U.S. Soccer, Not MLS, Controls Promotion and Relegation in American Game

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U.S. Soccer, Not MLS, Controls Promotion and Relegation in American Game
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

In case you missed the latest American soccer news or were not logged on to Twitter, a bit of news broke that was likely more circulated than expected: Major League Soccer president Mark Abbott said that MLS had no plans or intentions of having promotion and relegation, nor do they have plans to ever switch to the international calendar.

Clearly this reveals that MLS was only having ideas of "simulated" promotion and relegation, along with a season switch, out of hope that FIFA would buy into their semi-conformity, as well as give the United States the World Cup bid. Of course, that did not happen, and Qatar will be hosting the 2022 games.

In that sense, the fact that Abbott has publicly stated that MLS now has no immediate or long-term plans to conform is hardly a surprise.

Unfortunately, it looks like the only inevitable change for 2012 will be that MLS moves back to an imbalanced schedule and further promotes depreciated conferences. Reason? The promotion of regional rivalries. To many, this likely sounds outrageously tacky and unneeded.

However, while the news that the league is going to retain a closed-shop model will depress non-Chivas USA fans, MLS is in no position to declare how the American soccer pyramid is structured. That power lies within the United States Soccer Federation, as MLS is a league sanctioned under U.S. Soccer, meaning that the structures of the league and how they are assembled are decided by the federation, not the league.

Examples include the United States' berths in the CONCACAF Champions League. U.S. Soccer decides which four of their affiliated clubs can qualify, not MLS. It just so happens that three MLS clubs are guaranteed a Champions League spot since MLS is the premier soccer league in the United States. Those three MLS clubs guaranteed a spot in the champions league are the winners of the MLS Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup, as well as the MLS Cup runner-up. The U.S. Open Cup champion also qualifies.

The same principle applies for the U.S. Open Cup. Only eight American MLS clubs are allowed in the tournament. The way the qualification is structured is strictly by MLS standards. Other examples of U.S. Soccer's power over MLS include referees and field approval, as well as club and league approval.

Most importantly, at least in regards to promotion and relegation, is how USSF structures its affiliated leagues. Right now, it's structured in this order: Major League Soccer, North American Soccer League, USL Professional Division, USL Premier Development League, NPSL and then USASA. In this essence, if USSF wanted to, it could make the NASL the top league in the country and demote MLS to second-tier status. Now, that won't happen, but USSF has the power to do so.

That includes the power of how club promotion and relegation works. USSF can decide that the weakest MLS clubs go down to NASL, being replaced by the top NASL clubs. Now, the leagues would heavily resist it to the point that they refuse to abide, and should they do so, they'll lose sanctioning. Consequently, all MLS clubs would lose out on the chance to play in the U.S. Open Cup, as well as the CONCACAF Champions League.

So theoretically, if Sunil Gulati and USSF Board made this decision, Chivas USA (presuming they resume their dreadful play) would have to be relegated to the North American Soccer League, if not a relegation playoff. Likewise, Puerto Rico Islanders (again, presuming they continue their strong start) will be playing MLS ball or playing Chivas in a promotion playoff. If either of the leagues resists, well, then so much for their USSF and FIFA sanctioning.

The sigh of relief (if you're in favor of a closed-league model) is that USSF will probably never institute this system, or at least as long as Gulati is in charge.

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