Just about every other soccer league in the world uses a tiered system. What that means is the bottom handful of teams from that season are relegated to the lower league while the top teams from the second league achieve promotion. For some reason though, MLS has avoided it, despite having the North American Soccer League (NASL) and United Soccer League (USL Pro) below MLS.
I have been a strong advocate for MLS to adopt this method. I think it would be a great improvement to US soccer and create more interest in the sport stateside. The other aspect that promotion and relegation introduces is that every games matters. All other American sports, particularly football, basketball and hockey all have an incentive to tank. Losing is rewarded with a top draft pick. Relegation prevents tanking and keeps teams fighting to the very end.
Yet MLS doesn’t have that. The teams at the bottom could easily just bail and begin tanking. After all the league has its own draft. Teams could attempt to move up in the draft order by losing more games. MLS has a different solution to that problem other than the threat of relegation.
Through careful control of roster building and the allocation of Designated Player Spots, MLS has kept every club fairly competitive. The season is about two thirds of the way through and pretty much every team is alive in the playoff hunt. The Chicago Fire and the Colorado Rapids sit in last place of the Eastern and Western Conference respectively. Heading into the weekend, both clubs were only eight points out of a playoff spot though. I’m not saying it easy to make up that ground but it is more than possible. In both conferences as well, the three through six seeds were only separated by a matter of two points. That’s a single match that could shake up the whole conference standings. That is absurd with almost every team having played 20 games.
The two seed isn’t even that far out of reach either. The Columbus Crew and Montreal Impact each held the second spot in their respective conferences. The distance between themselves and the sixth seed was only four points. Everyone is still playing for something because no one has an insurmountable deficit or an unassailable lead. There will be no tanking because everyone is still in it. If Chicago suddenly strung together a four game winning streak they could find themselves on the fringes of the playoff picture, rather than in last place. If FC Dallas dropped two straight games against Western Conference opponents, it could find itself clinging to the final playoff spot rather than in control of the West.
Parity is what every professional league strives for but few achieve. MLS has come about as close as you can get to achieving it. The league has prevented the creation of super teams that simply dominate the competition. It is hard to head into an MLS season with the champion a foregone conclusion. Many thought Orlando City and New York City would be top playoff contenders. Currently, neither of them hold a playoff spot. Many thought Seattle and Los Angeles would dominate the West again but it is Dallas who sits atop the table. MLS has prevented teams tanking by keeping everyone interested in winning. Everyone is able to still rise up into or fall completely out of the playoff picture. That is incredible work by MLS and a very creative solution to team’s tanking.
Now the design isn’t perfect. LA dominated the league recently. Overall though, MLS has avoided super teams with the limit on spending. English, Spanish, French, German and Italian soccer is dominated by the same five or six teams (actually only three in Spain) every single year. In Germany a team not named Bayern, Dortmond or Wolfsburg hasn’t won the league in eight years. Since 1992, only one team not named Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester (City or United) has won the English League. On the Italian side, only two times since 1991 has a team other than Juventus, Inter or AC Milan won the title. France isn’t much better as Lyon and PSG have combined to win 10 of the last 14 titles. Spain is the worst culprit of all. Only once since 2000 has a team outside of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Sevilla won the league. MLS has a very different story as nine teams have won the league since its inception in 1996.
Very few times can you truly sit back and think that MLS has found a way to solve a problem the European Leagues can’t solve. This is probably one of them.
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Chris McGlynn