Could USL D3 bring promotion and relegation to American soccer?

Words by Steven Keehner Illustration by Philippe Fenner
February 13, 2018
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On January 25th, 2018, South Georgia Tormenta FC was announced as the founding member of the United Soccer League Division III. Despite the club’s young age, they were seen by the higher officials of the league as the perfect first member. Darin Van Tassell, Owner, and CEO of the club was quoted saying, “Elevating the club to the proven model of the USL professional ranks allows us to increase the impact our organization can have in the local community, region, and country.”

But within this exciting announcement, was an even more important comment. One that if true, could change American soccer forever.

While being asked by the Philadelphia Inquirer about promotion and relegation between the two leagues, Jake Edwards, President of the USL said, “I think it would be very interesting to look at pro-rel between those two divisions, we certainly could do it now and I think there’s an interest to do it among our board,” later saying, “I think that’s going to take a little bit of time. We’ll get that done, and then I think as we’re doing that, we’re going to look at integration opportunities. Then, beyond that, if the structure is in place and lends itself for [promotion and relegation], then it’s absolutely a possibility.”

These words are monumental! Promotion and relegation within the American soccer pyramid is the most controversial and debated topic amongst fans. Ask any supporter of the sport what they think and you’ll get a variety of opinions; some love it, some hate it, and there are plenty of opinions in between. So seeing the President of the USL acknowledge and admit that a possibility is there is a huge deal.

So let’s look at USL D3: is there a need for promotion/relegation? How could this new league lead to it? What factors would the leagues need to address? And could we ever see a day where MLS is involved?

What is USL D3?

Created by the United Soccer League, the second division within the American soccer pyramid, this new league is intended to “focus on launching new third-division clubs in markets that possess strong local ownership groups, populations with broad-based diversity, a vibrant millennial and strong family base, established corporate support, and stadiums to properly showcase the sport for fans, partners, and the public,” according to the league’s website.

Set to play in 2019, USL D3 will not be alone as a third division in the United States. The National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), is set to take play in 2018 or 2019, whose eventual plan is to be a feeder with the North American Soccer League (NASL.) But with the future of the NASL in serious question, no one is sure what’s happening anymore. So for now, I will only evaluate USL D3 for the time being.

Despite the league only recently announcing its first member, we can determine who the other members may be based on two things:

From the USL D3 Website: “The USL will target U.S. communities ranging in population from 150,000 to one million, representing more than 75 million people without access to a local professional soccer club.”

The Vice President of USL, Steven Short, has already toured around a large chunk of the country, visiting 23 different cities, notably featuring Des Moines, Iowa, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Lexington, Kentucky.

This is pure speculation, but with USL already being at 33 clubs, I would imagine that the league will eventually push any expansion candidate toward USL D3. With five more potential clubs set to join by 2021, I believe USL is reaching its carrying capacity.

I only say this because implementing promotion and relegation with a league of nearly 40 teams is not simple. I can’t imagine that adding any more would be workable if the league was ever serious about these plans.

Now that we’ve looked at USL D3 and the plans for the league itself, we can look at the bigger picture. Let’s start with viewing promotion and relegation from the lenses of both USL leagues.

Lower League Promotion and Relegation

When reviewing the same Jake Edwards interview I mentioned earlier, there was another interesting excerpt that has to be noticed, “We are going to experiment with precursors, such as maybe some sort of inter-league competition, an inter-league cup. We’re going to look at options like that to see if that works.”

An inter-league “USL Cup” will 100% be the first step that needs to happen before any bigger idea can take place. A cup between the two leagues would be the first of its kind in America, it would also be a great test for the USL D3 clubs; can they even compete with clubs in a higher league? Is it sustainable to have a club from South Georgia, for example, to have to travel far distances?

These are important questions that need to be answered. But with USL D3’s need for “[The] Primary owner with a net worth in excess of $10 million and 35% or greater share of the potential franchise,” it makes sense to imagine the clubs having a fair budget. But as many followers of the lower leagues of American soccer know, it is not a financially stable industry that reels in profit. Am I sure they’ll be a plan to keep teams within regions of the countries like the US Open Cup? 100%. But should we keep this in mind when seeing if
promotion & relegation could work? Without a doubt.

Before going any further, I’d like to bring up another league which is also a part of the USL ladder and one that could get involved in this promotion and relegation puzzle: The Premier Development League.

The Premier Development League

Considered the “unofficial” fourth division within the United States, the PDL is where South Georgia Tormenta FC was playing in. Already featuring 78 teams split into four conferences, one should not be surprised if many of the new USL D3 clubs end up coming from this league.

Remember how I mentioned Des Moines as a candidate for expansion before? Well, the Des Moines Menace, a club that plays in the PDL, is more than likely going to make up one of the clubs that play within this new league in 2019.

 

After looking at many leagues, clubs, etc., we need to now look at what factors will need to thought of before we can even come close to having an open soccer pyramid.

The Time Frame?

There is one point I want to emphasize: whether you agree with promotion and relegation as a thing that should happen, it will not be happening for the foreseeable future.

Despite my moderate research, I could not find a specific number of clubs USL D3 is looking to begin with come 2019; so in this hypothetical scenario, let’s assume that the new league starts off with 10.

Looking at it from a numbers perspective, the USL has gone from 12 clubs in 2011, to 33 getting ready to play in this upcoming season. That is an increase of around three clubs per season. Although this isn’t the greatest method to predict growth, let’s assume that USL D3 increases by three clubs every season. With that growth, the league would hit 25 clubs by the 2024 season. Assuming that an inter-league cup has already been established and that it has worked for all the clubs involved, then I believe the groundworks for an open system
could begin.

Aside from having an appropriate number of clubs, there is also one massive issue we need to account for: geography.

Regions?

The United States is huge! With it being the third largest country by area, it is difficult for teams in any sport to travel across the country. So when we put that factor together with a group of lower league soccer clubs that don’t possess even a fraction of the budgets that teams in MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA, or even MLS have, it can create a problem.

For example, to get from Southampton to Newcastle takes roughly 5 hours by car, which is not a short distance by any means, but if you wanted to go from my home in New York to Seattle, it would take about 42 hours.

The USL itself already features a two-conference system and with plans to add a Central conference next season, USL is setting itself up to allow for clubs to travel less. If we were to add promotion & relegation the mix, this would require the conferences to realign themselves every season. But this is the most logical way to protect clubs that get promoted from horrific travel costs, assuming a system is ever set in place.

While talks of any promotion and relegation are exciting, we need to address the elephant in the room: Major League Soccer.

MLS Inclusion?

The rise of MLS has been incredible, a league that has faced uncertainty throughout its entire history is at the point where the supporters can breathe, not having to worry about whether the league will survive to next season. But despite that the league’s stability cannot be argued anymore, its reputation is still very much in the air.

The main criticism of Major League Soccer is its “authenticity;” from some, you get complaints of a league that is nothing more than a group of corporate franchises, rather than true soccer clubs. That MLS is a novelty, with playoffs and no relegation, it means that owners have no incentive to improve because they’ll never have to face any true consequences; if the fans dip, you can pick up your team and move them across the country.

To answer if MLS will ever adopt a system of promotion and relegation, the honest answer is probably never. When the league declined a four billion dollar offer from the media company, MP & Silva, which would require the league to adopt a system that allows for clubs to get promoted, MLS held its stance and declined. The owner of MP & Silva, Riccardo Silva, is also one of the co-owners of Miami FC, a club that was formerly part of the NASL and is now in the NPSL for the upcoming season. If MLS was willing to deny that much money, you know they believe in their system.

While many could blame Major League Soccer for this, there are many valid reasons for not wanting it. It can be confusing to explain to new fans that your favorite club could go to a lesser league over one poor season and quite frankly, MLS has no incentive to change its model.

I’m not implying that either system is better than the other, but as I already mentioned, the league has no real reason to shake up a system that has worked to this point. While I believe it is robbing us of some fantastic stories, I don’t think it’s ridiculous to imagine why they don’t want this change.

Final Thoughts

Promotion and relegation in America is one of the things you never talk about, like money or politics. Okay, maybe it’s not that big, but it is very controversial. A club starting from nothing to working up to the top is a beautiful thing to see. It’s something that has defined the game and turned it into the biggest in the world.

We’ve seen once giants fall, clubs be re-born and fight back up, or even the lucky few who get to the top and show the world that despite them being thought as small, they have passion and heart. Promotion and relegation can create a bond with a club that is almost marriage like, you’ll always be there.

With the USL looking at promotion and relegation as a system the league could look to implement with USL D3, it gives fans of the sport something to rejoice about. Who knows, maybe we will see a day where a club from a “minor” city can make its way to the top.

Maybe if we’re lucky, us Americans can get our own stories to share. But we can only take what we have; USL is looking to change the system. While the little guys may never get a chance to prove it at the top level because they aren’t seen as “good enough” for MLS, to get a chance, is perhaps the most American thing one could ask for.

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