Credit: The Miami FC

One of the most exciting developments in the ongoing struggle to bring the practice of promotion and relegation to American soccer occurred August 3rd when The Miami FC CEO Sean Flynn, and Stockade FC’s owner Dennis Crowley, on behalf of their clubs, filed a claim with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) that the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) was in noncompliance with FIFA rules and to force their adoption of promotion and relegation at all levels of US soccer.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) is an international quasi-judicial body, based in Switzerland, established to settle sport-related disputes. Spun up from the 1984 Olympics, it has grown from an appendage of the IOC to a respected third-party arbitration role for all international sports. Its decisions can be appealed to the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland.

Across the world, only the United States and Australia currently maintain a closed-league structure across their national soccer organizations. FIFA’s Article 9 of its statutes state: “A club’s entitlement to take part in a domestic league championship shall depend principally on sporting merit. A Club shall qualify for domestic league championship by remaining in a certain division or by being promoted or relegated to another at the end of a season.”

It’s the Miami FC’s and Stockade FC’s contention that this rule defines promotion and relegation as a fundamental element of international soccer and is a requirement of all FIFA-participating organizations that they enforce it within their jurisdiction. Further, that USSF has not enforced this rule, and this has been to the detriment of the entire national sport and for all the clubs and leagues outside of Division 1, as it denies them the means for capitalizing their efforts to improve and perfect their sport.

Common arguments among less urgent supporters of promotion/relegation, or of the status quo, claim that FIFA rules do not require promotion/relegation; they merely allow for it. But recent FIFA actions, especially as they relate to the Australian example, point to FIFA supporting the view that Article 9 is a statement of pro/rel as a requirement.

As a fan of the product of international leagues, like EPL and La Liga, completely aligned with the practice of promotion and relegation, I know I want that for my country. Raising the level of excellence at all levels raises the national ceiling. Promotion and relegation allows the total value trapped in the sport to meet its full measure and cascade down the tiers to find a new level.  It makes every match across the tiers that much more meaningful when each is a step up or down with cumulative meaningful consequences.

The United States seems to suffer from an inability to emotionally discern a difference between a league and a division, which makes any pro/rel conversation so difficult- even among people who intellectually understand the difference and claim to support the idea. ‘Pro/rel, but not yet’ is a real problem, because it’s presented as if it were a whole answer to the question. ‘Not yet’ becomes the end of an argument, instead of a commitment and the beginning of a planning session. It exposes the incongruity at the heart of it.

I am not best fit to debate the merits of the decision by MLS in the 1990s to pursue a closed league, single-entity approach as a means of creating a stabler product for its ‘owner’-shareholders. While one can point to its existence in 2017 as an answer, I would contend that is at best an incomplete argument; at worst, it’s intellectually dishonest. But in the here and now, it seems to me that it is an evolutionary dead-end weighed down by its contradictions, its inability to sustain greater excellence and its conflicts of interest.

The Miami FC, Stockade FC, and the D2 and D4 clubs supporting their actions, have assumed the vanguard of the pro/rel in America argument. Between the CAS claim, the four-billion dollar parachute offer (what’s more famous – the offer or the rejection?), and studies highlighting its potential benefits, pro/rel – once considered a fringe topic, is here to stay.

Whether this claim will go somewhere is hard to say. It’s possible, but perhaps unlikely, that the CAS will find that FIFA’s rules do not in fact require pro/rel. It may punt the ball by saying that the plaintiffs have not exhausted other venues for redress – either with USSF or with FIFA. As a fan with a club to support however, it feels a corner has been turned in the history of American soccer. I am hopeful on pro/rel for the first time, despite the strong monopolist energies arrayed against the idea. We may be on a ten-year road, or we might be back here in twenty again disdaining how highly prioritized by our peers are the delicate sensibilities of billionaire shareholders. Time will tell.

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