We imagine that if you’re a fan of Charleston Battery, you’re also a fan of soccer further afield. By that, we’re not only referring to the MLS. We’re also referring to European football. If you are, you’ll already be aware of a proposal that threatened to derail soccer in Europe altogether a few weeks ago and then disappeared just as quickly. That proposal was the European Super League.
The league, proposed by twelve of the biggest clubs in Europe but promoted mainly by England’s Manchester United and Spain’s Real Madrid, would have involved all the teams involved in it effectively resigning from the existing UEFA-led European competitions and competing between themselves instead. The founder members of the league would be guaranteed a place in the competition every year, with selected guests joining them for a single season based on their domestic performances in the prior year. It would have resulted in huge clubs playing each other regularly, and some of the mismatches we occasionally see in European competition becoming a thing of the past.
The idea was shot down by politicians, fans, and even players and managers connected to the clubs involved before it even got off the ground. The chief criticism directed at the failed initiative was that it was driven by greed, with the big clubs wanting to profit from playing each other while excluding smaller ones. The second loudest criticism directed at the European Super League, though, was that it was “too American.”
The “too American” criticism is hard to understand unless you have a good understanding of how European soccer works. The Super League would have created a “closed shop,” within which the founder members were guaranteed a position in the league every season regardless of their performance. They could finish bottom of the table and not score a single point, but they’d be welcomed back into the same competition the following year regardless. If this doesn’t sound strange to you, it’s because you’re familiar with the MLS, and you’re comfortable with it. American teams can’t be relegated from the league they’re in because relegation doesn’t exist in the MLS. The whole concept of promotion and relegation is generally seen as financial lunacy.
This idea of creating a closed shop, though, flies in the face of the European concept of sporting fair play. In the professional divisions of England, Spain, Germany, France, Italy, and just about everywhere else, teams that finish at the bottom of their divisions are relegated out of them for the following season. The best-performing teams from the divisions beneath them are promoted in their place. If we use England as an example, there are four professional divisions: The Premier League, the Championship, League One, and League Two. A team that performs particularly badly – Blackpool, for example – can be relegated down from the Premier League to League 2 if their poor performances recur season after season. It took just six years for Blackpool to drop from the Premier League to League 2. They’re currently on their way back up again. Clubs that drop down the divisions suffer from reduced attendances, reduced television money, and lower prestige across the board. Relegation can cause financial hardship, but it adds to the drama. It’s also a good incentive not to get relegated. The battle to avoid relegation is usually as thrilling as the battle to win the league. European football wouldn’t be the same without it.
The lack of relegation and promotion means Charleston Battery – one of the oldest teams in the USL – will never have any prospect of playing MLS. Even if they dominated USL one season, they’d still be playing USL the season after. There’s no prospect of growing the club, no prospect of boosting revenue, and nothing to play for beyond the status quo. This is how we’re used to conducting soccer in America, and it’s not likely to change any time soon. The owners of the MLS clubs look upon the league like a massive casino game, where cash payouts are available for the best possible lineups. If you want to get that big cash payout from the casino, you have to line up the most valuable games. This is why the concept of relegation wouldn’t work well on the casinos in the UK, and that’s why players need review sites such as Sister Site to help understand it all. It’s not as compelling an argument when you use it to explain why MLS teams are consistently rewarded for coming last, and USL teams get nothing for winning the competition. In an ironic way, though, could an ESL-like idea benefit Battery?
The idea of the ESL was to bring together teams from across the continent and have them play against each other every week. Domestic leagues would be unaffected because ESL fixtures would have been played midweek. In other words, Manchester United could have continued playing in the English Premier League every weekend and then competed in the European Super League on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays. There would be a lot of games to play, but the bread and butter of their “home” competition wouldn’t change. This could be replicated in North America and perhaps South America as well. Charleston Battery may never be allowed to compete outside the USL, but it could play MLS teams in a separate competition. Those USL and MLS teams could be joined by teams from Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and elsewhere. It needn’t replace USL or MLS – it could run alongside it.
We suspect that this will never happen. The MLS would view it as a threat to their income and worry that it would make their competition appear second-tier by comparison. We also suspect that those who run MLS will be as reluctant to introduce promotion and relegation in ten years as they are today. Someone needs to come up with a big idea sometime soon, though, because American soccer is stale and will remain stale until someone becomes brave enough to change it. The ESL was thrown out because there was a fundamentally flawed idea at the heart of it – but the idea of a more rigidly organised inter-continental competition is a good one, and it could benefit teams across the Americas.
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