Godspeed, All of Us

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Sometimes a back story isn’t needed, but a writer can’t help himself, so here goes.

Unlike so many other leagues, MLS has a very modern and recent history. In 1988, when USSF was attempting to win its bid for the 1994 World Cup, it pledged to designate a division one professional soccer league. That came to fruition in 1996, when MLS kicked off with the founding 10 franchises. Of course, readers of this site probably know what I’m about to write, but I can’t help myself. I say “franchises” because they are not “clubs” - clubs imply independence and individuality - MLS, of course, is single-entity. Every team in MLS is owned by MLS. Every match, from preseason to MLS Cup isn’t much more than intrasquad scrimmages. This was done for the purpose of stability, and, considering the history of leagues coming and going in the United States, maybe there is some logic in that decision. However, the shaky beginnings of MLS are far in the past and the usefulness of the current practice is debatable at best. For fans of MLS, I know you’re tired of us poking at your league, but it’s got to be done. Aside from the single entity issue, there is another issue, the reason for this article. Yup, you already know, pro/rel.

Promotion/Relegation is a big deal for many reasons, but at its core -

  • It rewards good management.

  • It penalizes mismanagement.

  • It aligns the pyramid with the international (FIFA) standard.

There’s no economic rationality to promotion/relegation whatsoever in the era that we’re in today.
— Don Garber

While the first two are common sense based arguments (which many poo-poo), they are still good arguments. Fans of other sports may look at the monopolized version of soccer and assume that’s normal, but the reality is that the closed MLS/USSF system is rare in the world sport. Extremely rare. The Cleveland Browns and LA Clippers and their woeful performances are accepted within their respective leagues (and yes, I know both are better now than they’ve been in the past), but in soccer that won’t play. If you continue to underperform, you fall out of your league. If you succeed, you move up to take their place. That is the norm in the soccer world. Except in the United States, where the Colorado Rapids (or whichever underperforming franchise you’d like to fill in the blank with) continue to struggle and play in division one. And it’s probably safe to say that if it wasn’t happening in the United States, it wouldn’t be allowed. That’s because FIFA, the governing body of international soccer (football), has rules about how its member nations are expected to run their domestic leagues.

A plan for Pro/Rel from day one. Image courtesy of  FourFourTwo .

A plan for Pro/Rel from day one. Image courtesy of FourFourTwo.

When MLS was formed there were long-term plans to transition to a pro/rel system, but those long-term plans kept stretching forward in time. And now, it seems that timeline has transitioned to never, or at least if Don Garber, MLS commissioner, gets his way. In a widely-quoted interview with the Kansas City Star, he seemed to be attempting to put the issue to bed. “Just because there is promotion/relegation in other leagues that were founded on different principles doesn’t mean that it would make sense in Major League Soccer. We have a vibrant No. 2 league in the USL. We have (Sporting KC principal owner) Cliff (Illig) and his partners that have just put $60 million of capital, along with the public, into this building. If all of a sudden they’re playing in a different division that doesn’t have national revenues — because the USL doesn’t have that — how does that make any sense? There’s no economic rationality to promotion/relegation whatsoever in the era that we’re in today.”

We as a federation aren’t going to legislate that.
— Sunil Gulati

Garber’s job is to speak for his franchise owners, I get it. They have all bought into this closed system with the understanding that they will see a return on their investment, without the risk of losing their money. The cost of a franchise is now over 100 million dollars and has been rising since day one, I can understand and appreciate their concern. The vast majority of soccer fans respond: “they should be owning franchises in some other sport then.”

Attempts have been made to get MLS to open up the doors to pro/rel and nothing has worked so far. Calls for the Federation to get involved have to this point have been unsuccessful, leading many to question the desire of the USSF to change the state of play. Consider the words of then outgoing Federation president, Sunil Gulati (booo, hiss) - “there's a whole bunch of people that came in under one set of rules, and some have paid $150 million and built a stadium for another $250 million under a certain set of rules. If they sit down and start this other league and say, 'We want to do promotion/relegation,' for all the reasons that people think are positive, fantastic. We as a federation aren't going to legislate that.” Carlos Cordiero, the current Federation president, has done nothing but dodge the question of pro/rel - I'm not in position to comment on anything related to that, or remotely related to that, without getting myself into hot water [due to litigation]. So I do not want to, and cannot, comment on anything that may be related to one or the other of those pending situations. I'm a vice president of the Federation and the Federation is part of all of this. Unlike the other candidates, who can speak their minds on this, I'm not in a position to talk to any of those points.”

While it is difficult to read minds (ok, impossible), it isn’t difficult to look at the actions and words of people and figure out where they stand. While USSF may not WANT to legislate promotion/relegation, they could threaten MLS with removal of division one status and force the matter. If MLS refused, USSF could easily designate another league, an open league, at tier one. But USSF seems to be comfortable in the bed they share with MLS and SUM (Soccer United Marketing), ignoring the rest of the Federation for the most part. Consider that Don Garber is on the USSF board of directors. The commissioner of a league is on the board of directors of the regulating body for the league he represents. How is that not a massive conflict of interest? And how can change ever come if he remains in place?

Last year, Kingston Stockade’s Dennis Crowely and Miamia FC’s Riccardo Silva filed a suit in the Court of Arbitration for Sport alleging that USSF (and MLS) are not living up to their FIFA obligations - specifically Article 9 which states that member nations’ clubs’ right “to take part in a domestic league championship shall depend principally on sporting merit” and that “a club shall qualify for a domestic league championship by remaining in a certain division or by being promoted or relegated to another at the end of a season.” It is obvious that MLS is not in line with these requirements and USSF is ignoring their responsibility to regulate their domestic leagues. The challenge brought is still being considered and, with the FIFA council meeting in Miami, another wrinkle has been added to the fight for pro/rel.

This letter is an opening salvo, and not the end.
— Daniel Workman

Organized by two key figures in lower league soccer in this country, Daniel Workman and Chris Kessell, a letter was delivered to FIFA President Gianni Infantino (as well as other council members and USSF leadership) begging for USSF to engage on the issue of non-compliance with Article 9. Because that is the real issue. Rail against MLS for not wanting pro/rel, but USSF is the muscle that can make this change, even if that means removing division one designation from MLS.

Courtesy of  Chris Kessell .

Courtesy of Chris Kessell.

The letter sent was signed by Kessell, as a representative of his local soccer club, West Side Soccer Club. Along with his were over 100 signatures of club representatives from all over the United States. That number has grown to over 150 and is being added to every day since it was announced (if you’d like to add your club, go here). What happens now remains to be seen. FIFA has not made an official response, nor a private one that Kessell is aware of.

For Kessell, his expectation and hope is movement - “As the number of clubs and organizations signing on continue to rise since the news broke, we expect US Soccer to enter into a meaningful dialogue about FIFA Article 9 and US Soccer Bylaw 103 compliance. This project is step one, but there is a lot more we can and should do going forward. Waiting on US Soccer generally doesn't work, so as the movement continues to scale we need to continue to work on connecting independent leagues and clubs across the country. Unity is a powerful thing. We believe that combined with action we can achieve substantial progress.” Workman also sees this letter as only the beginning - “This letter is an opening salvo, and not the end. We are just getting started and as the movement continues to grow, we expect that US Soccer will begin a real, meaningful dialogue with these clubs and organizations.”

For now, the names of the clubs signed on is being kept secret, out of concerns, at least partially, that there may be retribution from the Federation (see tweet below). But Kessell is thrilled with the response so far - “The reception has been amazing, just as we expected. Clubs nationwide want the opportunity to grow and compete. Having passionate dialogue with clubs from all over the country has done nothing but made us redouble our efforts to bring everyone to the table and find a solution.”

The chorus of voices calling for change has been non-stop for the last 20 years. Sometimes more quiet, sometimes louder. USSF has always managed to ignore the calls. Will this letter and the movement it begins bring the change that MLS is fighting against? It’s hard to tell, but what definitely feels different is the amount of coverage from the mainstream media. Even Mr. Better Mousetrap (Alexi Lalas) himself tweeted a post about the letter. Outlets like The18.com, The Independent, The Guardian, have all run stories in the last couple of weeks discussing the matter. Sadly, because most of American media ignores soccer, we aren’t seeing the same level of interest in our own country, but that may change as this story progresses.

The questions that remain (from my perspective anyway):

  • Does FIFA have the will to force USSF to comply?

  • Does USSF have the ability to disentangle themselves from MLS?

  • What does Cordiero do?

  • Can MLS be cracked open and how would that be done?

  • What would an open pyramid look like in the United States?

  • How would the lower leagues organize themselves and would they do it willingly?

There are no simple answers to any of those questions, but I, for one, am thrilled at what Chris and Daniel are doing (please visit Workman’s site). Not to mention the 150+ clubs who are risking their reputation and will have to deal with a potential backlash. Bravery doesn’t always mean success, but nothing great has ever been accomplished without it. I cannot and will not speak for every member of Protagonist staff, but I, for one, am 100% behind the push for promotion and relegation. It is right, just, and should be demanded by all fans of the sport in this country. Godspeed, all of us.

Unity is a powerful thing. We believe that combined with action we can achieve substantial progress.
— Chris Kessell

- Dan Vaughn