• Sat. Apr 1st, 2023

Sacramento FC opening door for promotion-relegation in US soccer

ByEvan McNelia

Aug 3, 2022
Sacramento FC players celebrate goal

The USL Championship Sacramento Republic FC has put the US soccer scene on notice with a massive upset victory over Sporting KC of the MLS in the semifinal round of the US Open Cup, the US equivalent of the English FA Cup.

Each competition enters soccer clubs from major professional and amateur leagues around the country into a cup-style tournament that declares the winner champion of the country. This year’s US Open Cup featured 103 teams from 11 different leagues and four divisions in the US. England’s tournament is only larger most recently boasting 726 clubs in the cup.

This year’s US Open Cup Final has come down to Sacramento Republic FC and Orlando City SC on Sep.7. 

What makes Sacramento FC’s run to the final so special is that they have done it out of the division 2 USL, upsetting a MLS squad in a penalty shootout to advance to the finals. They also defeated LA Galaxy 2-1 and San Jose Earthquakes 2-0 on their run to the final, recording three of the tournaments seven MLS upsets. Union Omaha of the USL1 beat Chicago Fire FC and Minnesota United. USL1 Northern Colorado Hailstorm beat Real Salt Lake and USL San Antonio FC upset Austin FC. Austin, Minnesota, and Salt Lake are all currently in the top five of the MLS Western Conference standings. 

The talent pool within US soccer has grown enough to support a plethora of leagues that give MLS real competition. However, MLS is the highest-ranking soccer league in the world, aside from Mexico’s LIGA MX, to not feature promotion and relegation. There are just 11 top-tier men’s soccer leagues globally that do not feature promotion or relegation, arguably making European soccer so beloved.

In England, if a Premier League club comes in the bottom three in the standings, the next season they are punished by being forced to drop down to a lower league, the EFL Championship. The top two finishers from the EFL C are rewarded with promotion to the Premier League. England has four major tiers of professional soccer and each follows the same rules, resulting in a new league with a new set of teams every season. The US has no such system as leagues operate.

The USL has recently turned their efforts to competing with the MLS in the US market as the creation of the division 3 MLS Next Pro removes any developmental affiliates of MLS clubs that played in the USLC, USL1, or USL2. The USLC has been considered a division two soccer league below the MLS since 2017 and the MLS as a whole is still leaps ahead of the USL. However, neither draws anywhere near to any of the major American sports. 

US sports leagues such as the NBA and NFL have shown tremendous international growth in recent years. More basketball stars than ever are coming from overseas and the NFL recently announced its adding more international games. The NFL has maintained its death grip as the top dog in the American sports scene, recently a whopping 112.3 million people tuned in for Super Bowl LVI between the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals. Soccer remains king internationally despite US sports best efforts to grow into its space. However, soccer has struggled to really sink into the mainstream American sports scene outside of the Men’s and Women’s national teams.

What makes soccer great in other parts of the world, particularly in Europe is that every level of the game is integrated into the same system. There’s no competing leagues but a clear developed system that allows the best quality of sport to be put on display, and a clear way that your communities’ team can rise the ranks of soccerdom, is the way the US soccer system must go. The US has not been able to recreate the passion European communities have for their teams with the classic American league-style format.

If the MLS partnered with the USL to make the USLC, USL1, and USL2 direct affiliates and lower leagues and set up a system of promotion and relegation, while also keeping the MLS Next Pro for talent development, US soccer could be well on its way to rivaling some of the world’s soccer superpowers. 

Fan engagement would naturally rise as teams’ success would inherently carry greater importance. As more people learn and grow up around the system, the bridge between the European soccer scene and here would grow, potentially creating more American international superstars and making it easier for international talent to come play here. That would help not only bring more eyes but more dollars to the game here in America.