By Andrew Villegas
A column about promotion and relegation should come with a warning label. “Write about promotion and relegation at your own peril. Side effects may include loathsome comments from all sides, headaches, nausea, and gratuitous feigning of vomiting.”
Editor’s Note: As expected, the promotion/relegation side of the article has created controversy. We’ve been called “intellectually dishonest” — a claim that is ridiculous given its implications in the journalism field– so we’ll leave you all with this: Yes, Orlando City’s owners decided to play D3. Here’s the thing- they won the league. They didn’t win the previous one. They are inhibited from being promoted. And their players- who had no say in that choice- have been dubbed good enough to help MLS sides. While still playing in D3. Thanks for reading.
So it’s with some hesitation that I should take on writing about the Orlando City Soccer Club, which won the USL Professional division, in the “third tier of the American Soccer Pyramid,” a dizzying maze of leagues, sanctioning, divisions and club happenstance governed by the U.S. Soccer Federation.
See, upstart Orlando City – they just started in Central Florida after playing for a couple years in Austin, Texas as the Aztex – won the 2011 USL Pro league earlier this month, beating a club with a ton more history, at least by lower-division-soccer-in-America standards, the Harrisburg City Islanders. If we adhered as some footballing countries to the idea of a system of promotion and relegation, like – let’s face it – the most major ones, Orlando City would be playing in the North American Soccer League next year, with a chance of moving up to Major League Soccer the year after that. But we don’t have that. Promotion and relegation remain a distant dream for many fans clamoring (loudly) for a freer market of players, teams and sport in America.
But despite staying in the third tier, Orlando just might have the player chops to compete in the division above it. Thursday, several MLS teams made moves to add Orlando City players to their rosters ahead of the roster freeze MLS institutes before the playoffs. Included the Orlando players on the move are USL Pro MVP Yordany Alvarez, a 26-year-old Cuban midfielder who spent time playing in Cuba before defecting to the U.S. Alvarez played with the Austin Aztex before Orlando City owner (and current Stoke City board member) Phil Rawlins moved the team to Orlando. Alvarez is going on loan for the rest of the year to Real Salt Lake, which suffering from injuries to Javier Morales and Ned Grabavoy and the taxing international duty for Kyle Beckerman and Arturo Alvarez. Yordany Alvarez is joined in leaving Orlando City by Lawrence Olum, a Kenyan who joins Sporting KC, and Maxwell Griffin, a striker who is joining the San Jose Earthquakes for the rest of the season.
Now you won’t hear me beating the drum for promotion and relegation, but if what happened to Orlando City this year happens more and more, and if what has been somewhat true in the past in many leagues remains true here, lower division teams may remain in essence “farm clubs” akin to baseball’s minor league affiliates, though no official alliance exists between football clubs. But the existing “minor leagues” set-up might not be such a bad thing for any of the clubs or players involved. There are lots of pluses to it: Smaller clubs get the recognition that they’re putting together a solid team of players, and they sometimes get loan money to move their players. MLS clubs get cheaper players with professional experience. Players get experience and exposure to turn into a pay raise later.
But the opposite point of view on this set up is that a small, but boisterously vociferous, minority probably thinks that maintaining this as status quo sets a bad precedent for ever moving to promotion and relegation. Many hurdles remain in the way, however, of instituting such a system.
On Aug. 17, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said flat out “Promotion/relegation is not happening any time soon.” For one, MLS has a big hand and interest in making sure a team and its own league can remain viable after the last failure of professional soccer in the United States, and that’s saying nothing of the MLS’s own early struggles. To that end MLS charged Montreal Impact $40 Million to join and could charge a second New York team – rumored to be the reanimated corpse of the NY Cosmos – as much as $100 million.
There are also stadium capacity requirements and fan base numbers that many clubs can’t meet. And in November last year, Garber told Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl that promotion/relegation supporters in the U.S. are “married to the structure that exists in other parts of the world where there’s promotion and relegation, where there’s little competition from other sports, where teams are deeply embedded in the community, and we’re just not at that point yet in this country.”
Fact is, MLS doesn’t have to play promotion or relegation ball. It’s their league. The USSF could technically force MLS’s hand since it is governing body of soccer in the United States, but the two are so inextricably linked through membership, relationships and personnel that such a move is not likely.
And most clubs that play in the lower divisions just don’t have the resources to compete in a completely free system. That said, I am open to hearing ideas on how you think it could work, so please share them.
What is ignored by many promotion/relegation-heads in the U.S. is that soccer is actually big business in the United States, despite what you might have heard from your friends who are convinced ESPN doesn’t devote enough time to the sport. And as such, it acts like a single-entity cartel in a free market. A select few with the capital consolidated their power and closed their ranks. It’s what happens in a completely free system: collusion. Ironic then is it that the very free soccer market that many clamor for is why entities like MLS, and all major sports leagues in America, exist and are (relatively) successful.
Is the lack of promotion and relegation hurting the sport? There about as many variations of opinion on that as there are DNA strands in our population of footballers. But one thing certainly remains true, the quality of the sport continues its slow improvement in America, and not only in MLS. As the lower leagues go in providing a deeper talent pool, so will go all of soccer in America.
And down in central Florida, in the third tier of American soccer, the quality of the players they’re producing and nurturing is as far as you have to look for that improvement.
Andrew Villegas is Senior MLS Writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @ReporterAndrew.