Financial Concerns Stall USL Promotion and Relegation Vote

United Soccer League's Journey Towards Promotion and Relegation

by Faruk Imamovic
Financial Concerns Stall USL Promotion and Relegation Vote
© Getty Images/Michael Reaves

In a significant move that could have redefined American soccer, the United Soccer League (USL) was on the brink of adopting a promotion and relegation system in July 2023. This meritocratic structure, prevalent worldwide, has been notably absent from the upper echelons of U.S. soccer. However, despite initial optimism, the vote to implement this system was ultimately shelved.

A Glimpse of Hope

Paul McDonough, USL President, recounted his experience with palpable disappointment, “I was under the impression that things were a lot further along,” he stated from the USL headquarters, nearly a year into his tenure. He had pushed for the motion to be put to a vote among 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.”

The idea of promotion and relegation within the USL represented a potential seismic shift. Unlike Major League Soccer (MLS), which operates as a closed, single-entity system, the USL’s adoption of an open system would have introduced a new dynamic to American soccer. McDonough emphasized the unique opportunity, “There’s something to be said about being the first to be there.”

The Long Road to Change

The USL’s exploration of promotion and relegation, or "pro/rel," is not a novel concept. Former USL President Jake Edwards, who led the league from 2015 until April 2023, significantly expanded the league’s footprint, growing from 14 teams to 36 professional men’s teams across two divisions: The USL Championship (Division II) and League One (Division III). Edwards’ tenure culminated in the league establishing itself as a prominent force in the lower tiers of the U.S. soccer pyramid.

McDonough, who took over shortly after Edwards’ departure, was immediately tasked with gauging league owners' interest in the pro/rel system during a summit in Colorado Springs. He believed that adopting such a system could be a distinctive feature for the USL. “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,” he explained.

However, the inherent challenges of integrating pro/rel into the American soccer framework soon became apparent. McDonough, an experienced MLS executive, understood these intricacies. The lack of relegation in MLS serves as a stabilizing factor, ensuring financial security for investors and maintaining league stability. However, this system can sometimes result in stagnant performances, as seen with the Chicago Fire’s decade-long struggle with minimal consequences.

For the USL, implementing pro/rel was seen as a way to differentiate from MLS and align more closely with international soccer norms. Yet, as the planned vote approached, several critical concerns emerged from within the league’s ranks.

Financial Concerns Stall USL Promotion and Relegation Vote
Financial Concerns Stall USL Promotion and Relegation Vote© Getty Images/Harry How

The Vote That Wasn't

In the weeks leading up to the pivotal summit, McDonough and other league executives engaged in discussions with every USL club to address their concerns. These conversations revealed significant apprehensions regarding the distribution of increased league revenues, the day-to-day implementation of the pro/rel system, and the timeline for its rollout.

The vote was officially canceled a week before the scheduled meeting, as multiple sources confirmed. Confidential discussions among club owners highlighted the complexities of sharing increased league revenue, the operational logistics, and the financial ramifications of the pro/rel system. The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) sets operational standards for each division, which include team and stadium requirements, financial stability, and geographical considerations. These standards, however, do not account for the complexities of a promotion and relegation system, leaving many questions unanswered.

One of the critical issues was the financial impact on clubs, particularly those in League One. McDonough noted, “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.”

Championship clubs, on the other hand, worried about the repercussions of relegation. Despite the absence of massive TV contracts akin to the Premier League, the local revenue and fan support remained a concern. McDonough tried to mitigate these fears, suggesting that local support could remain steady even with relegation.

Looking Ahead

Despite the cancellation of the vote, the feedback from these discussions was deemed more constructive than a hasty decision would have been. One executive described it as a “galvanizing moment,” emphasizing the importance of valuing input from all league members. McDonough concurred, “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.”

The USL continues to explore various models for implementing promotion and relegation. One idea involves launching an intermediary league between the Championship and League One, facilitating a smoother transition. However, significant questions remain, particularly regarding the incentives for teams. Without the prospect of international competition or substantial prize money, the motivation for clubs to support the system is limited.

McDonough remains optimistic but pragmatic about the timeline, hoping for a definitive vote within two years. “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?”

To aid in this ambitious endeavor, the USL has sought guidance from external experts such as Twenty First Group and Legends. The focus remains on creating a compelling and sustainable competition that resonates with fans without compromising operational stability.

Ultimately, while being the first to implement promotion and relegation in the U.S. is appealing, the priority is to execute it effectively. McDonough concluded, “It’s too soon, right now, to park it. We’ve got to do the work. It’s too soon right now.”