The Future of Professional Soccer in North America

We focus a lot on European Football on this site, primarily in England and the various continental competitions. This is kind of odd in a way, since we (Chris and I) are located in the United States, which has its own professional soccer league as well. We even have a club – Real Salt Lake – that actually won the MLS Cup, and tends to do better than most in the league.

My personal dislike of the league has multiple facets, but primary on the list is that the level of play – and quality of players – just isn’t on par with a lot of the European leagues. In FiveThirtyEight’s Global Club Soccer Ratings,* Sporting Kansas City, the first MLS club on the list, is ranked 170th, behind all 20 Premier League clubs, six Championship clubs, and even three clubs from Liga MX. The average ranking of all 23 MLS clubs is 340 (median of 335), and range from Sporting KC’s 170 to Colorado Rapids’ 539 (out of 628 total clubs). By average club ranking, MLS ranks 19th out of the 33 leagues ranked by FiveThirtyEight, just behind the Greek Super League and just ahead of the Japanese J1 League, which aren’t leagues that are known for their overall quality.

*As of 22 October 2018.

This tweet from a couple of weeks ago has had my mind spinning about what would make soccer in the Americas more compelling:

This ESPN article provided a context that I hadn’t quite thought about either: with North America winning the rights to host to 2026 World Cup together – early rounds will be played in Mexico, Canada, and the United States, with the final most likely held in MetLife Stadium in “New York” – the thought is it could result in a combined North American soccer league of some kind, perhaps even one with multiple divisions and relegation, not to mention a schedule more in line with what the top leagues in Europe play.

But how this would occur is open to some debate. Simply combining Major League Soccer and Liga MX would result in a league with 44 teams.* This would make it the largest professional league in the Americas, if not the world, and would probably be pretty unwieldy from a logistics perspective. But Liga MX remains the most watched soccer league in the United States, much to the dismay of the folks within MLS, so it would make sense that the leagues would look to combine, especially if it was in a way that would be beneficial from both a media rights perspective and competitive one.

*MLS is in line to expand to 26 teams by the 2020 season, with the pending additions of FC Cincinnati (2019) and Inter Miami CF and Nashville (2020). 

It was reported last summer that the MLS leadership rejected a $4 billion media rights deal from MP & Silva Group that would have required the league to introduce a promotion and relegation system into a league that has resisted one since its found in 1996. Instead, the league has continued to drive forward with growth through expansion (much like other North American leagues), and believes that new owners – some of which are paying $150 million just to bring a team into the league – would not want to turn around and be relegated to a lower league, thus diminishing the amount of money they could make and the values of their teams. Like the United States’ stubborn marriage to the imperial system for measurement, when the rest of the world is using the metric system, Major League Soccer’s refusal to even consider a promotion/relegation system will keep them mired as the 19th best league in the world.

There are some other things that would have to change for such a system to be implemented. MLS would have to go away from its centralized personnel structure, with the league owning all player contracts and allocating the players to the individual clubs. This has managed to keep average player salaries lower than most other professional leagues, with only “designated players” making salaries commensurate with top European leagues. This is why the MLS lacks the quality of players that are found in other professional leagues, or why the top European players “retire” to play in MLS after their peak earning years have expired in Europe. A $4 billion media rights deal could have helped to elevate those salaries, thus increasing the quality of players in the MLS, but as long as the league maintains ownership over all the player contracts, this will be hard to overcome.

But let’s take a step back from all of that and truly examine what a North American super league would look like. I’ve spent entirely too much time trying to figure out what it could possibly look like if MLS and Liga MX decided to come together, and over the next few pieces of this series, I’ll try and break down what it would look like. I’ll be working under the assumption that all the personnel stuff will be figured out, and that the MLS will stop expanding after the current planned expansion in 2020.

I’ll be using that date as a starting point for this little experiment as well, which would align with the entry into media rights’ negotiations for the next contract that begins in 2023. I’m also assuming that like the 1994 World Cup led to MLS, the 2026 World Cup will lead to what I’m calling the North American Premier League that will launch sometime around 2023. It will be a multi-tier system, similar to the English soccer pyramid, and will feature clubs from Canada, Mexico, and the United States. I’ll go over some of the financial pieces that would have to be included to make this all work – and to incentivize the clubs that will have to start out on Level 2 of the pyramid.

Will this ever happen? Probably not, so this may be nothing more than a thought experiment. The United States has never seen a league that promotes and relegates based on performance, and the foundation of a league period have been neglected and are not as strong as they are in other countries. The United States doesn’t really have a solid foundation built into US Soccer, and though there are nominally 119 teams “below” the MLS in the “pyramid,” the stability has not really been in place in those league like it has been in other football associations around the world. This would be a radical change in the way that US leagues operate, which is why it would probably never happen.

So follow along as I build on this though experiment and try to make soccer in North America more like football around the world. There has to be a better and more lucrative way, especially on a continent that can pull from nearly 500 million people to fill the various levels of a soccer pyramid.

Until next time…

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