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Popping the Pro/Rel bubble: Could this be the time?

In brief: Without a push from FIFA, MLS won’t do squat

You think this guy’s gonna knife MLS? Hahahahahahahahah oh, you poor sweet child.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

“The winds are howling and the world’s shaking itself loose; at least it feels that way. The night scratches its back against our houses, the heat of the day falls away like a dream; and then the cycle reverses, unpredictably, tapping out weird rhythms of hot-cold that upset our animal patterns over the days of this tense spring. There is a feeling of unrest in the Land of the Free, a disquiet. The feeling is immanent and of the time. It has been here before and will be again.

Soccer seems to have a window during each of these periods of weird energy, a chance to make a greater impression upon the minds of Americans. And there’s more at stake now, at the end of the Energy Age.”

- me, six and a half years ago

There’s days when it feels like the world really is shaking itself loose, you know? When all the compacts - silent, spoken, written, implied within the writing - come under new scrutiny. ‘What was the purpose of that agreement?’ ‘Why did we bargain away those rights?’ and so on. And surely these days are some of those days: Should I awake to find a dragon had blackened Munich, it would be just another of the ever-growing list of horrible outcomes that had been previously unthinkable. I wouldn’t even have cognitive dissonance incorporating the information. It’d just be “huh - dragons, like Nazis, are real” and on with the day.

So it’s with some trepidation that I note the existence of an abstract of a report from Deloitte that points out the basic argument that proponents of promotion and relegation (gasp!) have made for years - namely, that MLS’ safety-first league architecture, built more to obviate risk than strive for profit, is a significant drag on growth of the game, both at the professional and ultimately the grassroots level. It’s an argument I’ve made before in this space: MLS’ perpetual grant of first-division status from FIFA needs to come to an end, and they need to require US Soccer to fall in line with FIFA statutes about promotion, relegation and solidarity & training payments.

The reaction to the report has been about what you’d expect - Ted Westervelt got name-dropped all over the UK, MLS writers gazed weary-eyed at Twitter and wrote ‘my god you have to look at the revenues’ for the quadrillionth time, and US Soccer popped off a stink-bomb by firing Jurgen Klinsmann, bumping the story to No. 6 in every soccer website’s queue (behind ‘Jurgen fired,’ ‘Arena rumored to replace Klinsmann,’ ‘5 things the USA learned from JK,’ ‘Gallery: 35 best JK sideline looks,’ and ‘Stinging opinion piece’).

One line of argument I kept coming across struck me as perfectly exemplifying the upside-down nature of this discussion in the USA. Most ‘anti’ arguments are perfectly reasonable as long as you eliminate a huge swath of possibilities from the possible outcomes - one of which is that FIFA could merely insist MLS come into line, and break them over their knee the way they’ve broken every other renegade league in their long history, for instance - and pretend those possibilities simply don’t exist. That argument is this: “The lower-league clubs aren’t ready!”

Pro-rel fills from the bottom

First thing: Well no shit, they aren’t ready. Until the scaffolding is built, the lower-league clubs have no where to climb to. They’re just gonna sit on the street level, looking up at the MLS party on the roof. And MLS has zero incentive to build that scaffolding. Zero.

Second thing: This argument doesn’t really make sense, because no one is suggesting that this is how promotion and relegation would work here. A more likely scenario would see US Soccer’s existing divisional standards - tweaked to be a little less billionaire-centric, perhaps - used as a guideline to whether a club in the promotion places is actually eligible for elevation to the higher league.

Promotion and relegation fills from the bottom - in a proper league structure, one can only start at the bottom. I say this because I see a lot of comment about how there’s no way <in-form but shabbily run NASL side> could handle the jump to MLS. And of course they couldn’t. We presume that the people running football leagues are neither simpletons nor ideologues, and that common-sense requirements of financial disclosure, investment, stadia, etc. would eliminate those scenarios from play.

Moving up isn’t just about winning on the field; there’s also establishing a base of support of sufficient mass to grow a club’s economy up to the next level. It’s not the kind of work often taken on by vulture capitalists; it’s bare-knuckled and personal and the wire one walks is very, very thin indeed. And there’s really not a way to fake it, not for long. You’ve got to commit everything you’ve got, and (probably) that still won’t be enough.

Nothing’s guaranteed. Nothing’s easy. Put it all out there and see who wins. That’s football.

If that’s not what MLS owners signed up for, then perhaps some education is in order. Is there any chance FIFA will teach the lesson? We can hope. I, for one, do.