Any time a discussion about improving soccer in America is taking place, one of the most popular ideas thrown about is implementing a promotion and relegation system into Major League Soccer.
However, relegation is not a magic panacea for making America a world powerhouse in soccer and, in fact, would likely do far more harm than good.
The main argument behind the promotion/relegation system is that it motivates teams to put the best possible product on the field. But even a quick look at numerous examples throughout Europe prove that the rewards and punishments of such a system are not effective motivators.
One perfect example is English Premier League club Stoke City. For years, soccer purists bemoaned the style of Stoke, who relied heavily on a "park the bus" strategy under former manager Tony Pulis—a style created primarily because of the team's fear of relegation.
This season, under new manager Mark Hughes, the team is attempting to play a much more aesthetically pleasing style of football, but they are not doing it to avoid relegation, which they had done successfully for the past five years under Pulis. They are doing it because they themselves got sick of the exact style that had helped them avoid relegation.
The promotion/relegation system also causes clubs to take wild gambles with both their finances and their managerial situations. Over the past few years, the footballing world has been rife with teams that have suffered financial difficulties, in part, caused by them borrowing far more money than they could possibly repay in efforts to either earn top-league finishes to get them into European competition, or avoid relegation.
Prominent examples in England in recent years have included the financial implosion of Leeds United and, more recently, Portsmouth—who are now playing in the fourth division of English football after their financial collapse. Both teams were drawn into buying more than they could afford by the dream of playing for European glory.
Teams in relegation battles, or those who are mid-table when their board of directors or fans think they should be battling for a championship, also make changes to their management willy-nilly that often have seriously negative long-term consequences. The lack of managerial stability also causes the managers themselves to act in a manner that often does not benefit the long-term interests of the club.
Clubs in a promotion/relegation system are often forced to make a difficult choice. They can either play within their means and face being relegated to a lower tier, or take large financial risks that often don't pan out. Even teams at the top are not immune to this type of thinking. Clubs that are expected to compete for championships, or top finishes that guarantee them a place in Europe, often make horrible decisions in the January transfer window, massively overpaying for players who might get them a short-term game.
One needs to look no further than the 2011 winter transfer window for one of the most prominent examples of this type of transfer-window madness. The last-minute transfers of Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll cost their teams £50 million and £35 million, respectively. For their investment, Chelsea has gotten 19 league goals out of Torres in over three seasons of play and Carroll has scored 13 league goals over that same time.
The battle at the top of the table for both the league championship and a place in Europe—with its reward of lucrative television contracts—has also created a lack of competitiveness in many leagues. In most leagues throughout Europe, this means that only the richest clubs can afford to truly compete at the top of the table.
The last time a team other than Real Madrid or Barcelona won La Liga was 2004. In the same 10-year period, the EPL has had only four different champions and Serie A three. The Bundesliga has been the most competitive over that time period, with five different champions, but there's no doubt that Bayern Munich has been the most dominant team. The promotion/relegation system has entrenched much of European football into caste systems.
Over the same 10-year period that La Liga has had only two different champions, MLS has had seven.
One reason for MLS's competitiveness is its oft-criticized single-entity system, which allows the league a great deal of control over each team's signings and trades. While that system might seem antithetical to competition, it, in fact, creates a similar effect to that of the National Football League's salary cap—namely, a league in which any team can win the championship in any given year.
The NFL's salary cap has helped create a level of competitiveness in American professional football that has made the league America's most popular professional sport. In contrast to the relative lack of competition in many European soccer leagues, the NFL has had eight different champions over the past 10 years.
MLS's current setup also makes investing in the league safer. It was originally created, in part, because no one was sure whether professional soccer would succeed in America. Now, the league has become such a safe financial investment that new franchises in the league sell for up to $100 million. Introducing relegation would destroy that financial stability.
Finally, a promotion/relegation system doesn't do what it claims to, namely encourage teams to be the best they can be. Does anyone really believe that the fear of relegation would have made Jorge Vergara act any differently than he did over the past year with Chivas USA? Vergara did what he did because he believed that was the best path for the club. Who suffered as a result? The fans. Would Chivas USA being relegated from MLS have deterred him from making those exact same decisions? No.
D.C. United is another great example. A year after playing for the conference championship in 2012, United was an absolute disgrace in 2013, finishing with only 16 points from 34 games. The collective wisdom of those favoring a promotion/relegation system would say that D.C.'s punishment should have been relegation to lower-tier league and that the lack of such a punishment would lead D.C. to simply continue its losing ways.
However, looking at United's offseason activity, it is obvious that it isn't true. United has been one of the most active teams in the 2014 offseason, signing MLS veterans Davy Arnaud, Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Eddie Johnson, Fabian Espindola and Jeff Parke. The team didn't do it because of a fear of relegation, they did it because they knew they needed to make changes.
The promotion/relegation system is an antiquated structure whose rewards and punishments don't provide the benefits they claim to. It's a relic of the Old World that should stay exactly where it is.
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