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Why MLS Needs NASL Almost As Bad As NASL Needs MLS

Don Garber and MLS have already formed an informal promotion system with Division 2 teams, now it's time to formalize that relationship. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images for MLS)
Don Garber and MLS have already formed an informal promotion system with Division 2 teams, now it's time to formalize that relationship. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images for MLS)
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Over the next few weeks, NASL will be given a chance to prove its worth as a viable second division. The questions about the fledgling league's viability (and those exact questions are still not entirely clear even to some of those very close to the situation) will either be answered to an acceptable degree or the league could very well cease to exist.

As of now, there does not appear to be a backup plan. Dropping down to Division 3 is not an acceptable solution for teams like the Montreal Impact and Puerto Rico Islanders who need to be Division 2 to satisfy various business and operational needs. Moving forward as an unaffiliated league does not make financial or practical sense, as players would risk being banned from international competition and teams would risk having their contracts voided. Some teams could operate independently, as the Impact are rumored to be planning, but most of the teams will almost certainly fold.

It goes almost without saying that few people (outside of general naysayers and supporters of USL-PRO) view this as the preferable solution. USSF wants as close to a complete pyramid as is possible, the idea being that Division 2 serves as a bridge from major league (MLS) to obvious minor league (D3). NASL obviously wants to be allowed to compete at as high a level as possible, and has even indicated that they understand USSF's concerns.

Even MLS, no longer concerned with being outshined by minor league teams, must want Division 2 to thrive. MLS has been treating Division 2 as a virtual incubation chamber, watching markets and ownership mature until they are deemed ready for their "promotion." Four of the past five MLS expansion teams (including the Impact) had their roots in Division 2. While it's not inconceivable that future ownership could come out of Division 3, the increased standards USSF put on D2 seem to be clearly aimed at prepping future MLS markets. Those same standards do not exist in D3.

While this "raiding" has been seen as part of the source of the second division's struggles, as the best and most stable markets are invariably whisked away to the relative stability of MLS, you'll find few people within the organizations who would have it any other way. Let us not forget that the ownerships of all four "promoted" teams have plunked down tens of millions of dollars for the right to join MLS, and even NASL CEO Aaron Davidson has said that he has no problem with the current paradigm. MLS would be crazy to ignore obviously fertile markets, and those owners would be crazy to not at least explore the opportunity.

Understandable or not, though, it's hard to deny this unofficial system of promotion does nothing to ensure a stable second division. The best way to fix that? Formalize the relationship.

This does not have to take the form of a promotion/relegation system in the same way that exists throughout the world, and it is not something that should be attempted as a way of addressing USSF's immediate concerns. But it should be seen as the longterm answer.

The first step along this path has to be MLS buying a stake in NASL (or whatever second division league emerges). An infusion of money from MLS would immediately make NASL financially stable, and would probably make it easier for the league to attract new owners.

Now, this probably doesn't look all that different from the scenario that was rumored to be unfolding when Nike was trying to sell USL a couple of years ago. MLS ultimately chose not to pursue the transaction, and in the aftermath we ended up with our current predicament, at least part of which was predicated by NASL owners wanting more independence.

While NASL teams would lose a fair amount of autonomy under this plan, they would gain significant stability. This stability should be enough to entice enough independent ownerships to make the league sufficiently diverse. As it currently stands, Traffic USA owns at least a stake in four teams.

Once the league has stable ownership in place, it can start to be integrated into MLS. Rather than operating as a literal minor league similar to baseball, D2 teams would operate independently. They would have independent ownerships and their own general managers who would make talent acquisition decisions independent of MLS teams.

As USSF seemed to envision when they outlined guidelines for D2, the most successful ownerships would then be expected to apply for first-division membership. The second division would never be allowed to go below eight teams, and the first division would have to set some cap (probably somewhere around 24). It's not remotely difficult to imagine ownership groups in places like Rochester and Orlando defecting from D3 in a scenario like this. The second division could also be supplemented by first division teams choosing to move down.

It's hard to envision any current teams choosing to move down, but it could make a lot of sense for teams in transition. A team like the San Jose Earthquakes might want to play in second division until they finished their stadium; maybe DC United would rather lower its overhead while it searches for a stadium solution; maybe the Columbus Crew would rather try their youth movement at the second division. Teams that move down should be fast-tracked back to D1 once they are deemed ready. The point isn't that current MLS teams would be forced to move down, but that this would be an option for them.

Meanwhile, MLS would create a much clearer path toward membership. Although promotion would not be determined directly by on-field results, the better teams would tend to have more involved ownerships. If those ownerships were content to operate lower-cost teams in second division, they shouldn't be forced to move up. But owners that wanted to start MLS teams would have to first start D2 teams.

At some point, a critical mass would be reached where there is no more room to promote without mandatory relegation. Maybe MLS considers a formal promotion/relegation system at that point. Maybe they don't. Either way, the U.S. soccer pyramid is more stable than it is today.