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What is Promotion and Relegation in the United States?

Introduction

Over the past few decades, soccer (or football in most of the world), has ignited an unstoppable wave of popularity in the United States in recent years. Over the last few decades, soccer in America has changed. With the thrills and emotions of the World Cup, the arrival of Lionel Messi to Major League Soccer, the fascination with Ted Lasso, and the storybook tales of clubs like Wrexham and Luton FC in their promotion and relegation battles, the United States fan base has grown smarter, more educated, and more passionate than ever.

Overall, the world’s simplest, yet most loved, sport has captivated the hearts and minds of millions of Americans. We CAN NOT say we are a young soccer country anymore. The World Cup coming back to the United States in 2026, and other upcoming soccer events, will bring an even greater attention to the US soccer world.

However, even with the growing love for soccer, most American sports fans are bewildered. Why has the United States NOT YET won a World Cup or developed many world-class players?

Soccer scholars and keyboard warriors have written endlessly about the promise and failures in our soccer landscape. Although there are multiple arguments, the most discussed and misunderstood concept that many people believe is holding back the United States from becoming a true soccer nation is intriguing aspect called Promotion and Relegation.

In this article, we will explore the concept of promotion and relegation in soccer, some of the pros and cons of Pro-Rel, the soccer pyramid, and the status of promotion and relegation soccer in the American soccer landscape.

Understanding the Soccer Pyramid

The “foreign” concept of Promotion and Relegation (also called Pro-Rel) is widely used in most countries but is noticeably absent from the American soccer leagues. In the United States, our sports leagues, including Major League Soccer, has been set up in one closed league where there are a limited number of teams, called franchises. Whereas, in the rest of the world, there are multiple levels of play (also called divisions, or tiers) where the top teams can be “promoted” to a higher level, and the teams that fail are “relegated” to a lower level.

To understand promotion and relegation system, we must first understand the soccer pyramid. In most countries in the world, there is normally a hierarchical structure that consists of various levels of leagues interconnected through promotion and relegation. For example, England has 10 tiers that teams have the opportunity to from one level to the next each season.

English League Levels (Tiers)

For example, in England, there are of multiple levels of soccer tiers, with each level representing a different tier of competition. And each level can move or down after after each year of competition.

English Soccer pyramid
  • Premier League
    The top tier of English football, comprising 20 teams. This is the most prestigious and highly competitive level of the league system.
  • EFL Championship
    The second tier of English football, also known as the Championship. It consists of 24 teams vying for promotion to the Premier League.
  • EFL League One
    The third tier of English football, featuring 24 teams. It is the next level below the Championship and offers opportunities for promotion.
  • EFL League Two
    The fourth tier of English football, comprising 24 teams. It is the lowest professional division in the league system and allows for promotion to higher levels.

Below the four professional leagues mentioned above, there are additional non-league levels that are considered part of the English football pyramid.

English Non-league Levels

  • National League
    The fifth tier of English football and the highest level of non-league football. It consists of 24 teams and offers promotion opportunities to higher divisions.
  • National League North and South
    These are the sixth tier of English football and are regionalized divisions. Each division is made up of 22 teams.
  • Various Regional Leagues
    Below the National League North and South, there are numerous regional leagues that make up the lower levels of the English football pyramid. These leagues are further divided into divisions based on geography.

All of these levels allows for promotion and relegation between these levels, providing clubs with the opportunity to climb up the ranks or face the consequences of poor performance by dropping down to lower divisions.

This video by https://www.nonleagueinsider.com gives a great visual explanation of the levels in England.

So what about the top levels? Where do the top teams go?

Each country has its own system of rewards for the top teams that move up to the next level, including financial rewards to help cover new expenses, such as stadium upgrades, as well as trying to purchase higher level and more expensive players. For the highest level of play, the top few teams may get to play in a more continental competition. For example, the top teams in each of Europe’s top leagues get to play in the Champion’s League which has an even greater payout to the teams.

The US Soccer Pyramid Works Very Differently

Although we have hundreds of soccer teams in the United States, the soccer pyramid does not exist in the United States. Unlike many other nations, where teams can move up or down the ranks based on their performance through promotion and relegation, the structure of soccer in the United States is different. Basically, we have a number of unconnected leagues fighting for the same fans and resources.

US Men’s Professional Leagues

  • D1: Major League Soccer (MLS) (League website >>)
    MLS is the top-tier professional soccer league in the United States. It was established in 1993 and began play in 1996. The league consists of 27 teams, with 24 from the United States and 3 from Canada. MLS operates with a single-entity structure, which means the league owns all the teams, and player contracts are with the league rather than individual teams. MLS teams compete for the MLS Cup, and the winner qualifies for the CONCACAF Champions League.
  • D2: United Soccer Championship (USL Championship) (League website >>)
    The USL Championship is the second division of professional soccer in the United States. It was formed in 2010 from the merger of the USL First Division and USL Second Division. The league consists of 31 teams, including both independent clubs and affiliate teams owned and operated by MLS teams. The USL Championship operates on a franchise model, with individual teams owning and operating their clubs. The champion of the USL Championship does not qualify for international play.
  • D3: National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) (League Website>>)
    NISA is the third tier of professional soccer in the United States. It was founded in 2017 and began play in 2019. NISA operates as a fully independent league, with each team owning and operating its club. The league currently consists of 8 teams, with plans for expansion in the future. NISA champions do not qualify for international play.
  • D3: United Soccer League One (USL League One) (League Website>>)
    Founded in 2017 and began its inaugural season in 2019. The league consists of teams from various regions across the United States.
  • D3: MLS Next (League Website>>)
    Launched in 2022 by Major League Soccer, MLS NEXT Pro is a professional men’s soccer league in the United States and Canada. All team affiliated with a a MLS team and are often used as a reserve team,

US Men’s Semi-Professional and Amateur Leagues

  • National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) (League Website>>)
    A semi-professional league with teams across the United States. Established in 2003, it is considered one of the largest adult soccer leagues in the country. The NPSL operates as a nationwide league with teams from various regions across the United States.
  • United Soccer League Two (USL League Two) (League Website>>)
    Formerly known as the Premier Development League (PDL), this league is considered a pathway to professional soccer. It features teams from various regions and provides a platform for young players to gain experience.
  • United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) (League Website>>)
    A national amateur and semi-professional soccer league based in the United States. It was founded in 2011 and has grown to become one of the largest adult soccer leagues in the country.
  • NISA Nation (League Website>>)
    A grassroots soccer initiative affiliated with NISA that aims to promote and develop the sport at the local level, providing opportunities for players of all ages and skill levels to participate in organized competitions and events.
  • Other State and Region Soccer Leagues
    The United States Adult Soccer Association oversees numerous regional and m ulti-state amateur leagues across the country, such as the Eastern Premier Soccer League, Minnesota Amateur Soccer League. and the Southwest Premier League.

US Women’s Professional Leagues

  • D1: National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) (League Website>>)
    The premier professional women’s soccer league in the United States
  • D1: USL Super League (League Website>>)
  • Coming in 2024. this is the professional level for the USL W-League.
  • D2: Women’s Independent Soccer League (WISL) (League Website>>)
    Coming in 2024. Will be the only Division 2 tier women’s league.
  • D3: Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL PRO) (League Website>>)
    Coming in 2025, this is the professional level for the WPSL Amateur league

US Women’s Amateur and Semi-Pro Leagues

  • Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) (League Website>>)
    The largest women’s soccer league in the world and aims to advance player development at the amateur level. Since its establishment in 1998, the Women’s Premier Soccer League has been the pinnacle platform for advancing player development in the United States at the amateur level.
  • USL W-League (League Website>>)
    The USL W League is a leader in pre-professional soccer in North America, developing the next generation of women’s talent both on and off the field. 
  • United Women’s Soccer (UWS)
    Functions as a semi-pro amateur women’s soccer league in the United States and provides developmental opportunities for players.

How to become a Top Tier Club in the US

Unless functioning at the top level, such as Major League Soccer, lower leagues are limited by Pro League Standards given to them by US Soccer Federation, with Division 1 (D1) being the top professional level, followed by D2 and D3 levels. There are hundreds of clubs below these three levels in semi-pro or amateur teams.. And remember, all D2, D3 and lower level clubs have ZERO opportunity to promote to a higher level. The only way is for MLS to award a new franchise to their D1 league through a massive franchise fee…and a friendly relationship with MLS.

For example, San Diego has a successful club in the USL Championship league, called the San Diego Loyal. They had a passionate fan base and was partly owned by US Soccer legend Landon Donovan. Despite all this, and “supposed” legitimate negotiations, in 2023, MLS awarded a new franchise to a brand new San Diego ownership group for a staggering $500 million. San Diego Loyal fans were in an uproar. At the time, the new ownership group had no players, no fans, no team colors, or anything. They were able to join MLS, not by merit, as prescribed by FIFA guidelines, but because they had a much wealthier ownership group and did not want to work their way up as clubs like the rest of the world does.

The new MLS San Diego franchise will not start until 2025. Within six months, the San Diego Loyal had folded.

Another post will be about why lower league clubs don’t just join the MLS. It’s complicated, but for now, check out an interesting article the Medium by Does U.S. Soccer’s League Set-up Violate FIFA Rules? ,

Below is a general structure of the men’s US Soccer leagues. Division 1 (D1). The women’s side is simlar wth the NPSL as the D1 league.

US-Soccer-Pyramid-2024

In the United States, Major League Soccer (MLS), has been given the top-tier status but it is a closed system. While there are hundreds of lower divisions and leagues in the country, they are not directly connected to MLS and do not have the opportunity to move up to the top tier. This unique structure has both advantages and disadvantages, as it allows for stability and investment but also limits opportunities for smaller clubs to compete at the highest level.

To be clear, since its establishment in 1996, MLS has indeed achieved remarkable success and growth. The league has expanded its number of teams, attracting top talent both domestically and internationally. MLS has also seen an increase in its fan base, television viewership, and corporate sponsorships. Additionally, MLS teams have had success in international competitions, such as the CONCACAF Champions League, with several teams reaching the finals. As MLS continues to evolve, it remains a vital force in the growth of soccer in the United States.

However, what are the opportunities that are missed if the US had an open structure with Promotion and Relegation? The argument against a closed system is that it limits opportunities for lower-level teams, or even new teams, to build to reach the highest levels. The thrill of promotion and the gut-wrenching agony of relegation that we see every year in other counties is not allowed to exist in the US.

So what exactly is Promotion and Relegation?

Normally, Promotion and Relegation refer to the movement of teams between different divisions of a soccer pyramid based on their performance in a given season. In countries with an open system, such as the English League, the bottom three teams in the top-tier league are relegated to the lower division, while the top three teams from the lower divisions are promoted to the higher divisions. Each country has its own peculiarities but generally speaking but this is basically how it works.

Check out some more examples of some of how the other leagues around the world are set up.)

Promotion and Relegation Explained for a Young Person

Most children in the USA grow up understanding the NFL or the NBA with just one league, where teams can not be relegated or promoted. They all stay at the same level, with playoffs and a final champion. There is no chance that, say a last place Boston Celtics, could ever drop down to a lower league. Instead, a last place team is given the top draft choice from college. There is no accountability, which to lots of speculation to teams tanking at the end of the season just to get a higher college draft choice.

Either way, they still get to play in the highest level the next year. Which sounds nice, except that there are hundreds of communities , investors, in the United States who would love to have the opportunity to “promote” to the NBA, but they are not allowed to. So basically, every year, the same 30 cities in the US get to support a team in their communities. However, hundreds of cities never get a chance. Never.

For young soccer enthusiasts, the idea of promotion and relegation can be a fascinating concept. It teaches them the importance of consistently performing well and the consequences of poor results. By explaining the system in simpler terms, children can grasp the idea of moving up or down the pyramid based on merit.

Here’s an example of promotion and relegation for a soccer league for 10-year old:

Let’s say we start a local youth soccer league with multiple divisions, such as Gold, Silver and Bronze levels. Each division consists of teams of similar skill levels. At the end of every season, the top-performing team from each division would earn promotion to the higher division for the following season.

  • If the top two teams finish at the top of the Silver Division, they would be promoted to the Gold Division for the next season. This gives them the opportunity to continue to build and test their skills against stronger opponents in a higher division.
  • On the other hand, the two teams that finishes at the bottom of the Silver Division would be relegated to the Bronze Division for the following season. Although cut-throat, this allows those relegated to compete against the teams of similar skill levels and work their way back up to the higher division.

There are pros and cons, but overall, this system of promotion and relegation provides both motivation and opportunities for teams to progress and improve their skills, while also ensuring a fair and competitive environment within the league.

Doesn’t this basically happen in E-Sports, such as Fortnite?

A similar concept actually happens in some video games, such as Fortnite. Although promotion and relegation is not completely applicable in the same way as most of the world soccer leagues, Fortnite has a similar ranking system based on advancing, called the Arena divisions. The divisions in Fortnite are as follows:

  • Open League Division 1
  • Open League Division 2
  • Open League Division 3
  • Contender League Division 1
  • Contender League Division 2
  • Contender League Division 3
  • Champion League Division 1
  • Champion League Division 2
  • Champion League Division 3
  • Champion League Division 4

Players start in the Open League Division 1 and progress through the divisions based on their performance in Arena matches.
The goal for players is to climb up the divisions and reach the highest division, Champion League Division 4, which signifies the top-level players in the game.

The thrill of playing Fortnite is to continue to improve to “promote” to the next level. Imagine if you could only play Open League Division 1 no matter how great you did. That currently happens in the soccer landscape of the US.

Do any other E-Sports have Promotion and Relegation?

There are several video games that use promotion and relegation systems to provide a competitive structure. Here are a few examples:

  • Rocket League: In Rocket League, players participate in ranked matches and earn or lose points based on their performance. At the end of each season, players may get promoted to a higher rank or demoted to a lower rank based on their points. This allows players to climb up the ranks and face tougher opponents or drop down to a lower rank for a fresh start.
  • League of Legends: In the ranked mode of League of Legends, players start in a lower division and have the opportunity to climb through divisions and tiers by winning matches and earning LP (League Points). Achieving a certain number of LP allows players to be promoted to the next division or tier, while losing matches can result in demotion to a lower division or tier. According to a huge League of Legend fan, “The best teams in the region are the ones that deserve to be in the LCS, not just the teams who came first.”

These are just a few examples, but many competitive multiplayer games incorporate some form of promotion and relegation or ranking system to provide a sense of progression, competition, and matchmaking based on skill levels.

What about E-Sports Relegation?

In Fortnite, players can lose matches by being eliminated by opponents until they are the last player or team standing. This can happen through various means, such as being eliminated in combat, falling to their death, or being caught in the storm for too long.
In League of Legends, players can lose matches by having their Nexus destroyed by the opposing team. This is achieved by successfully pushing through the enemy defenses, destroying their turrets and inhibitors, and ultimately reaching and destroying their Nexus.

In these games, the objective is to outplay opponents, strategize effectively, and make the right decisions to secure victory. Losing can occur due to a combination of factors, including skill level, decision-making, teamwork, and sometimes luck. But starting over with the opportunity to rise to the top is always the main incentive.

The State of Promotion and Relegation in the United States

The promotion and relegation debate has been a topic of discussion in US soccer for quite some time. Advocates argue that implementing promotion and relegation would increase competition, encourage investment in lower divisions, and provide opportunities for smaller clubs to rise through the ranks. However, there are significant obstacles and challenges to overcome before implementing this open system.

One obstacle is the lack of infrastructure and financial stability in lower divisions. To successfully implement promotion and relegation, lower division teams would need sufficient resources to compete at higher levels. Another challenge is the resistance from the current establishment, primarily MLS, which operates under a closed system. MLS owners have invested heavily in its structure and may be reluctant to take the risk of moving down a level.

Despite these challenges, recent developments have shown a growing interest in promoting an open system in the United States. The National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), the United Soccer League (USL), and the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) and other lower leagues have voiced their preference for promotion and relegation in the United States, and have emerged as potential alternatives to Major League Soccer. So far, with all the moving parts, no plan has been yet emerged. These initiatives have sparked hope among supporters of the open system, suggesting that change may be on the horizon.

Pros and Cons of Promotion and Relegation in the United States

Promotion and relegation offer several advantages to the soccer landscape. Firstly, it creates a more competitive environment throughout the league, as every team has something to play for. It incentivizes clubs to invest in youth development and infrastructure to secure their place in higher divisions. Additionally, promotion and relegation provide opportunities for smaller clubs to rise through the ranks, fostering a sense of fair play and meritocracy. Although very general, below are some of the arguments for and against Pro-Rel.

5 Reasons in Favor of Promotion and Relegation

  • Increased Competition: Promotion and relegation systems enhance competition by providing teams with the opportunity to rise or fall based on their performance. This promotes a more intense and engaging sporting environment where every match matters.
  • Financial Incentives: Relegation can serve as a financial motivator for teams to improve their performance. With the possibility of dropping down to a lower division, teams are driven to attract more fans, secure better sponsorships, and invest in player development to ensure their survival in higher tiers.
  • Opportunities for Smaller Clubs: Promotion and relegation provide smaller clubs or teams from lower divisions with a chance to ascend to higher levels. This opens up opportunities for underdog stories, allowing teams to earn recognition and compete against more established clubs.
  • Fan Engagement: The prospect of promotion or the fear of relegation creates excitement among fans. It adds drama, anticipation, and narratives that extend beyond just winning titles, making the sport more captivating and engaging for supporters.
  • Development of Youth Players: Promotion and relegation systems encourage investment in youth academies and player development at all levels. Smaller clubs may focus on nurturing local talent, knowing that they can potentially rise through the ranks and contribute to the team’s success. This would be in increased tremendously with the approval of solidarity payments which would bring an influx of money to youth clubs to improve their teams. Eventually, this could all have a huge impact on the pay-to-play model in the United States.

5 Reasons Against Promotion and Relegation

  • Financial Instability: Relegation can lead to a significant loss of revenue for clubs, including reduced TV rights, sponsorship deals, and ticket sales. This financial uncertainty can result in financial difficulties, bankruptcy, and even the collapse of smaller clubs.
  • Lack of Long-Term Planning: With the threat of relegation, clubs may prioritize short-term success over long-term planning and development. This can discourage investment in youth academies, infrastructure, and sustainable growth strategies.
  • Inequality and Imbalance: Promotion and relegation can perpetuate inequality between clubs, as historically successful and financially dominant teams have a higher likelihood of remaining in the top division. This can create a cycle where only a select few clubs consistently compete at the highest level.
  • Loss of Fan Base and Support: Relegation can lead to a decrease in fan attendance and support as passionate supporters may lose interest or disengage from lower-tier competitions. This can result in reduced revenue and a less vibrant atmosphere for clubs in lower divisions.
  • Lack of Investment: With the risk of relegation, potential investors may be hesitant to inject funds into clubs, fearing the financial risks associated with dropping down to a lower division. This lack of investment can hinder the growth and competitiveness of clubs.

Could Pro-Rel work in the NFL, NHL, NBA or Major League Baseball?

It would be very difficult to change the setup of these established leagues, which revolves around franchise ownership, but anything is possible. A number of these leagues already have “minor-league’ teams that could be incorporated into a sports pyramid.

To actually establish an open system with promotion and relegation in the American sports world, a potential framework could involve incorporating their existing minor leagues into the system.

Assuming there was a serious commitment to finances, owner buy-in, and few legal battles (yeh, I know… a reach), here’s an example of how it could possibly work:

  • Create a tiered structure: Establish multiple tiers of competition, with the NHL or MLB as the top tier. Below this, there would be a second tier consisting of the minor leagues associated with each team.
  • Develop promotion and relegation: At the end of each season, the top-performing teams from the second tier would be promoted to the top tier for the following season. Simultaneously, the bottom-performing teams in the top tier would be relegated to the second tier.
  • Financial considerations: To ensure financial stability for teams, certain financial criteria could be put in place for promotion to the top tier. This would include factors such as revenue, market size, stadium capacity, and financial viability.
  • Transitional period: To facilitate a smooth transition, a transitional period could be implemented, allowing teams to adjust to the new tier they are promoted or relegated to. This could include financial support, adjustments in revenue sharing, or other mechanisms to ease the transition.
  • Continued development: The minor leagues would remain essential for player development and talent pool for the top tier. This would ensure that teams in the second tier have the necessary resources to compete and promote a strong pipeline of talent.

Implementing such a system would require collaboration and agreement among team owners, league officials, and other stakeholders. It would also require careful consideration of financial implications, revenue sharing models, and ensuring that the competitive balance is maintained across all tiers.

While an open system with promotion and relegation in the NHL or MLB would bring an additional level of excitement and competition, it would require huge and significant changes to the existing league structure and will definitely face resistance by current owners due to financial and logistical complexities.

A much better opportunity would work for the American soccer landscapes where there are, or could be, teams in almost every community in the country.

Here are some solutions for implementing Pro-Rel in the American soccer landscape:

Conclusion

The concept of promotion and relegation in soccer has been a fundamental aspect of the sport in many countries. While the United States operates under a closed system, recent developments indicate a growing interest in embracing a more open structure. The advantages of promotion and relegation, such as increased competition and opportunities for smaller clubs, are enticing. However, challenges such as infrastructure and financial stability must be addressed. The future of promotion and relegation in US soccer remains uncertain, but the ongoing debate suggests that change may be on the horizon.

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Thank you for reading this article. If you enjoyed it, be sure to check out our other soccer-related content on our website. Stay tuned for more updates on the promotion and relegation debate in US soccer.