Inside the effort to bring promotion and relegation to American soccer


The United Soccer League was close to making American soccer history. Promotion and relegation, the meritocratic system employed by league systems all over the world and the bedrock upon which stories like Wrexham are built, had been absent from the country’s highest levels of the game for its entire modern history. A July 2023 vote seemed set to change that.

That is, until, it didn’t. 

“I was under the impression that things were a lot further along,” says USL president Paul McDonough from a conference room at USL headquarters, about a year after he took the job and pushed to bring the motion to a vote of league owners. “You walk in and you think, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re far along with it. Great, let’s just push it (to a vote)’ — and then as you start to listen, you realize that it’s not as far along.”

In a nation whose first-division league (MLS) was launched as a single-entity circuit in a closed system, the USL adopting promotion and relegation would have been a monumental step into uncharted territory. But the story of the vote, and why it didn’t happen, shows the struggles inherent in applying the world’s rules to American soccer – even as the USL moves closer than ever to its longtime goal of establishing a (somewhat) open system.

“I think at some point, it kind of hangs out there and everyone else is talking about doing it,” McDonough says. “There’s something to be said about being the first to be there.”


Origins

The USL’s quest to bring promotion and relegation (or pro/rel, for brevity’s sake) to the United States is nothing new. For years, the face of the USL’s efforts was Jake Edwards. The former English striker became the league’s president in 2015 and quickly grew the USL’s stable of teams from 14 when he joined to the 36 professional men’s teams that now compete across two leagues: The USL Championship (sanctioned as Division II, a level below MLS) and League One (sanctioned as Division III). The organization also operates USL League Two, a sprawling, 128-team amateur division widely used by college players in summer when their schools are out of season.

By April 2023, when Edwards left the USL to take over as CEO of Huddersfield Town, the league had carved out a vital and sizable place in the lower levels of the U.S. soccer pyramid. But it needed something to set it apart. 

McDonough took the reins two weeks after Edwards’ departure with one of the USL’s two annual summits of league owners fast approaching, and one big item on the agenda. As reported at the time by The Athletic, a motion at the meeting in Colorado Springs, Colo. would take the pulse and ensure that owners wanted to move forward with designing and implementing a model for pro/rel.

“We need something that’s going to be a differentiator for us,” McDonough said. “In this country, we have labels of division one, division two, not like anywhere else in the world really, right? For us looking for a differentiator, that’s one of them.”

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Before working for the USL, McDonough was a club executive who built the initial MLS rosters of Orlando City, Atlanta United and Inter Miami CF. Few people in the country can claim to have as much breadth of experience in how MLS and its teams operate as McDonough, who was suspended by MLS in 2021 after being found to have violated the league’s roster rules. 

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USL president Paul McDonough also has experience at the MLS level.(Photo by EVA MARIE UZCATEGUI, AFP via Getty Images)

A lack of relegation is central to MLS’ operations and its business model, making it easier to attract big-money investors in addition to acting as a stabilizing force in the league’s early days. At worst, though, it can lead to apathetic existences like that of the moribund Chicago Fire: one where a sole playoff appearance in a decade results in no real sporting consequences for the club and relative apathy among fans beyond core supporters. 

For the USL, pro/rel was a way to offer something different than MLS and every other American sports league, and also bring it more in line with the rest of the world.  

In the weeks leading up to the meetings, McDonough and other league executives had calls with leadership from every USL club to hear concerns about the planned vote. In those conversations, many of the model’s potential pain points were laid bare by stakeholders.

The vote was officially called off a full week before club brass would board their flights to Colorado. 


Why the vote was canned

Multiple sources gave their accounts of the promotion and relegation-related portions of the 2023 summer meetings, speaking anonymously as topics in those meetings are confidential. Owners from the Championship and League One alike voiced concerns about how any increased league revenue would be shared with clubs, how a model would look on a day-to-day basis and how quickly it could or should be implemented.

Many of those questions didn’t have readily available answers. In the United States, a league’s level is determined by the U.S. Soccer Federation, which grades operations according to their Pro League Standards (PLS). Each rung of the professional pyramid carries a defined standard for operation: how the league staffs up, how many teams they need and how many time zones they must occupy, each team owner’s wealth, stadium standards, and so on. Leagues must annually remain in accordance with their sanctioned status.

What isn’t spelled out in the PLS is how a league could operate promotion and relegation. There are no guidelines to allow promoted clubs to be compliant with the new league gradually, nor any edict to offer “parachute” payments for relegated teams, as is the case with Premier League clubs that get relegated to the EFL Championship in England’s league system. 

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“I understand everyone says the League One clubs want to go forward (with pro/rel), but there’s also risk for the League One clubs,” McDonough said. “All of a sudden, you’ve got to increase your salary structure. You need to increase your travel. You’re gonna need to bulk up a little bit, and that’s tough when you have a 5,000-seat stadium.” 

There were also concerns expressed by clubs at the top about dropping down.

“I understand when you’re a Championship (owner) and you’re looking at where your team’s been in the past, and you’re saying, ‘Well, I’m gonna get relegated.’ Look, I don’t think that’s the worst case in the world,” McDonough said. “They compare it to when you’re in the Premier League and you go down to the Championship, and the loss of revenues. Well, that’s a massive TV contract, right? We’re not there yet. The local revenues pretty much will stay the same. We have teams that don’t win a lot of games, but they still get 4-5,000 people to a game. People want to come out and support their local club.” 

Ultimately, McDonough and others involved in the league said the feedback from the pro/rel talks was likely more productive than a vote would have been. One club executive determined it to be a “galvanizing moment” early in McDonough’s tenure, one that reassured that the league would continue to value input from all of its members rather than taking on a top-down operational approach. 

“To pull back on (the vote), I just thought it was the right thing to do,” McDonough said. “I think it was good that the league office listened. We still have the ambition to do it, but you’re trying to hear everybody out.”


How promotion and relegation would look

When reporting the potential vote last July, The Athletic learned that the USL was looking into launching another league, likely to nestle between the Championship and League One, to allow for a more gradual transition between the circuits. That’s still just one possibility, and it’s just one of many outstanding questions. 

“We’ve been through plenty of models,” McDonough said. “Right now, we’ve got 36 owners (between the Championship and League One). Everybody looks at it a little bit differently, and you have to try to listen to all 36. For us to get it passed, each league has to approve it and they’ve got to approve it in a supermajority. When you go through that process, you’re going to answer a lot of questions; trying to get it where everyone feels like they win, that’s a pretty tough thing to get to. 

“That’s why it just may take time. You can’t rush it.”

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(Photo by Michael Wade, Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Among those questions: What prize would await a champion in the USL’s highest league? After all, there’s no USL league above the Championship, and owners anticipate they would take on some risks by opening themselves to the prospect of being relegated.

“Some people are really interested in it but say ‘Look, we need more information. We need to understand the financial ramifications if I go down,’” McDonough said. “You’re talking about that, and ‘where do we go if we win?’ because there’s nothing there for us. We don’t get a CONCACAF (Champions Cup) spot. What do you get? You lean towards prize money, but how much prize money can you give that makes it worthwhile for them to want to do it?”

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However, McDonough admitted that some movement had to come sooner than later. To him, he hopes a pro/rel model can be up for a definitive vote within two years.

“I mean, I would hope so,” McDonough said after listing promotion and relegation in what the USL hopes to achieve in the next 24 months. “If it happens, great; if it doesn’t, then we need to figure out what our world looks like. How do we do other things that are going to get the fans excited, partners, sponsors, and TV? At the end of the day, that’s part of the equation to run successful clubs: you need sponsors and you need TV to build that relevance and fan base. We’ve got to tackle that.”

The USL has also looked beyond its ranks for input and guidance on how to evolve its competitions. Namely, they’ve worked with sports intelligence firm Twenty First Group (which recommended adding a third league) and Legends, which has a stacked partner list including Manchester City, Real Madrid, the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Yankees, and U.S. Soccer. McDonough said the ultimate focus has been on continuing to create “something that fans are interested in” without sacrificing operational stability. 

Ultimately, ensuring that the USL is the first league to bring promotion and relegation to the United States isn’t the goal. Instead, it’s finding a way to execute it wisely. 

“It’s too soon, right now, to park it,” McDonough said. “We’ve got to do the work. It’s too soon right now.”

(Photo: Tanya B. Fabian/For The Coloradoan / USA TODAY NETWORK)



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