If we take a closer look at soccer in the United States and soccer in Mexico, we can see that we’re more like Mexico than we often realize.
We both have big market teams that don’t perform as well as the better organized clubs in smaller cities. Look at the stagnation of Club America (Mexico City, population of 20,000,000 in 2010) since 2006 and the recent successes of Monarcas Morelia (population of 806,000) in Mexico. In the United States compare the eternal profligacy of the New York Red Bulls (nearly 18,900,000 in 2010) with the cup-winning and Concacaf Champions League final-reaching Real Salt Lake (1,125,000).
We both have shady businessmen who own multiple teams, even though that is against FIFA’s wishes. At one time the Anschutz Entertainment Group owned six teams in MLS; having sold the Colorado Rapids, the MetroStars, D.C. United, and the Chicago Fire, AEG still owns the Los Angeles Galaxy and are partial owners of the Houston Dynamo. Likewise, the Hunt Sports Group owned three teams, but after selling Kansas City Wizards, now only owns the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas. In Mexico, the two major ownership groups are both television media companies. TV Azteca owns both Monarcas Morelia and Jaguares de Chiapas. Televisa owns Club America, San Luis F.C. and (former Primera Division team; now Liga de Ascenso team) Club Necaxa.
We both have longer distances to travel for matches than most countries. A 2000 mile flight separates Atlante FC from Club Tijuana. Similarly, nearly 2600 miles separates the New England Revolution from the Los Angeles Galaxy in the United States. In contrast, the longest distance in England, that between the Northeast teams, Newcastle and Sunderland, to the London clubs is around 250 miles.
However there are important differences with regard to promotion and relegation, youth structure, and sports culture. There are many things that the American soccer world can learn from it’s southern neighbor.
First on the docket is the issue of promotion and relegation, and that’s what this post will focus on. The most commonly touted arguments against the implementation of this system in the United States are the hypothetical state of the league if it loses a major market like New York or Los Angeles (or both), the continuing failure of the American lower divisions, and the outrageous expansion fees that owners paid to join the league.
The system that operates in Mexico has protected the biggest (or second biggest if you want to argue) club in the country from getting relegated. Club America has been downright awful in recent seasons but they avoided relegation due to the points they acquired in previous seasons. Relegation from the Mexican Primera Division is based on the average points per game of each team based on the previous 6 seasons (Torneos), which goes back 3 years.
So hypothetically, if a repeat of the 2009 MLS season arises in which the New York Red Bulls finish last in the league, disaster will not strike. The league wouldn’t lose the New York market through the relegation of the Red Bulls because their results from previous seasons would buoy their average. Instead, a team that is mediocre or underperforming over a much longer time would get the boot, which in a way, is the essence of relegation.
Soccer activists (for lack of a better term) also cite the potential disgrace if a team from the lower divisions that currently plays on a high school field, currently Charlotte, Dayton and Pittsburgh (though the Riverhounds are in the process of building their own facilities), or a college campus, currently LA Blues and Edmonton, ever got promoted to MLS. Imagine the indignity of forcing former international super stars, in the mold of Thierry Henry, to play at a high school soccer field. This point is rather moot as the country’s soccer governing body, the United States Soccer Federation, recently issued guidelines on stadium specifics for division 2 clubs.
Anyway, in case this is still a problem in the future there is a simple solution. The Scottish Premier League requires clubs to meet requirements regarding playing field and stadium before allowing promotion from the First Division. If the second division club does not meet this requirements, there is no promotion or relegation involving the top flight for that season and the would be relegated club stays up. An expanded version of this precedent would provide a screening process for promotion contenders, for example, preventing clubs for advancing if they don’t have a stadium of 12,000 seats not on a college or high school campus.
I recently had the pleasure of attending a second division match in Puebla, Mexico. The match was between BUAP Lobos (affiliated to a university in Puebla) and Pumas Morelos (a youth/reserve/mostly u23 team affiliated with Primera Division team UNAM Pumas). The nationally televised match was held at the brand new 20,700 capacity Estadio Olimpico de Ciudad Universitaria, which was about 3/4 full of fans (attendance figures in Mexico are hard to come by). Some were life long and die hard Lobos fan. Some were disenfranchised Puebla FC fans (Puebla FC is quite terrible). Some were Pumas fans who were reveling the chance to see their club’s rising young talent. Some were drunk, most weren’t. One thing is for sure, everyone was excited about the product on the field and the atmosphere in the stadium.
In addition to Pumas, Cruz Azul also has an affiliate team in the Mexican second division, the Liga de Ascenso. Liga de Ascenso translates to Promotion League, and all the 15 teams are battling to gain entry to the country’s top division. The year is split into two seasons, or torneos; one in the fall and one in the spring. At the end of each of the regular seasons (the Apertura or the Clausura), the top seven teams qualify for a play-off tournament with the top seed getting a bye to the semifinals. The winner of the Apertura play-offs faces the winner of the Clausura play-offs to decide the Liga de Ascenso champion which moves up to the Primera Division. If the same team wins both torneos, they are promoted automatically. On two occasions, Cruz Azul’s farm team, C.A. Hidalgo, won a torneo but ultimately lost in the promotion championship match.
A system like this could work in the United States because of the country’s fascination with playoff races. The folks over at ESPN could easily spin a Cinderella story about a team of nobodies from a small market taking the league table by storm for a late postseason qualification and taking that momentum all the way to the playoff finals.
A playoff race with national implications could, in theory, draw up support for a second division soccer league. Allowing MLS clubs to have full affiliations with lower division teams, like what occurs in Mexico, would be a nice way to give promising young talent the chance to develop in a highly competitive atmosphere. Heck, you might even get a few more fans at a match in Tampa Bay or Charlotte or Rochester if every year you got to see the next big things coming through the pipeline in Los Angeles or Salt Lake.
While those tweaks could help manufacture fan support for a second division soccer league in the United States, one thing more than anything needs to happen to advance lower division soccer. The central governing body of the sport, in this case the United States Soccer Federation, needs to take a more active role. Instead of administering the league system, as the Mexican Football Federation (FMF in Spanish) does, USSF merely sanctions leagues and largely lets them govern themselves. This hands-off approach by U.S. Soccer has led to tribalism and political fighting between would-be leagues, typified by the rivalry between the North American Soccer League (division 2) and United Soccer Leagues’ USL-Pro (division 3).
Though top heavy, the FMF represents the four recognized tiers of professional (and semi-professional) soccer, as well as the amateur. All five levels have a say in the General Assembly; the Primera Division with 18 clubs has 55% of the votes, the Liga de Ascenso with 15 clubs has 5%, the Segunda Division with 64 clubs has 18%, the Tercera Division with 244 clubs has 13%, and the Amateur section has 9%. In addition, there is a National Council made up of a representative of each of the five divisions that is elected for four year terms.
To argue that the USSF does not favor MLS at the expense of other leagues would be foolish. Current USSF President Sunil Gulati is the former president of the New England Revolution ownership group and still acts an as advisor to the Kraft Group. Though it would be a radical departure from precedent, adopting a format similar to that of the FMF would act as a lifeline to lower division soccer in America. The stabilizing impact of centralizing the second and third (and fourth) tiers of the soccer leagues in this country could act as a springboard that catapults awareness and popularity.
The biggest obstacle to this move, as in promotion/relegation, is the amount of money that has already been invested in the existing structures of American soccer. Past expansion fees for MLS clubs has been $40 million, but with the raising profile of the league, officials are now looking at much more. In a recent interview, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said:
“In 2007 we were asking around $7 million, and last year [teams] sold for $40 million. This could be in the $75 to $100 million [range].”
Seattle, Philadelphia, Portland, Vancouver and Montreal’s owners all dropped between $20 and $40 million to join MLS. How do you, as league officials or the USSF, reconcile that cost if the Carolina Railhawks win promotion next year? Do you force Carolina’s ownership group to fork over $40 million only to get relegated at the end of the season (there is an observed phenomenon called the yo-yo club in which a newly promoted team is usually favorite to get relegated the next year)?
There was a story I ran across a few years back in which a man who owned two teams in a Central American country sold the right to promotion to another team. He already owned a first division team and his second division team won its championship. Instead of letting that second division team get promoted, resulting in him owning divisional rivals, he sold the permit to play in the top flight to another club. I wish I could find that story because, if it was legal, it would set a precedent for USSF to charge for the right to get promoted.
In the articles, posts, and (often irrational) discussions that swirl around the issue of merit based promotion in American soccer we usually have our attention focused on Europe or Japan. However, I think there are a lot of aspects of the Mexican football system that can be effectively implemented and successfully utilized in the United States.
Look for follow-up pieces on youth development and sports culture in the near future.