Promotion, Relegation, Patience: Keys for Soccer's Success in The States?

Brian D. O'LearyCorrespondent IMarch 12, 2009

Truthfully, I'd like to get on with the rites of spring—Opening Day in baseball and crunch-time of the NBA season—but other than the regular banter about the trials and tribulations of the Blazers (the pesky Mavs made it a season-sweep Wednesday), all folks seem to want to talk about in Portland, lately, is soccer.  Specifically the MLS.  I'll continue to play along.

While I like soccer to some degree, I do not particularly care for the MLS. 

I have no particular animus towards it, but the league has largely struggled from the beginning and has had a tough time signing, cultivating, and keeping stars—Beckham excepted, to a degree—so the play suffers.

I am, however, a World Cup fan—admittedly, my standards may be entirely too high for the MLS as a result—and the occasional Fox Soccer Channel watcher. 

By no means would I falsely state, as did Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish on Wednesday, that I am the biggest soccer fan in the room.

The issue here is the future success of the league and to build a strong national soccer presence.

Why bang one's head against the wall and try to meld the traditional with the non-traditional here in the United States?  The MLS, for instance, would be one league well served by taking—steadfastly—just one specific path in the way it is structured.

Picking and choosing between different league structures based on disparate athletic cultures may be the ultimate downfall of the MLS.

Promotion and relegation is the traditional manner in which soccer leagues exist in Europe. 

The legal monopoly, or anti-trust exemption (de facto or de jure), is how it works in US leagues, with Major League Baseball setting the precedent in the early 20th Century. 

Professional sports leagues in the United States (and, largely, Canada) are essentially static with the exception of expansion.

If we had a hierarchy like Euro soccer (not the current hierarchical model which exists in MLB, the NHL, and now—to an extent—in the NBA, replete with farm teams), the shenanigans such as the ones that just went down at Portland's City Hall over ballpark financing would not likely exist—at least in the manner they did.

Consider this: The MLS and the handful of USL divisions have, for example, 18-team leagues and play every season so that a few teams would be promoted—i.e. go up a league—and a few would be relegated—go down a league.

Granted, the financial structuring of such an association would—no doubt—change, but it makes sense.  This would cultivate soccer domestically, with the end result a hungrier and better-quality brand of soccer. 

The other key, as Mr. Miyagi oft taught, is patience.

Assuming the ultimate goal is to field a top-notch U.S. national team, such cultivation would help dramatically. 

Top American players would have a vested interest in playing at home, while top foreigners—in the prime of their careers this time—might also choose to play here.

The other uplifting and dramatic effect would be that a specific club's supporters would have a direct investment in the success of that club.

More groundswell and grassroots involvement with soccer at the club level would lead to more tickets being sold, more money for the club, and thus more money to invest in infrastructure, i.e. a new privately-financed stadium

The cycle continues upward, especially if that club is traditionally at the top of the tables ("standings" in the American Language).

Right now, the MLS has potential, but it wants to swim against the current, modelling itself after the Big Four. 

Is there room for them in the American sporting landscape with such a paradigm?  Doubtful. 

Would there be room for soccer if they took the traditional model and ran with it?  Likely so.

This takes time, however.  Our country's recent tradition of hasty and poor decision-making does not make this prospect any easier, I'm afraid.

Whining about the lack of regional or traditional rivalries to gain favor with the league brass and immediately secure a franchise does not do any good in the long run. 

If we want Yankees-Red Sox, Cardinals-Cubs, Habs-Bruins, Lakers-Celtics, or Cowboys-Redskins scenarios, the only way is to cultivate such matchups in a proper manner.

Timbers-Sounders already has momentum in the Pacific Northwest.  In fact, it might even be the fiercest rivalry in American soccer. 

It will gain credence with the country at large only if the MLS and its sister leagues are legitimized, nationally and internationally, and that is with a relegation-promotion system.

The old athletic rivalries, in the U.S. and abroad, became what they are from years of play—and organically—through their respective fanbases.  Fiat and an unruly commissioner does not make fans invest in such a process.

Remember, soccer is still relatively new on the scene. 

The NASL had traction for a time, but flickered out like a distant star largely because of poor management, the chief error being rapid expansion.

Will the MLS fall to the same fate?  It is not looking good, but aside from picking through Nostradamus quatrains to find out, the next best guess might be in the hands of a magic eight ball.

Perhaps our President of Change wants in?  He wants to tinker with the BCS, so why not the MLS?