Hummer: U.S. World Cup miss makes best case yet for Promotion – Relegation need in Major League Soccer

If ever a case was made for finding a better way to teach American players how to compete with everything on the line no matter what level of opponent or circumstance, Tuesday night’s loss by the U.S. Men’s National Team to Trinidad and Tobago was it.

Our players, the same ones that walked over Panama four days earlier in Orlando, played like they had all the time in the world last night. There was no sense of urgency, no reaction when a fluke goal went in early, and no material change to the tactics of the game or improvement in defensive organization.

From the opening whistle, the U.S. team was set up to try and play the same old textbook game of possess, switch the point of attack, and hope strong and fast forwards would finish against a physically weaker and presumably less organized opponent. Slowed by a sloppy field and 10-players behind the ball by the opponent, little changed for most of the game despite everything that was on the line. 2-0 down at the half could have been much worse when you look at the no-call penalty and the fortunate recovery by Tim Howard to get his shoulder to a ball he had over-committed to on a short hop.

+READ: USMNT eliminated from World Cup contention with loss to Trinidad & Tobago

We have the athletes. We should have won the game on paper 100 times in a row. What was missing was urgency, and it was missing at every level until maybe in the final minutes when Clint Dempsey nearly saved the day by taking the game to the opponent directly. The same Dempsey who saved Fulham from relegation from the Premier League so many years ago by the way.

It’s time to figure out a way to add a severe penalty and big reward system to our domestic league system so every player in our biggest recruiting pool deals with that pressure every day.

I understand MLS owners are unlikely to vote to risk their own clubs’ spots in the top tier. I understand that risk would reduce the size of the expansion fees MLS can command. I understand allowing promotion into the league means they lose control over the types of owners and stadiums the league wants. And I understand the sponsors would do shorter term deals and be harder to convince.

There are a lot of reasons not to do promotion and relegation. But ALL of those reasons are about business, while NONE of those directly address the game itself and how our country is set up to develop players.

Long term – and we’re in this for the long term now, right? – I contend even the business payoff would be much bigger for everyone. Think about the investments that would be made in the game at every level below MLS and outside of U.S. Soccer Incorporated. The connections from youth playgrounds to MLS would be far more obvious to the entire system, and that system would invest. It’s the simple concept of a rising tide floating all boats.

Without promotion and relegation in our domestic league, players on teams not in the playoff hunt have no reason to compete beyond simply earning a paycheck or their next contract offer…

Which means we lose to teams like we did last night in the most important game we’ve played in over 30 years – against a “B” team with nothing to play for (other than becoming legends like they just did).

Without promotion and relegation in our domestic leagues, fans don’t pay attention or add pressure to their teams soon enough if a season starts off slow…

Which means they don’t start conversations and social media rants that generate ideas, pressure and media attention that cause club management to look really hard every day at the soccer they put on the field.

Without promotion and relegation in our domestic leagues, coaches aren’t fired often enough…

Which means too many aren’t held accountable enough for the players they chose or how they’re deployed, while fewer coaches with fresh ideas get chances to break into the game at the higher levels.

Without promotion and relegation in our domestic leagues, the media doesn’t ask enough hard questions because nothing really matters until the playoff race solidifies…

Which means very few people in club management beyond the head coaches ever have to answer for their decisions at every level of a club.

Without promotion and relegation in our domestic leagues, talented players and coaches in lower levels don’t get enough attention and the opportunities that would come with it…

Which means players and coaches who might have truly gone on to be great – and inspired thousands more to follow their paths – give up too soon in their careers.

Without promotion and relegation in our domestic leagues, owners aren’t motivated enough to invest more in youth development…

Which means our upside-down youth system of pay-to-play will continue to lead the day, and a million players per generation from lower income levels who ‘might have been’, will never find a path to the next level.

Without promotion and relegation in our domestic league, we will never win a World Cup.


We don’t have to do promotion and relegation like they do in other countries to enjoy most of the benefits. There can be other incentives to keep teams fighting and fans tuned in all season. There can be grandfathering and second chances, probationary periods, and more to ease into the process over a decade if needed. There can be parachute payments, bundled TV deals and revenue sharing. And MLS could buy USL to make it all an easier process overall.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Perhaps this devastating nightmare of missing out on the World Cup will finally give us the will.

P.S. And while we’re at it, let’s do solidarity payments so youth clubs finally have the motivation to prepare players to be pros rather than just focus on getting college scholarships.

By | October 11, 2017 | 20 Comments | Tags: , ,


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  1. Jay Baker says:

    We put up with a lot of “that’s just the way it is” assumptions – like there will never be promotion/relegation in MLS – and then expect a glorious outcome in spite of knowing there’s many institutional obstacles. We need to be able to consistently pound any country with less than 2% of our population, but we obviously don’t.

    College boys like Tab Ramos snuck us through in 1990, and we’ve been running mostly on enthusiasm ever since – but now they need to get serious about recruiting elite athletes before they go into football, basketball, and baseball. Passion and flair — upscale suburbs are not the best source.

    Sports in US are dominated by the college program, but with varying effects. Money in college football is outrageous, and siphons off most gifted athletes, often with little accountability on the academic side. A major issue in college soccer is that it’s not the same sport, mentality can’t develop with the substitution rules and clock.

    But most of the damage is done at age 15 when flair and creativity is eliminated. I’m sure it varies – but what I’ve seen most of the damage coming from is coach egos – their little fiefdom doesn’t exist in other cultures – nor does age segregation. Either the kids are on the street playing with all different ages of kids, or they are in a club that’s a hundred years old and has a mission to develop pros. The team ranking systems like GOT Soccer are enormously damaging. Pressure from the parents makes each coach make so many micro-decisions about what improves the ranking, rather than how a kid will develop – sit on the bench so we can win this game.

    US Club at least bulldozed a lot of the bureaucratic junk, but a lot more assumptions will need to be challenged to get to the root of the issues. Don’t know if Sunil and Dan Flynn have another reset left in them.

  2. Jeff says:

    Hey Dan. Brazil winning a WC without ProRel is irrelevant. The USA will never win a WC without major reform which at the very least involbed an Americanized version of ProRel. As for your Terry Pratchett quote, “I fart in your general direction…”

  3. Doug says:

    I thought the issue is quality depth at positions within MLS teams, so that there is constant internal competition to improve. Didn’t the recent CBA try to incentivize appearance. For example, if you make the 18-man travel squad, a player would receive a bump in pay, etc.

    I am not an expert in pro/rel, but if a top tier club was relegated or went into financial administration, wouldn’t the club sell off its assets since the amount of money from an EPL broadcast contract is no longer coming in to offset wages. And, so a player that was on a relegated team may end up back in the top flight without actually earning his way back up. So, I’m not sure if you can always say pro/rel is essential in development. Not every case is going to be as romantic as Jay Demerit’s rise from a 9th tier club to the Premier League.

    Finally, you use Clint Dempsey as an example. I would argue his upbringing had almost more to do with his development than fight to stay away from relegation at Fulham. There was an excellent article a number of years back where it discusses his times as a teenager playing in pick-up games in Nagodoches, TX against fully grown men. It is where he started developing his creative flair and his toughness as he would get knocked off the ball.

  4. dav says:

    This sounded like a 12 year old wrote it. Pro/rel isn’t happening. This isn’t England. Go away.

  5. Ankl Brkr says:

    There are so many problems with our Youth and NT systems, it cannot be attributed to one thing in particular. It is incredibly frustrating for someone, like myself, who has a grow-mindset and wants to see progress. Everyone on this post/article and countless others has said something relevant and important advocating for change, but the question is… how do we fix it, put things on the right track, and end this never-ending cycle of frustration? With whatever new youth or pro league that pops up next, it’s still not going to produce a Messi or Marta or even a Lewandowski or Lady unless we blow up the entire system as it stands. Pay-to-play and regurgitating the same like-minded people at the top is not going to produce one. Coaches that have a fixed-mindset and worry about results first instead of progressive play is not going to produce one. Having athletic and hard-working cookie-cutter players on our YNTs and NTs is not going to produce progressive results on the field either. I love our grit, I love our work ethic, I love our no-quit attitude (even if we lacked a bit of all the above throughout the Hex), but we need world-class players to get to and consistently stay at a world-class level. With that said, I do not want to hear the excuse we are not getting the best athletes in the US to play soccer either.

    It starts with our youth systems and ends with the NTs. Why do families need to pay $2k + a year to play in a quality environment before u13? Why can’t 1000 + kids in the club only pay ~ $50 or less per season and still get 2-3 sessions/1 match per week in a quality training environment with professional coaches and volunteers working together? Why do we cut kids so young instead of differentiating instruction and groupings so everyone can benefit? Why are we playing 7 v 7 and 9 v 9 on even smaller small-sided fields before u13 when most kids do not know the nuances of the game, have not hit puberty yet, and have not even come close to mastering their craft?

    I’m not concerned about winning State Cups or Nationals Championships, I’m concerned about producing world-class players year in and year out that can compete for and win World Cups. First and foremost, I am a fan of our NTs, but I am beyond frustrated! How can 2002 be our best MNT WC results to date? That’s not progress! How can our WNT still be playing long ball and not be able to consistently and creatively break down a low block in the modern game? That’s not progress! There has to be a better way. I’m not saying my way below is the end-all be-all, but it’s the progressive and out-of-the box thinking that we need going forward in order to make real and drastic changes for future generations.

    – Before u6 – 1 v 1 matches
    – u7-u8 – 2 v 2 matches
    – u9-u10 – 3 v 3 matches
    – u11-u12 – 5 v 5 matches
    – u13-u14 – 7 v 7 matches
    – u15-u16 – 9 v 9 matches
    – u17-u18 – 11 v 11 matches

  6. Ankl Brkr says:

    If we had pro/rel on the women’s side, then the Washington Spirit would have been relegated this season. What are your thoughts on that, Chris?

    • Chris Hummer says:

      Not taking that bait, but thanks for reading.

      • Ankl Brkr says:

        I think it’s a fair question considering the MNT and WNT are both spinning their wheels with regards to a progressive style of play. If you think pro/rel is the missing piece… then what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

        • Jay Baker says:

          What is the WNT not accomplishing that you are trying to find a solution for?

        • Chris Hummer says:

          It wasn’t a fair question. You’re asking something that doesn’t reflect the current reality of the market. If pro/rel was in place all the factors and decisions made for every club would be different, so the standings tables this year or every year would also be different.

          Your follow up had a more fair question…

          1. I never said pro/rel would affect a progressive style of play, only that it would better prepare players to compete with more urgency.

          2. If we had 3 levels of robust, professional women’s play, of course I’d be all for it.

          Note that I didn’t say “The USWNT is the current WC Champions” as an deflection, because I do think the women are in the same boat as the men, we just have less global competition and a 25 year head start on the world. The good news is there are more Pulisic’s and Pugh’s coming through the DA system. We need to solve the economic barriers to youth soccer though. It will take time, but the talent an focus of todays 12 year olds is at a much higher level than it was even 10 years ago.

  7. if the case for meritocracy needed more examples, allow me to help a bit.

    If you look at the Concacaf Champions list of winner Clubs, you will notice that before a ticket to the Fifa Clubs World Cup was at stake, a few editions were won by teams from very small and/or poor nations like Haiti & Surinam.

    After a FCWC ticket was at stake, winning clubs have come from only one Nation, with 2005 Costa Rica’s Saprissa been the only exception. A drastic contrast.

    If US soccer implements meritocracy, its impact will be evident very quick. Yet the case for pro/rel is actually very simple, soccer should be open to all and not the toy of a small club of investors. As simple as that,

  8. Yung Logic says:

    England failed in 1994…with the full pressure of pro/rel. Holland failed to qualify with pro/rel AND a good majority of their players playing in foreign leagues.

    I’m in agreement that solidarity payments and better exposure to pressure the establishment (Arena and Sunil should have resigned on the spot) but to pretend that pro/rel is the only solution here doesn’t speak to the rot of the organization as a whole.

    you want better pressure, have better media coverage that isn’t so complimentary. That’s a decision to kowtow that soccer media makes, regardless of USSF gatekeeping.

    Pro/Rel will eventually happen, don’t get me wrong. But this aint fixing USSF, if anything pro/rel in the hands of the current Federation would just make more money for those that don’t have a real soccer vision in mind.

    • Chub says:

      You’re naming two countries who are still superior to us in soccer and they all have pro/rel. soooooo this comment really has no good use… just saying.

  9. Dan says:

    “Without promotion and relegation in our domestic league, we will never win a World Cup.


    In the words of Terry Pratchett, you’re rather amusingly wrong. Brazil won the World Cup twice without pro/rel.

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