MLS Expansion and Relegation: How to Make it Happen


The Future of North American Professional Soccer?

Stephen Mangat brings you his take on one of North American Soccer’s most crucial and compelling debates, and describes an organizational scheme that may come to be one day…

Ah, the promotion/relegation debate. Is there a North American soccer topic that brings out greater numbers of idealists, pessimists, and pundits? And what of Major League Soccer’s inevitable expansion? While we likely know which franchise will be number 20 (New York 2), where will first division soccer arrive next? And while pro/rel and expansion may, at first glance, appear to be two separate issues, they’re actually bound up with one another. So the question persists: Will professional soccer in North America ever go the way of the rest of the world? 

The MLS franchise system makes it unlikely that promotion/relegation will happen in the foreseeable future. Simply put, the franchise fee paid by owners (Montreal paid $40m most recently) gets them into MLS and, as the prevailing argument goes, why should a team from the North American Soccer League (NASL) be able to get into the first division without paying? In addition, the introduction of relegation means a greater amount of risk to MLS clubs, as a franchise’s value could (would?) plummet upon relegation.

Nonetheless, relegation should happen for a multitude of reasons. Let’s quickly review the simple, entertainment-based reasons for its implementation:

  • It raises the stakes of all matches.
  • It eliminates a majority of the dead rubber games at the end of the season.
  • It provides for the chance (and perhaps more importantly, the hope) that any team from any town can move on up and play with the big boys.

Let’s judge by pictures. What looks more fun to you?

An unfair comparison, but you get my point.

So now that we’ve established that (a) we want promotion/relegation and (b) it’ll be difficult to convince risk-averse owners to get on board with it, how can we make it happen? 

Answer: By decreasing the risk posed to current franchise owners and ensuring they are adequately compensated by any clubs that would be eligible for promotion.

Here’s our multi-step process:

1) Continue expansion beyond 20 to create an MLS 2. This expansion will be partly new teams (in interested markets) and partly existing teams that are “promoted” (much like, in recent years, Vancouver, Portland, Montreal, and Seattle). The franchise fee will be lower (let’s say $20m), but most of the cap rules, stadium expectations, etc. will remain the same. In effect, “MLS 2” is still MLS.

2) Build MLS 2 and announce future promotion/relegation. Once MLS 2 hits a critical mass of teams, fan base, and salary spending (a number decided upon and kept private by the league), the league announces that in 5/10/15 (?) years the worst team from each MLS conference will go to MLS 2. During its first year, MLS relegation will be based upon three or so years of results, so a fluke year won’t pose an immediate threat to a franchise. The same will hold true for MLS 2 promotion, which will be granted based upon some formula that considers three years of results/point values, trophies won, etc. Incrementally over time (and depending upon the number of clubs in MLS & MLS 2, respectively), up to three teams from each league will rise or fall each year.

3) Build MLS 3 the same way, lather, rinse, repeat. The same thing will then happen with MLS 3, with smaller cities paying a smaller franchise fee, yet still having to operate under the umbrella league’s rules. Like MLS 2, some of these lower-league clubs will be made from ones that now exist outside of MLS (much like Seattle Sounders, Montreal Impact, and Portland Timbers all trace their roots to non-MLS clubs). So, in addition to the short list below (listed in no particular order), check out a comprehensive list of the current NASL and USL Pro clubs to get an idea of where MLS 2 and MLS 3 clubs would (most likely) be located. Eventually, an MLS 8 club will be founded in Delaware, I’ll purchase and fund it a la Roman Abramovich (via my earnings from this blog, which will be an international must-read by that time), and we’ll win loads of trophies.

“MLS 2” possibilities:

  • San Antonio
  • Atlanta
  • Twin Cities, MN
  • Detroit
  • Memphis
  • Charlotte
  • St. Louis
  • Pittsburgh
  • Virginia Beach
  • Raleigh/Durham
  • San Juan, PR
  • Phoenix
  • Newark, Delaware (Yes we can!)
  • Milwaukee
  • SF Bay Area 2
  • Sacramento
  • Quebec City
  • San Diego
  • Ottawa
  • Edmonton
  • N. Virginia

Author’s Note: I left out all Florida locations because no one in Florida watches sports save for college football.

Needless to say, it’s only a matter of time before some version of the aforementioned scenario happens. And if you, loyal reader, have your own thoughts and ideas, please let us know. We’d love to continue this conversation in the comments section or via email at

– Follow future Newark United F.C. manager Stephen Mangat @smangat12 

– Editor Scott Fenwick contributed to this article. Follow Scott @OnTheFire97

28 thoughts on “MLS Expansion and Relegation: How to Make it Happen

  1. Kindly render unto me a fricking break.

    You start out by outlining the legitimate business reasons why promotion/relegation will never happen in a modern league — namely that owners will not invest millions upon millions of dollars in expansion fees, operating expenses and, oh yes, building a 20,000 (or so) seat stadium with the risk that it could all collapse into an obscure money black hole.

    Well done, you’ve summarized the situation nicely.

    Then you counter all of that with “BUT IT WOULD BE RAD” and posit: “Now that we’ve established that none of this would be remotely sane for any of the the relevant parties, LET’S GO ABOUT PLANNING HOW TO SET IT UP!”

    And the Greedy Bad Old Team Owners are only part of this equation. Since this is a Fire blog, let’s use this example: The Village of Bridgeview dropped roughly $100,000,000 to build a world-class stadium to host Chicago’s Major League Soccer team. You propose to approach the village’s leaders, who are currently taking a bath on this thing and looking at raising property taxes to make up for the fact that revenues are falling short of projections, and tell them “Hey, we’re going to restructure the league to create a possible scenario where this actually becomes a minor league team and would be lucky to draw 5,000 people a game.” To which they would, rightly, reply, “What?” And your only response is “DUDE IT WOULD BE SO FUN LOOK AT THIS PICTURE OF WEST BROMWICH ALBION!”

    Then of course there are the newly-expanded MLS2 sides. Your plan is to have owners drop $20,000,000 as an expansion fee, and also build a stadium up to current MLS standards to gain entry to this league, again, requiring in many cases substantial investment from a municipality. All this for a shot at the “big time” (sub 1.0 TV ratings) that will require putting together a three-or-so year run at the top of the league to achieve. Presumably you’re an MLS fan, and you’ve watched a good deal of the league, so you understand just how difficult it is to sustain a three-year stretch of dominance.

    I could go on, but what it boils down to is that you’ve created an elaborate plan for how to spend millions of dollars worth of other people’s money.

    But then this blog promises “Fluff” right in the header, so there you go.

      • My opinion… whteher it’s the Eurosnob on our indoor team, the NFL-guy at work, or our local MLS side being run by jackasses who know little if anything about the game, everybody pisses on MLS and American soccer. Our negative feelings are like masking BO with deodorant…As such I quote De La Soul… “before you put on that sub-shirt or fat gold rope, please take your big ass to the bathroom and please use a little bit of soap”

    • Translation: MLS owners are entitled little buggers. They’re allowed to limit the game in search of profit, and we can’t just go takin’ that away from them. After all, we’re just wee little supporters, and our federation is just a front for MLS. Really, nobody has the power to revoke the second class status of US club soccer, so just STFU and be glad that they let us have soccer at all.

      It’s simply absurd to think that we’re going to join the global market of soccer. The US game is too weak, and will forever require the special life support that only MLS can provide.

      Sorry I’m so lame –

      Powerless US soccer supporter

      • Dear Ted,

        I am very sympathetic to your stance on this issue. Sometimes, I dream a sheik will come to America, buy out MLS (and all its franchises), and subsequently sell them off with the intention of opening the market (like the rest of the world). And while my Middle Eastern oil magnate friend is at it, he’ll buy out US Soccer and hire folks to run it who understand what it takes to bring our country up to speed with the rest of the world.

        Dream a little dream with me?

        – Scott

  2. This is the only blog I’ve read that’s listed Memphis as a potential locale for soccer. About time. It’s a soccer hotbed here that’s really untapped. Yes there’s a ton of risk involved in all of this. But it would separate the clubs that want to succeed from the ones that just can’t.

  3. The bottom line is that, as nice as pro/rel would be in the US, it’s just not financially viable, nor is soccer enough at the forefront of the US sports landscape for it to be a sustainable concept.

  4. The English part of me yearns for this – the immigrant Toronto FC supporter in me realizes we would be playing against the Thunder Bay Chill by now.

    • I originally misread this as “Thunder Bay Chili” and thought “I bet folks in Thunder Bay make quite a hearty chili with venison or moose or something awesome.” Then I started thinking about what Canadians put in chili or if they even know about chili. Then I re-read the comment and was crestfallen.

  5. No, the bottom line is that policy must change in order to get pro/rel. As far as sustainability goes, nothing is more stable than an open set of soccer leagues. US closed leagues have been failing for a century now, and MLS has to limit it’s own teams – in an otherwise open global market – in order for this latest attempt to survive.

    Pro/rel is more than nice. It’s the only league model proven to accommodate the unlimited clubs we need to go toe-to-toe with the best in the world. I’m not willing to give up great US clubs so that soccer can survive their way.

    So let’s go for the policy change at US Soccer, and see what MLS decides to do. Left to their own devices, we’ll have a chain of limited soccer outlets forever.

    When we get pro/rel, it will be because US supporters dig in their heels and demand more than second class status for our clubs – from US Soccer. It won’t happen because MLS get a sweeter deal than they already have.

  6. All the attention in the world can be put on MLS’s future pro/rel system, and as great as it sounds, it’s going to be a long time before this necessary change happens. I heard Grant Wahl say on FSC that it could take years or decades before it happens. The MLS has the right popularity but it’s taken 50-100 years for the MLB, NFL, NHL and NBA to get where they are now. So even if everyone wanted it to happen, including the “village leaders”, the money, among many other aspects, just aren’t there for a restructure of the leagues’ formats.
    I love that MLS, MLS 2, MLS 3 idea. It’s better than the ideas I thought up… which all end with me frustrated and just hoping a wealthy middle eastern investor helps us out… a la P.S.G.

    • Keep in mind that all of these anti-pro/rel prognostications revolve around MLS as the decider. They are not the final arbiter in this debate. That honor belongs to US Soccer.

      Look – MLS can’t get a better deal than they have now. Control of the North American market. D1 entitlements. The deal is so good, they’re unphased by infomercial TV rating and the exodus of demanding US supporters to foreign leagues. Suffice it to say, under this system they can profit – without exploiting the potential of the US game.

      These are not the guys I want deciding our future. Don’t cede them that power. There needs to be more than a speculator spirit driving this debate. Somewhere we need an independent arbiter shamelessly promoting the American game. In most countries that person sits at the helm the federation. Instead – we get a part-time volunteer US Soccer President who draws a paycheck from an MLS/NFL owner.

      Grant’s right. If you leave it up to MLS, we’ll have colonies on Mars before we are allowed the same unlimited clubs the rest of the world enjoys – and the pro/rel system proven to accommodate them.

      Our other domestic pro sports grew in an era of splendid isolation, and most still enjoy it. Soccer did not. US Club soccer will never become an insulated US sport. I don’t think fans will permit our game to be shielded from international competition. There’s no scenario in which salary capped MLS clubs become true equals of the great unlimited clubs.

      In the final analysis: The sooner we stop treating soccer like it’s one of our cloistered purely domestic sports, the closer to our vast potential we will get.

      I think discussions of MLS 1, 2 and 3 are a step in the right direction, but ultimately that’s not a solution. They should not be trusted to suspend their self interest in order to act as fair an impartial arbiters. I don’t want BP setting oil policy in the US, and I don’t want MLS setting soccer policy. Power must flow to the federation, independent clubs must be sanctioned, and league power itself must ebb for us to move forward.

      Leagues fighting one another and our federation has been a hallmark of our history. In order to curb the crippling results, league power must finally be put in check. US Soccer can – and must – do just that. It can be done with a long overdue sanction of open leagues and independent clubs, and it will happen as soon as we demand it.

  7. At some point, expansion of the league will just be too large. Yes, all the other leagues in this country hover around 30 teams (on either side). But I think once MLS gets there, maybe even 28 or 32, it’s going to seriously look at this. There’s a way to market it as one whole league with two tiers, it’ll just take some genius marketing. Should take 15-20 years, but I’ll be dead by then and it won’t be my problem.

  8. This is probably the most realistic way for promotion/relegation to happen here. Still unlikely but it would be cool.

    Also, howdy from the supporters of a soccer team in Florida, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, that averages more fans than Seattle did when they were in Division 2. The Tampa Bay Rowdies and Orlando City don’t do too bad either. But then again ” no one in Florida watches sports save for college football” right?

    • thanks for the comment and just playing regarding the Florida comment. it’s an easy target w/two MLS teams having folded, no one attending Marlins/Rays/Heat/NHL games even though those teams frequently put together great seasons. i just hope Ozzie Guillen is still out of contract when MLS returns to FLA as he should immediately be installed as manager.

  9. Interesting ideas and I would love to see pro/rel in North America but don’t see the parties all coming together without some serious arm wrangling by USSF or CONCACAF nor any time soon. I am not familiar enough with the facilities of most NASL or USL Pro clubs to say whether in the future this might be the 2nd and 3rd tiers we need if they could somehow be unified withg MLS but to think that 2nd tier clubs in North America currently could attract a bunch of bodies any time soon is not realistic in some places. The Scottish F.A. numbers are about what we should be realistically hoping for lower tier clubs as the smaller 1st division teams there have stadiums ranging from 2000-10,000. It sure is interesting at the end of the season in these other countries various leagues with Pro/Rel when not only is it a fingernail biter to see who who will win the league (1st place) , it’s a nail biter to see who will qualify for Champions Leagues (top 3 or 4) and who will avoid relegation (bottom 2 or 3). There is something to play for in every spot on the table realistically and THIS is how to keep the sport exciting and competitive and make it something unique here in North America (if not unique to the rest of the world).

    • I agree with you totally on your view. The sport will not grow in US without something for fans to cheer for. A lot of people i know ask what difference between Supporter Shield and MLS Championship is, I say. Supporter Shield is best club of season and Championship is best of a few weeks.

  10. Simply the eventual 24 MLS ownerhsip group will have to purchase NASL and USL and turn them into MLS 2 and 3..same rules, same caps structure..essentially these two leagues become the famr teams for the 24 MLS clubs..revenues being shared..all teams in all three league have equity….teams have to meet season ticket and revenue goals to remain viable or akin to the EPL where they eneter into administration, fines, loss of points or relegation will apply..even open the MLS 2 up to potential promotion to NPSL and CSL clubs beit they can front franchise fees in the case they actually win promotion

  11. I have a simpler idea.
    Step 1 Wait until the MLS gets very popular to get a huge TV deal. Step 2 merge with NASL making them the official 2nd division.
    Step 3 introduce relegation and promotion initially 1 team then2&3.
    Step 4 use the funds from the TV deal to payback the franchise fee (or part of) to the relegated team.

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