Fantasy Futból: What would MLS, NASL, USL look like under Pro/Rel in 2015?



Before I get into my piece, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am—by no means—a “Pro/Rel Truther.” I am not a “Pro/Rel Extremist.” I am not going to blow up your Twitter notifications when you talk about how much you love the MLS playoffs. Nor am I going to yell from the mountaintops that Rochester Rhinos deserve a shot to play against NASL teams next season (even if I think they’d actually do fairly well).

Ladies and gentlemen, I am a realist. The soccer league structure in America is not what it is in other countries. We have closed leagues. We have franchises and single entity structures. We have MLS reserve sides playing alongside longstanding independent clubs. We can argue over whether or not we have “clubs” at all or whether we have franchised businesses. Whatever we have, it is what it is.

The purpose of this article is not to say “what we have is terrible, and we need to be like Europe.”

The purpose of this article is, “what if…?”

For the purposes of this article, I am God. Like, the God. I’d have to be God because He—and only He—could bring about the necessary changes to the American soccer league pyramid—and He’d still have to win a couple of lengthy court battles to do so.

You may call me “Soccer God” (apologies to Kev Brown).

As “Soccer God,” my first order of business is to decree that America’s soccer leagues must abandon their “heathen” closed system and find true salvation through the tried and true European system of promotion and relegation.

The first problem is that the number of teams in each division are uneven. We can fix that. We all agree that 20 teams is a nice round number for a top division. (We’ll forget for a second that the Bundesliga is one of the world’s top leagues and has 18, but that’s irrelevant to our conversation on the basis that it doesn’t support a tin foil narrative).

MLS is currently at a nice round 20 teams. We’ll leave that as it is.

The NASL is… well… a party in desperate need of some flavor. Let’s fix that. Firstly, we will allow the 2016 NASL expansion teams—Puerto Rico FC and Miami FC—to enter straight into the second division. Why not make them start at the bottom? I am Soccer God, and sins can be bought off and absolved through indulgences, that’s why. So that leaves the NASL with an uneven 13 clubs. They’ll need some help.

To get the NASL up to 20 teams, we will promote a whopping nine teams from the third division USL to the NASL. Why nine? We’ll get to that in a minute.

What about all those MLS “2” teams that are in the USL? They’re not invited to the party. Your Soccer God has decreed that no “MLS 2” team can be promoted above the third division, even if they finish in an automatic promotion spot. In that instance, the next eligible independent club will acquire that place. What about Rio Grande Valley FC or Bethlehem Steel FC, who are “MLS 2” clubs but are loosely independent… Uh… Next question!

Who goes up and who goes down? Great question! For this first season—where all the leagues need to be evened out—the promotion and relegation system will be somewhat complicated. In MLS, we’re going to the one true table, the single table. The bottom three clubs in the single table will be relegated straight down in to the NASL. They will be replaced by 3 clubs from that division—the top two points leaders—who will qualify automatically—and the winners of a home & home playoff between the teams with the 3rd and 4th highest points totals.

At the bottom of the NASL, the bottom two clubs will be relegated to the USL. As mentioned earlier, nine non-MLS “2” clubs will be promoted from the USL to MLS. The top seven will be promoted automatically. Teams 8–11 (again, presuming they are not MLS “2” clubs) will play a home & home playoff. The winner of each series will join the NASL in 2016.

Wow! Isn’t that wild?!

When the dust finally settles, we will have 20 MLS clubs, 20 NASL clubs and 21 USL clubs in 2016.

(What about all those expansion teams joining in the next few years?) Uh… Next question!

Almost every team across three leagues will have something to play for, especially in the USL.

Now I know the MLS, NASL, and USL regular seasons are already over and nobody started the year thinking that their league form would jeopardize their place in their league, but I am a vengeful Soccer God, and I am applying my pro/rel system to this season’s standings, discarding the conferences and split-season stats along the way.

Behold! The final tables!

MLS   Pts.
1 New York Red Bulls 60 MLS Champion
2 FC Dallas 60 CONCACAF Champions League
3 Columbus Crew SC 53 CONCACAF Champions League
4 Vancouver Whitecaps FC 53 CCL Playoff
5 Portland Timbers 53 CCL Playoff
6 Montreal Impact 51
7 D.C. United 51
8 Seattle Sounders FC 51
9 LA Galaxy 51
10 Sporting Kansas City 51
11 New England Revolution 50
12 Toronto FC 49
13 San Jose Earthquakes 47
14 Orlando City SC 44
15 Houston Dynamo 42
16 Real Salt Lake 41
17 New York City FC 37
18 Philadelphia Union 37 Relegated to NASL
19 Colorado Rapids 37 Relegated to NASL
20 Chicago Fire 30 Relegated to NASL
1 New York Cosmos 56 Promoted to MLS
2 Ottawa Fury FC 56 Promoted to MLS
3 Minnesota United FC 53 Promotion Playoff
4 Fort Lauderdale Strikers 41 Promotion Playoff
5 Tampa Bay Rowdies 39
6 Carolina RailHawks 35
7 FC Edmonton 35
8 Atlanta Silverbacks 33
9 Indy Eleven 33
10 San Antonio Scorpions 31 Relegated to USL
11 Jacksonville Armada FC 31 Relegated to USL
USL Pts.
1 Rochester Rhinos 61 Promoted to NASL
2 Louisville City FC 48 Promoted to NASL
3 Orange County Blues FC 47 Promoted to NASL
4 OKC Energy FC 47 Promoted to NASL
5 Charleston Battery 46 Promoted to NASL
6 Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC 46 Promoted to NASL
7 Sacramento Republic FC 46 Promoted to NASL
8 LA Galaxy II 45 Ineligible for Promotion Above 3rd Division
9 New York Red Bulls II 42 Ineligible for Promotion Above 3rd Division
10 Seattle Sounders FC 2 42 Ineligible for Promotion Above 3rd Division
11 Pittsburgh Riverhounds 41 Promotion Playoff
12 Richmond Kickers 41 Promotion Playoff
13 Charlotte Independence 40 Promotion Playoff
14 Harrisburg City Islanders 39 Promotion Playoff
15 Tulsa Roughnecks FC 39
16 Portland Timbers 2 35 Ineligible for Promotion Above 3rd Division
17 Saint Louis FC 33
18 Austin Aztex 33
19 Arizona United SC 32
20 Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 30 Ineligible for Promotion Above 3rd Division
21 Real Monarchs SLC 29 Ineligible for Promotion Above 3rd Division
22 FC Montreal 28 Ineligible for Promotion Above 3rd Division
23 Toronto FC II 23 Ineligible for Promotion Above 3rd Division
24 Wilmington Hammerheads FC 19


NYCFC narrowly avoid the drop in their first season on goal difference. That means that the MLS 2016 season will have all three New York teams battling it out for supremacy.

Here’s what the leagues will look like next season, assuming the top seeds win all their promotion playoff matches.

MLS in 2016 NASL in 2016 USL in 2016
Columbus Crew SC Atlanta Silverbacks Arizona United SC
D.C. United Carolina RailHawks Bethlehem Steel FC
FC Dallas Charleston Battery Charlotte Independence
Houston Dynamo Chicago Fire FC Cincinnati
LA Galaxy Colorado Rapids FC Montreal
Minnesota United FC Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC Harrisburg City Islanders
Montreal Impact FC Edmonton Jacksonville Armada FC
New England Revolution Fort Lauderdale Strikers LA Galaxy II
New York City FC Indy Eleven New York Red Bulls II
New York Cosmos Louisville City FC Orlanco City B
New York Red Bulls Miami FC Portland Timbers 2
Orlando City SC OKC Energy FC Real Monarchs SLC
Ottawa Fury FC Orange County Blues FC Rio Grande Valley FC
Portland Timbers Philadelphia Union Saint Louis FC
Real Salt Lake Pittsburgh Riverhounds San Antonio Scorpions
San Jose Earthquakes Puerto Rico FC Seattle Sounders FC 2
Seattle Sounders FC Richmond Kickers Swope Park Rangers KC
Sporting Kansas City Rochester Rhinos Toronto FC II
Toronto FC Sacramento Republic FC Tulsa Roughnecks FC
Vancouver Whitecaps FC Tampa Bay Rowdies Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2
Wilmington Hammerheads FC
MLS “2” Team

After this first wild season, the promotions and relegations would switch to 3-up/3-down across all divisions. In the NASL and USL, teams 1-2 would be promoted automatically with teams 3-6 competing in an English Championship style playoff.

Would it work? Could it happen? Is it better? What about the Open Cup? What about flight costs? What about the PDL and the NPSL? What about stadium size? Are we all just “sheeple” drinking the single entity Kool-Aid?

Who cares.

Support your team. Show up in huge numbers. Win consistently.

If you do those things long enough and big enough, MLS just might ask your owner for $100 million and a seat at the table.

Soccer God bless America.

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  • jimmy j

    like this hypothetical article, please do again after next year.

    I think it shows why MLS will probably be a closed system for a long time, its not like they really want an Ottawa in the league, and many others below just don’t have the financial/fan/market backing to make it big time.

    unfortunately all our teams here would not get automatic fan and big TV money support like in England, then maybe it could be considered…

    • Jordy

      True, at least Ottawa plays in a giant stadium and has a good product on the field. It would be interesting though, especially after the first year. I’m curious to see how if the 3 MLS teams would just win their way back in, or if Rochester or an NASL team could take spot away from them. Same with the teams promoted to MLS, I wonder how they would “survive” against the tougher competition. So many narratives…

  • Roger H. Ferrer

    In the first phase of such transition, while the structure is not totally stable, I would use the pro/rel mechanism as a regulating valve; opening it narrowly at first.

    The German method makes a lot of sense at this stage. One automatic spot + 2 (maybe 3) play-offs possible promotions. This way the quality difference between divisions will determine the number of promoted teams each season.

    • Jordy

      Very good point. That would be the best setup to use to start off. That way a “bad” MLS team wouldn’t get sent down to dominate while an NASL team gets destroyed for a year by every and then drops back down.

  • ty

    I just don’t care about “Leagues”. I really don’t especially since MLS gets less viewers still than the WNBA. The EPL started in 92 and changed football forever in the UK. The amount of money, stadium acquisitions,foreign talent that EPL gained from starting the PL is unprecedented. The MLS on the other hand started in 93 and hasn’t lived up to the hype IMO. I look at all soccer leagues like CFB conferences. Not like a pyramid. Cause if MLS is considered the TOP god help us.

    • Anonymous

      MLS started in 96 not 93 and grew from nothing. The EPL grew out of the football league that had been around for over 100 years. It would be like England starting a baseball league and in 20yrs trying to compare it to MLB. To compare one to the other is idiotic.

      • Smith

        Am I the only person who finds most Euro leagues dull & predictable?

        Yeah, the level of play is better but the same handful of teams win every year.

        • ty

          You’re not the only person no but the ratings would indicate you’re in the minority.

        • Ryan B

          I’m the same way. Screw the euro leagues they’re way overrated. The American leagues are where it’s at.

        • Ron

          Yea. I bet you totally predicted Chelsea collapsing. So predictable.

          • Smith

            Ok, that’s true but let’s be real. We will never see Swansea or Aston Villa or Birmingham win the league. It is always Man U or City or Chelsea with Arsenal having an outside shot.

            In Germany, Bayern is a shoo in.

            IN Spain, there are there teams.

            In Italy, two.

            Come on. That’s a drag.

            • HydraHamster

              Sports is not like the WWE. In sports, its all about finding a winning formula and staying consistently good. MLS’s and some fans views are unrealistic on the purpose of sports. Germany, Spain and Itali may have typical sports problems like those, but from top to bottom they create great players unlike ours. I’m not comparing MLS to those leagues in strength, but I am with on the way they are growing the league.

            • ty

              The problem with MLS fans is that in their mind they’re superior to anybody who watches NASL,EPL,Ligue 1,La Liga,Serie A. Lazio,Roma and Napoli are quality squads. They have an NFL mentality when it comes to footy.

              • HydraHamster

                You hit the hammer on the nail.

            • Anonymous

              Actually in Italy there are a good five teams Lazio, Roma, Juventus, Milano and Internazionale. Then Sampdoria, Napoli and Fiorentina always make a good push

      • ty

        PL was nothing like it is today. Especially since the best players in the world now play there before this they never had the international talent like Italian and Spanish leagues. Good luck finding a match on tv before 93 also.

        • Anonymous

          I love how fake you euro posers are. Which team you “supporting” this year? Man U? Barcalona? Bayern? Bet you have Messi, Ronaldo, and Rooney jerseys hanging in your closet also.

          • ty

            I support PSG but i watch Prem League though. Saw them in Charlotte in July.

          • Smith

            I’m with you. I like Roma ’cause my mother’s family is from there. I like Sheffield ’cause my father is from there.

            I don’t get how someone can wake up one day & just be a Chelsea “supporter” while living here.

            Just go see the Red Bulls or the Cosmos or the Brooklyn Italians or even NYCFC.

            I don’t get it. Maybe it’s just me.

    • slowleftarm

      Haha, the old nonsense about how MLS, NASL and USL are just different “conferences” like the Pac-12, SEC, etc. I saw a lot of this silliness before Cosmos got thrashed at RBA and NASl got destroyed by USL this year. The top teams in NASL would be lucky to get 20 points in an MLS season. And USL? I’ve been to a number of RBNY II games this year (a team that qualified for, and won a game in, the USL playoffs) and if you can’t tell that that is a significantly lower standard than MLS, you need to watch more closely.

      • ty

        Cosmos B > RBII because wining matters.

        • slowleftarm

          Actually for reserve teams winning doesn’t matter – development is the whole point of these teams. My point was that RBNY are one of the better teams in USL and they are miles below MLS standard. Same is true of NASL.

          • ty

            based on what? do you realize the Cosmos B blow teams out. They would easily compete in USL.

  • George

    I am a supporter of promotion/relegation. In due part because relegation punishes mismanagement. If you mismanage your team/franchise, then relegation or the threat of relegation should be the result. In the case of say, Chivas USA over the course of the last three years, it might have curved the bad management processes that took place there. In regards to MLS 2 teams. This isn’t a big deal. In Europe, clubs have B teams playing in lower divisions. Those teams can advance as high as the second tier (but not above) so that isn’t a big deal either.

  • Kendris Cabral

    Fantastic fiction article. Being a fan of NYRB, Sac Republic, and dare I say, the Cosmos, I love the possibilities of such a system. The US does present its challenges but the future is at our disposal. Soccer is growing, viewership is growing, the demographic is shifting, corporate sponsorship exists at all levels, and the in game environment is intoxicating. Having been to premier league, bundesliga, bundesliga 2, la liga, and a CCL games; we have much to boast about! Players worldwide talk about MLS and NASL; the quality of the game is increasing.

  • Mike

    This is pretty neat.

  • Anonymous

    A bunch of Latin leagues relegate based on a multi-year average. Any thoughts on this?

    • Bill Reese

      That’s mostly done to preserve the integrity of big name clubs. Any team can have a bad season, you have to be exceptionally bad to get relegated in Mexico or Argentina (at least in the old Argentine system). Nevermind the fact that in Mexico if you ARE relegated, you can just buy the club that gets promoted, move them to your city, and re-brand them with your club’s name. Happened with Veracruz a few years back.

      • Anonymous

        I wouldn’t mind the multi-year part – It really separates the turds,

        But that second part about purchasing your D1 is straight up shady

        • Anonymous

          As shady as buying an MLS franchise license for NYCFC?

  • Smith

    This was really well done.

    Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    Very cool article, its never going to happen but still a cool article.

  • Justin

    The cosmos being promoted to the MLS might mean they will be able their first supporter who is not related to one of the players

    • ty

      another comment about fans rather than “WINS”. They hate us cos they aint us

      • REAL OpenCupFan Knows mls fans are Suckers

        They’re anus.

      • Justin

        OK we beat you in the Open Cup. Wins and attendance.

      • Anonymous

        Winning against a bunch of nobodies isn’t much of an accomplishment.

        • REAL OpenCupFan Knows mls fans are Suckers

          This is the best synopsis of #bushleaguemls

  • Kevin

    Nice article. can u show this to the USSF. I like how much work and detail went into it and very reasonable. And I agree.I love watching the EPL, but its always the same teams. We just don’t do things like they do, but I do love the whole way this was presented

  • Bb

    There was an idea to reclassify NASL and USL.

    It is interesting how that could work.

  • REAL OpenCupFan Knows mls fans are Suckers

    USL is the best reserve league in the country, hands down. Well, until Cosmos B starts whooping that @ss.
    Not sure why anyone continues to include #budhleaguemls in these conversations – the country can have pro/rel without mls – no problem. Not only could, but should.
    btw – another topic that will get more comments than any mls related crap. Strange, considering no one wants to see pro/rel in this country.
    You wanna see pro/rel? Support your local independent soccer clubs!

    • HydraHamster

      I agree it is up to our independent leagues to start pro/reg since MLS plans to abandon them. MLS wants to be like anything, but a soccer league. Garber stated as much really in an interview that he is going MLS off of other American sports. That me to show how little they care about growing American soccer. Everything about American sports are more about business (AKA: Money) than the actual sport. We don’t have the best leagues in the world, we have the best players. The NFL, NBA and MLB do not develop nor play international competitions yearly like soccer. So why is MLS growing soccer like them when they are under FIFA instead of being just American run?

      • HydraHamster

        I mean, those sports leagues do not develop players nor have to grow under world standards.

    • ty

      COSMOS B would easily destroy a lot USL teams. They win by like 7 a lot of times.

      • slowleftarm

        Considering USL teams stomped NASL teams 7-0 in US open cup, I’m not sure that there’s any support for this statement.

  • E181

    Completely agree with hydrahamster Garner wants to compete with NFL mlb and nba which makes no sense since the winner of the Superbowl isn’t going to play the winner of the MLS cup, At the same time he says he wants to compete with the Euro leagues but he should hold up and look south of the border first, in case anybody forgot Liga MX has won like the last five champions leagues oh and their u17 team is currently kicking ass in Chile while ours was stumped in the group stage.

    • HydraHamster

      That’s more of a marketing strategy because the biggest American soccer support is in European leagues.

      • HydraHamster

        You have to remember my point. The sports side of things are treated with little importance while everything is about marketing/business. If MLS really cared about truly being a great league (when it comes to player development and team quality) they would not try to run like other American sports, but instead as a traditional soccer league.

        • MTF

          MLS is in the business of making money. It wants to be a great league to make more money. Developing American talent is not the goal, it’s a side benefit. MLS is competing with the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL for the American fans’ dollars and TV viewership. It’s all about driving money to the bottom line. Stop getting so philosophical and naive about developing the American player.

  • Anonymous

    Sort of agree. Couple exceptions

    1.) Bayern wins the league 50-60% of the time. Beneath them, there is real parity – almost NFL level.
    2.) Spain has 2.5 teams. They need to fix some of the revenue sharing for the long term health of the league
    3.) Italy has 3.5 teams with some mid table parity
    4.) England has five teams that think they can win the league. Everyone else has no chance. Parity amongst the top 5

    • Smith

      1) 50-60% is a lot. Imagine if the St, Louis Cardinals had won 52 World series since 1900.

      2) Yes. Nothing more boring that watching Real or Barca crush bottom feeders.

      3) Italy is better than most in this regard.

      4) THEY think they can win the league. WE know Liverpool can’t.

  • Anonymous

    doesn’t Canada get their own CCL slots?

    • ty

      Yeah 1 Ottawa fury fans are not happy.

      • slowleftarm

        Why not? They lost to Edmonton, who then lost to a reserve Vancouver side in the Canadian Championship. If they want a CCL spot they have to win those games.

  • Square Fish

    Hard to take this article seriously when the author can’t even get the final MLS table results correct. Seattle finished higher than Montreal and DC for example.

  • alex gago

    It’s to bad US Soccer federation has their head up their ass. Can anyone here tell me what USSOCCER federation has done to grow the game in the US?

    • HydraHamster

      USSF never in it’s 100 plus years ever had a successful first division soccer league, division pyramid and player development system. When figuring out the success, the only thing we can look at is a 1930’s 3rd place USMNT World Cup run and a few USWNT world cups and Olympic gold metals. Overall, the men’s soccer is the one with the most problems and they had more of a stable soccer history than the women’s.

      • slowleftarm

        They have a successful first division league now. 20 years ago after the NASL went defunct we had had over a decade with no professional soccer league in this country whatsoever. Now we have a 20 team (soon to be 24 team) league playing in mostly SSS with 21k average attendance and $90m a year in TV revenues and you don’t think that’s successful? Why? Because it isn’t yet as good as a few European countries where soccer is the #1 sport by far and the league has been around for 100+ years? By any realistic measure MLS is a huge success. I guess a few haters who are upset Cosmos aren’t in MLS argue otherwise but no one takes them too seriously.

  • Steve

    If people think MLS is low quality now, imagine what they will think when the Rowdies are involved.

  • jimmy j

    agree that MLS is wildly successful by any measure, only 20 years old and 100 behind established Euro leagues and US major leagues in other sports. USSF had a part in starting and funding startup of league, so money and support well spent!
    academies are growing and developing future talent, nothing great yet but it will come…

    nasl teams don’t have academies, nor are they developing young talent like MLS clubs are, plus nasl can’t even beat USL teams, so they are not contributing much to soccer’s growth in the US.

  • Donovan Ringo

    Have Savannah SC enter the the USL in 2017. First City Supporter Til I Die!!

  • Sorry Bub

    The USL is the 2nd tier.

    • ty

      USL is MLS puppet league.

  • Ezra

    What a great article. I really wish this would happen, and though I know it’s a super longshot I think there is a sliver of a chance that we might have this system in place in the US/Canada someday. The key is getting those at the top of the pyramid (MLS officials and team owners) to understand that this would grow interest in the game at all levels- quite significantly I think. Imagine- instead of teams with no shot at the playoffs simply playing out the string to a fan base that knows the games are meaningless and so have no compelling reason to show up, they have the very real possibility of ending up in a lower division and so must play their asses off, boosting attendance. Ditto for teams towards the middle who have a shot at getting promoted. The obstacle of teams who paid $100 mil to join the league (ahem, Man City) not wanting to see their investment play in the second division (along with the teams who just invested in a new stadium), is of course the obstacle. But I think over time the greater interest in the game spurred by a system like this where the teams at the top really have to prove it every year would result in increased profits for everyone. Just look at the strength of European leagues that have been using this system for decades.

    I also have to point out- I always see an argument against pro/reg that the playoffs are an American trait that should be preserved instead of promotion/relegation. But I don’t see why those two things are exclusive- simply use a single table format for purposes of determining promotion and relegation and otherwise keep the conferences, divisions, playoff excitement that we have now.

    • slowleftarm

      These are good points. As much as Cosmos fans are a bunch of irritating clowns and NASL is generally a clown league, pro/rel would be a good idea, at least down the line. People arguing against it often act like relegation is a death sentence when in fact teams can, and often do, bounce right back up. You can also have playoffs and pro/rel – like Mexico does.

      • OpenCupFan

        How do you say you want pro/rel but then support a league that has repeatedly and explicitly said it won’t allow it?

      • Ezra

        You could maybe make it more palatable to MLS by limiting it to one team, and maybe having a playoff between those two teams to see if anyone gets promoted or relegated. That would make it more unusual that it would happen but would retain the excitement of the fact that it could happen. I’d personally rather see a system as Bill describes in the article, but that might make it less scary to those who plunked down a hefty franchise fee for MLS.

        • REAL OpenCupFan Knows mls fans are Suckers

          mls is for suckers

  • Bryan

    cant’ believe I just saw this. Cool article.

    just like to point out in this alternative US soccer universe, SA Scorpions would’ve been promoted to MLS last year. What an unbelievable (maybe believable…) ****-train we road to the bottom this year.

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