This season has not been kind to Portland Timbers fans. While it could have been worse (see: Toronto FC) the truth is that most of us wrote off the playoffs a few months ago, despite the Timbers still, to this day, being mathematically able to make the playoffs. They're just not a post-season team. We know this and so does the front office.
Which brings me to my point: the late season for Timbers fans is kind of boring this year. I mean, for those of us who are diehards, we'll be watching for a few reasons:
- We love the Timbers and to go even a couple weeks without a home game is unbearable.
- We want to know who will be able to prove they've earned a spot next year.
- We generally just love watching soccer.
For everybody else? Well...
Which brings me to my point: MLS needs an alternative to the EPL's (or other big European league's) relegation battle.
For those that are unfamiliar with the relegation and promotion system (if you are feel free to sip to the next section), the concept is fairly easy to understand though entirely foreign to the American sports pyramid. Essentially it's a way for teams within a national soccer federation to move up and down within the various league divisions. Think MLB and AAA baseball or MLS and the NASL/USL (where the Timbers played prior to 2011).
The idea is that if your team is bad enough they can be relegated from the top league and be sent to the next lowest league. Conversely, if you're team is really good they can be promoted from their current league to the next one above them based on their merits in the previous season.
It's a fun system that, despite causing grief among relegated team's fans, is able to instill a sense of urgency and excitement to an otherwise dull end of the season for bottom dwelling teams.
So How Does This Work in MLS?
It doesn't. Major League Soccer does not have any form of promotion or relegation. Instead we have the play-offs, a typical American feature of sports leagues. And while the play-offs create a similar sort of excitement for teams reaching for one of those 10 precious spots, the MLS clubs at the bottom are pretty much left out in the cold.
The truth is that MLS will never have promotion or relegation under its current system of control. Perhaps they could work it in somewhere (perhaps by buying one of the lower leagues) but that's decades away... at the earliest.
For now, there's only one option I can realistically think of:
Obviously, that's a humorous title on my part not meant to be taken seriously, but the idea is a fairly fun one.
In MLS, the current bottom teams are pretty much given special treatment heading into the next season in the form of allocation money, top draft picks, etc. It's a way to make them more competitive and give their fans hope that the following season won't be as gut wrenching as the previous. It doesn't always work (see: Toronto FC) but it can certainly help.
But what if the off season "suck" spoils weren't divided merely based on your final placement within the table. What if, instead, the bottom dwelling teams had to earn said rewards in the form of another, separate play off system?
So, for example, a final table like what we have now would see Chivas USA, Portland Timbers, New England Revolution, Philadelphia Union, Toronto FC and other non-playoff MLS teams take part in a play-off tournament that would determine their draft placement, and allocation money bonus for the following season. The catch is that the losingest team (see: Toronto FC) wouldn't just be handed the best bonuses, they would have to fight for them.
The winner of said "Crap-Offs" would then be given the top draft pick order and most amount of allocation money not as a consolation prize, but as a reward for showing that they are better able to put on a better performance for their fans next season?
Sound unfair? Yeah, it is. But that's what makes it exciting.
MLS is probably pretty comfortable with their current system, but the unfortunate truth is that prime MLS stadiums in places like Toronto, Portland and Philadelphia (among others) will sit empty for an extra month out of the year. Additionally, while players from teams in the playoffs will be honing their skills among the league's elite clubs, said players from non-playoff teams will be sent on vacation.
So why bother with this idea at all? Three simple answers:
- Fan excitement. Many EPL fans will regale you with stories of exciting relegation matches. While the Crap-Offs won't be exactly the same, it's better people are talking about them and the teams participating than nothing.
- Revenue. I can't speak for all clubs, but I have a hard time not believing that teams in some cities won't be able to attract modest to above average crowds to games given the significant impact it could have next season.
- The Players. By this time on some teams, there are players who will probably sit back and begin resting. I mean, do current TFC players even care anymore? This tournament could give them that extra spark to prove their worth beyond earning a measly three points for nothing.
What do you guys think? Should MLS stay the way it is? Introduce a system like what I've written out? Or do something else entirely?