Yesterday, news hit the press of a new breakaway soccer league forming in the U.S. and Canada, a league using some of the top teams from USL-1 including Vancouver Whitecaps FC. News of a breakaway soccer league is big enough, that that news includes the league being a Division II system instead of something to compete directly with the MLS is suggestive in and of itself. That this new league will include Vancouver Whitecaps FC would seem to up the possibility of a relegation system within U.S. soccer greatly.
Now before you go off and roll your eyes at this speculation, hear me out. I think most soccer fans agree that the state of soccer in the U.S. could most charitably be described as rather stale. Sure the addition of expansion teams every few years adds a bit of new life but can we honestly expect that each new expansion team will be another Seattle? Let’s be honest, with average league attendance (excluding Seattle) figures somewhere in the 10k-20k range more needs to be done to bring in fans. So far as I am aware, the U.S. is the only “major” league that doesn’t use the relegation system common in the international world of football. I personally believe the addition of such a system would be good for the league not just in terms of competition but also in fan attendance. With relegation there is a greater sense of drama as every match is important whether you’re vying for a playoff birth or trying to avoid dropping to a lower league by finishing in a bottom position. Additionally, the current playoff system to determine league champions is compatible with a relegation system (though im not a fan of the playoffs). That compatibility allows the league to retain the playoffs for the upper tier teams while at the same time giving the lower teams more to play for. The fact that the lower teams have more to play for will help induce the fans of those teams to be more supportive in order to keep their guys up. More fan support equals greater ticket and merchandise sales which equals greater profit for the league. It simply makes sense from the league and owners perspective to put such a system in place. Hell, I even heard chatter not to long ago about the NFL looking at a relegation system for similar reasons.
So the financial reasoning is there, lets look at the possible signs of this actually happening. Okay, so this probably isn’t the first time a breakaway league has formed but look at how its being structured. This league is being setup as a Division II outfit and it includes most of the big names from USL-1. Why bother forming a Division II when the teams you have are clearly capable of competing with MLS sides as evidenced by the U.S. Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League (read Montreal Impact). Why not form a league to compete against the MLS rather than one that will be subservient to it with that kind of talent? Then look at the teams joining this new league. In addition to Vancouver which has already agreed to join the MLS in 2011, you have Montreal, Miami and St. Louis, all markets the MLS has looked at breaking into with the next few expansions. Another benefit offered by a relegation system is that it makes expansion fairly easy really. A new team can join one of the lower divisions, build up its market and fan base as well as talent working its way up the ladder. Once it joins the MLS, it’ll have an established fan base and be set to compete.
I think the inclusion of Vancouver is especially telling as it gives the perfect opportunity to jump right into a relegation system come 2011 (assuming Vancouver signing up for this league doesn’t break its MLS contract which i don’t think it would). Sure this may just be speculation or even wishful thinking by some standards, but you have to admit, it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility!