Starting from the Bottom
By Alex Fairchild
America is missing out.
Dramatic scenes from the Football League are hair-raising and bring tears to the eyes. If they do not, get your pulse checked.
The story of a lower level side being promoted is a dream that keeps those clubs and their fans coming to the matches week after week. It is their passion and energy that drives the development of grassroots football.
Without a league system, Major League Soccer stands alone. They are replicating the traditional system of US sport, in which teams play in conferences and compete for playoff spots. The worst teams are never punished, and sometimes a poor side can take the year's prize, though that is a story for another day.
MLS will only become so big without a support system. The return of the North American Soccer League and United Soccer Leagues are that foundation, though they are yet to communicate a meaningful connection with America's top flight.
Supporters also need an incentive to get out and support the local team. Whether they be in Rochester, Wilmington or Charleston, fans would come out far more to see their team compete with the big boys, just as Championship, League One, and League Two supporters do for their heroes.
A relegation-promotion setup would give an extra incentive to small city teams to develop talent. The influence of youth systems from lower-league side's has had and continues to have a tremendous presence throughout the Premier League. The Championship, among other divisions, lend some of the game's influential players their beginning. Gareth Bale began his sterling career in 2006 for Southampton, while Manchester United's Chris Smalling plied his trade for non-league Maidstone. Pride in development was on full display last year when Stevenage hosted Tottenham in the FA Cup. A banner from Stevenage's supporters had the words: "Give us your boys and we'll make them men."
It is that local pride from which US soccer will expand. While MLS teams have done an extraordinary job of growing support and creating a culture of its own, more of this cannot hurt. Smaller cities would have the opportunity to become a part of something fairly large as well. Cities like Harrisburg and Rochester do not have teams recognized on a national scale. The possibility of promotion to MLS would conjure bigger and better fan bases in these cities. Perhaps a multiplier effect would ensue, leading new supporters of the city's side to provide viewership not only to MLS, but also to the national team and foreign leagues.
A new system would also bring a sporting meritocracy to a country, where a second chance is given far too much to undeserving teams. The chance to better oneself bodes well for all. The quality of play and player would not doubt rise as now nameless players scrapping to make a living from football further themselves. Promotion would be another carrot-on-a-stick for them, as they could play for the opportunity to be seen on ESPN and NBC beside the likes of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill.
Of course, there would be extra interest from outsiders. MLS watchers would be more than fascinated by the prospect of altering teams in and out of the league. It would also lend bottom sides some extra attendance numbers, which may aid their finances as supporters back them in their battle to avoid the drop.
It is that final day of drama, which we all crave, that a relegation-promotion system would bring to football in America. Those heart-stopping moments, whether they be with Hull City or Doncaster Rovers in football's homeland are times which will never be forgotten by supporters. Rushing the court is a tradition in college basketball and football. To speed up football's progression in the states that concept, that euphoria, must be applied to soccer.
Those who follow football teams pride themselves on their passion. For football to branch out, that joy must be shown off on any level possible. It is that powerful sentiment with which people love to identify. Viewing an event of such drama and magnitude, while rare, would bring such a fascination amongst the media and sporting fans that it would promote the game to new heights. MLS cannot take the country by storm as a "run of the mill" American league. It must differentiate itself to attract sports enthusiasts from other walks of life. MLS needs zest. It needs something to get the people going.