Fixing the MLS Promotion/Relegation Problem

Fixing the MLS Promotion/Relegation Problem

Major League Soccer continues to grow and grow, it seems like a when and not if for MLS to overtake both NHL and MLB when it comes to popularity – and it feels like the league can expand just about anywhere successfully.


This is great for the league, Las Vegas, San Diego, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Phoenix are just some of the potential cities the league could expand to. But the league is already at twenty-nine teams, already making it the largest soccer league in the world by size and in it’s current form, appears that it will make out at thirty-two.

Carlos Vela lifted the M.L.S. Cup trophy after L.A.F.C. outlasted Philadelphia. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

For a lot of soccer purists, especially in Europe – a league with anywhere between twenty-nine and thirty-two teams is too much, and in the eyes of the international soccer (football) community, holds the league back. Closer to home, with the MLS being a league with no promotion and relegation – this will eventually lead to many teams playing meaningless games in the eyes of players and fans. Affecting attendances, ratings, and quality/intensity on the field.

It’s regrettable but understandable why lower league MLS teams can’t be promoted in the league. Financial logistics make it unreadable for most USL teams to make the jump, and the franchise structure of the MLS where teams ‘buy their way in’ practically ensures that once a team is in the MLS, they’ll never leave the MLS. This means that in order to find a compromise to the problem, we need to look at structuring tiers within the MLS itself.


The idea would be to create an MLS 1 and an MLS 2. So working with the 2023 season where we’ll have twenty-nine teams, Tier 1 will have twenty teams and Tier 2 will have nine teams. Tier 1 as the MLS does now will have two conferences of ten teams divided into East and West, while the second Tier will just solely be a complete league of nine. When it comes to the playoffs and winning the MLS Cup, I would have the top four of each conference make the playoffs with a simple 1v4 and 2v3 seeding. The big difference is at the other end. The bottom two teams from each conference will also enter a playoff situation, but with relegation on the line. The ninth and tenth-placed teams from the divisions will play each other in a one-off tie (the ninth place has home advantage) with the winner securing their place in MLS Tier 1. The two losers of those ties will then play each other (home advantage decided by who has more points) and the team who loses that tie will officially be relegated.

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As for Tier 2, there won’t be playoffs, it’ll be straight up just the league position that decides who will take the place of the relegated MLS Tier 1 team. If the teams switching leagues aren’t geographically compatible, then the promoted team will be placed in the conference that is most appropriate, and another team would then be required to switch conferences.

In this system, twelve of the twenty teams will be involved in playoffs, leaving just eight teams not involved in playoffs, but you could almost certainly count on those teams being involved in either a MLS Cup playoff battle or a Relegation playoff battle. This system will create meaningful for a high percentage of the league without watering down the playoffs and keeping the regular season relevant.

Columbus Crew’s Luis Diaz, left, and CF Montreal’s Joel Waterman chase the ball during the first half of an MLS soccer match Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

So what is the jeopardy of Tier 2? Firstly it’s still the MLS, there won’t be any dramatic financial consequences like when an English Premier League team goes to the English Championship. What will be the case though is that Tier 2 teams will have a lower salary cap than a Tier 1 team (they would still sign a DP). Also when it comes to the draft, the draft will be shaken up so that the Tier 1 teams get to draft first. For example, the promoted team will have the number one pick, and eventually, once the MLS Cup champion has made their draft pick, the team who was relegated would then select, and then the drafting would continue from the second-best Tier 2 team to the worst placed Tier 2 team.

There has to be reasons to not want to be in Tier 2, and nobody wants to seriously stifle the finances of any team, so a reasonably lower salary cap and high draft placing is a fair punishment for being in the second tier, as well as the obvious omission from being able to compete for the MLS Cup.


So when the league does expand, the idea is to grow both leagues. So when/if the league reaches thirty teams, the first to do is to balance tier 2, creating a Tier 2 of ten. All expansion teams will be required to start in Tier 2 but once Tier 2 reaches a certain size, it will be time to expand on the promotion/relegation. At thirty-two, the top two teams in Tier 2 will be promoted, and the bottom two teams from each Tier 1 conference will be automatically relegated. Then if the MLS ever got to forty, the top three teams will be promoted. As for Tier 1, the bottom two teams will still be automatically relegated, and the second worst team in each conference will have a one-game playoff where the loser becomes the third relegated side. The idea of expanding playoff/relegation is that while the Tier 2 league grows, there is an attempt to try and limit the number of meaningless games as possible.


In this scenario, the MLS can continue to grow further just as soccer continues to grow in North America. It is also a lot more enticing for Europeans and South Americans to get interested in the MLS, improving the MLS brand across the world. Players will be playing more meaningful games, the playoff system is kept and for fans – there’s a lot more at stake and a reason to go to games when it’s September and your team is out of playoff contention.

Now, will this happen? I honestly don’t think so, especially with the MLS expanding the playoffs. But it’s fun to dream!

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One thought on “Fixing the MLS Promotion/Relegation Problem

  1. Your basic premise is faulty in that most USL clubs would be more than financially capable of stepping up to the next level and they’re more than ready to do so. The only thing keeping them out is the MLS. The MLS owners have built themselves a nice little closed system that forever dooms it to being a backwater compared to European leagues.

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