Featured, Major League Soccer, September 2011

Who Needs Promotion? Orlando City Leaves Its MLS Mark As Players Move Up Ladder

Orlando City SC would be moving up if the U.S. had promotion and relegation. For now, they'll settle for sending some of their players to MLS.

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.

When Real Salt Lake needed to bolster their midfield, they turned to Orlando City's Yordany Alvarez, a 26-year-old Cuban midfielder, to fill in.

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 andrew.villegas@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @ReporterAndrew.

Andrew Villegas

  • TampaRowdie

    The only relevant point regarding promotion/relegation is one you barely touched on. “…most clubs that play in the lower divisions just don’t have the resources to compete in a completely free system.”

    Not only that, but as long as the disparity between level of investment in MLS and any of the lower leagues is as wide as it is, this discussion is pointless. 50-100 million just for a franchise in MLS, before stadium and other investment.  A couple of million tops to get up and rolling in the NASL.  USLpro is probably close to that, but without the millions required by D2 standards to be collectively set aside as a safety net.

    And try convincing an owner used to how business typically works in the U.S. and who just spent 200+ million on his shiny new MLS team, that “oh by the way, if you have a bad year you could be D2 by your second season.  Have fun!”

    Would love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.

    There are alot of reasons for why the system isn’t likely to ever happen and even if tried isn’t guaranteed to work, finances at this point in time being chief among them.  But beyond that there are real problems.  In Europe if a team gets relegated that is it, they shed players and lose alot of tv contract money, but they keep on trucking.  It might take years to move back up and some teams never move back up, at least not to the top division (another great selling point to potential investors in the U.S., wouldn’t you say?).

    If they keep being terrible they just slide down another notch until they find the level they can compete at.  In the U.S.A., an owner would have folded his team or sold it to another owner in another market by that point.  Sports franchises in the U.S. are expendable. It is extremely rare for a football club in Europe to just go away.  This largely defeats the purpose of promotion/relegation and would undermine it’s usefulness and effectiveness. 

    Simply put, good luck.  There are reasons why discussing this is a waste of time, but you put it best, well sort of…a small fringe of fan boys don’t understand the real world as it pertains to the U.S. sports environment and they just won’t let it go.  So you wrote an article that didn’t really give any argument for or provide any solid points for the system, nor against it.

  • Jake

    You mean the quality of players Orlando kept from the Austin Aztex? Not exactly producing in my opinion. Nurturing does make more sense. These players are D2 caliber players and so it makes sense why at the end of their short season that they would get loaned out to MLS teams for the rest of the season, being the good players they are and it’s before the freeze. NASL can’t do that because they are still in season and the season ends after the MLS freeze.

    • This is a more fair point. Two issues: 1) The players are actually D3 players now- their owner made a choice but that’s the league the players play in. 2) NASL players can be loaned out, technically. There is no hardline rule preventing it. Still, appreciate the reasonable nature of the comment.

      • Jake

        These players should be in Division 2 playing against better competition (and if you don’t think NASL is better competition, better check yourself) .

        • TampaRowdie

          read the disclaimer again and had to laugh.  The more I think about it the more this piece comes across as opinionated and one sided with an agenda.  Don’t let your lack of knowledge regarding the Austin move to Orlando, and the implications of such a move for a vastly superior team playing a division lower, stop you from publishing and promoting a poorly written, poorly researched piece.  And then getting all defensive when called out for publishing such an opinionated piece?  Ouch. 

  • TampaRowdie

    Right, but you can’t argue they were developed in D3 and it’s a stretch to say they were nurtured there.  Austin was a very good D2 team for two seasons before dropping down to USLpro.  They understood the level of competition would be much weaker and that winning a championship therefore much improved.  The ploy worked, they won a trophy and now have a major advertisement for joining MLS (drew over 11k to the final).

    Regardless, that is besides the point of the article.  Arguing that team A’s players are good enough to play a level higher isn’t an argument for promo/releg.  It is just fluff information that speaks more to the overall development of the player pool in the U.S., which is fine and true.

    And Jake is right.  The longer NASL season prevents players from that division from really having the option of being loaned to MLS, especially when all teams except for Atlanta are in the playoff hunt.  That will change as more teams join the league, but not for a while.  So three players from a couple of USL teams are on temp loans to MLS, and?  They are pros and their league is inactive.  That is the point of the lower divisions.  Good for those players, but it doesn’t suggest a single thing about the talent level overall of USL or the competitiveness of that divisions teams with the NASL overall.

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