL Pro/Rel outlast MLS?

The idea behind implementing Pro/Rel is two-fold for the USL. Firstly, it would differentiate the league system from Major League Soccer, the sole Division 1 league in the United States. Having merit-based promotion and relegation is something MLS would have many issues actually implementing, meaning the USL would be unique to have it.

“USL is in a great position because it can adopt promotion/relegation,” said one USL owner in the Athletic article. “MLS have backed themselves into a corner because how do you tell San Diego that they’re going to pay $500 million dollars (for an expansion fee) and maybe will get relegated?”

Second, it could help the league’s long-term survival. One anonymous USL owner in the article goes on to explain that MLS “will destroy USL long-term” if the two leagues continue on their current paths.

Essentially both leagues use the franchise model to bring professional soccer to metro areas. Historically, when MLS entered a market, the powerful league always superseded USL teams. For example, Charlotte, Saint Louis, and Austin are now dominated by recently-added MLS clubs.

The Charlotte Independence, which currently competes in USL League One and is averaging 1,854 fans per game, which the fourth-lowest attendance in the 12-team league. The other two clubs either bought into the MLS expansion effort (Saint Louis FC) or left because they knew it would be pointless to compete in the same market (Austin Bold).

The source goes on to say that the implementation of Pro/Rel could see USL attempt to acquire Division 1 sanctioning down the line.

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A three-tier system

According to The Athletic article, the USL is also exploring the idea of creating an additional tier between the Championship and League One.

That would potentially mean the following:

  • The USL Championship seeks Division 1 sanctioning from the USSF
  • This new middle group league takes the place of USLC at Division 2
  • USL League One remains at Division 3

The article has no real idea what the future will bring. The pice suggests the USL may run two second- or third-division sanctioned leagues by launching this additional middle league.

Questions still remain about how this new system would be accepted into the USSF pyramid. Issues such as promoted teams conforming to USSF Professional League Standards will need to be addressed.

The story also does not mention any plans to include USL League Two, the top amateur league of the USL system. However, that isn’t unsurprising given the USSF’s clear separation between professional and “amateur” soccer. Bridging the gaps between the professional tiers is a large undertaking, but monumentally more plausible than creating a two-way pathway between completely different soccer ecosystems.

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Pro/Rel is in the air

The USL is also not the only current professional soccer league to discuss promotion and relegation. The National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), another Division 3 league, was founded in 2017 with the goal of bringing Pro/Rel to the United States. However, multiple setbacks, some outward and many self-inflicted, have hampered the league as a whole.

There have been other efforts to bring Pro/Rel to the United States. However, most in recent memory have tried via force and failed. A 2020 challenge by the owners of The Miami FC and Kingston Stockade FC to the Court of Arbitration for Sport against FIFA, Concacaf, and the US Soccer Federation was thrown out. Miami had been without a pathway back to professional status since the collapse of the North American Soccer League in 2017, while Stockade, a Hudson Valley New York club that competes in the National Premier Soccer League, never had the ability to reach pro status via merit.

Miami and its owner, Riccardo Silva, joined the USL in late 2019.

Currently, New York City and its surrounding metropolitan area have zero professional soccer teams outside of MLS clubs New York City FC and the New York Red Bulls. The closest current USL side to NYC Metro currently is Hartford Athletic in Connecticut in the USL Championship.

That might change soon. Last month, a franchise was awarded to a group looking to bring a USL League One team to Brooklyn for 2025. If a Pro/Rel plan is put in place, that Brooklyn team could be competing for a place in the top tier before long.

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