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MLS: ARRRGH! revisited

MLS is still going gangbusters with expansion, though not quite as fast any more. No expansion teams joined the league this year, ending a streak of six consecutive seasons with at least one new team joining. However, league commissioner Don Garber has stated that a twentieth team could be confirmed within weeks.

It is therefore an appropriate time to revisit the GoobNet Agency for Reintroducing Relegation to Recreational Game Hierarchies’ plan for introducing promotion and relegation into MLS. You will no doubt recall that our original proposal called for the league to split into first and second divisions last year. However, MLS did not follow our advice. Granted, our advice was based on the assumption that two teams would join the league last year; in reality, only the Montréal Impact joined.

Regardless, there is still an opportunity for MLS to introduce promotion and relegation, especially now that there are more potential expansion teams than ever before. We will take as expansion candidates St Louis, Rochester, Orlando, Minnesota, and the second New York City team. If all five join the league, MLS will be up to 24 teams, which lends itself to an elegant solution.


This year, MLS plays its season out with no additional changes, except that the tiebreaker reverts to head to head results rather than goals scored. Seriously, Board of Governors, changing the competition rules midseason? What is this, the USL?


We recommend adding one team to MLS for the 2014 season. Our priority would be St Louis, but we predict that either New York or Orlando will be selected. The other four are to prepare for the 2015 season.

With this added team, a total of twenty will compete in MLS. The new team joins the Eastern Conference, and Houston moves back to the Western Conference. Thus, we have ten teams in each conference. Each team plays 32 regular season matches [three each against four teams in the same conference, two each against the other five in the same conference, one each against the ten in the other conference]. The playoff format remains the same, except that the conference finals revert to a single match rather than a two leg series. This reduction in total matches permits the MLS Cup final to be held the weekend before Thanksgiving rather than the first weekend in December.

But the most important rule in 2014 is this: The ten playoff teams, plus the top two nonplayoff teams overall, are to qualify for the MLS First Division in 2015. The other eight teams are to be relegated to the Second Division.


In this year, MLS splits into a First Division and a Second Division. The eight teams relegated from the previous season join the other four expansion teams – St Louis, Rochester, Minnesota, and the team from New York or Orlando that was not selected to join in 2014 – in the Second Division.

Both divisions are split into Eastern and Western Conferences of six teams each. If the eight relegated teams are evenly split between the conferences, St Louis and Minnesota join the Western Conference, and Rochester and NY2/ORL join the Eastern. Otherwise, teams are transferred between conferences as needed.

Both divisions play a schedule of 32 regular season matches [four against each team in the same conference, two against each team in the other conference]. In the First Division, four teams from each conference qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs.

Our original proposal called for the top two teams in the Second Division to compete in promotion playoffs against the last two teams in the First Division. However, we have reviewed this and have decided that a first placed finish in a Second Division conference deserves a greater reward. Therefore, the winners of each Second Division conference are promoted automatically, replacing the last placed teams in each First Division conference.

As an added bonus, the Second Division conference champions have the opportunity to compete for the MLS Cup. Starting in 2015, only four teams from each First Division conference, down from the current five, qualify for the playoffs. But the Second Division conference champions are also included; they become the fifth seed in each First Division conference and play a single first round match against the fourth seed. This presents new expansion teams with the opportunity to match Chicago’s feat of a first year MLS Cup title.


MLS will maintain the same competitive structure for at least three years, the 2015-7 seasons. During this time, the league will evaluate the level of play in each division. Any changes to the competition format, or any expansion teams, will be introduced no earlier than the 2018 season.

New teams are added to the Second Divison, but it remains at twelve teams because teams will be promoted to the First Division. Whenever one or more expansion team is announced for the following season, the number of promotions increases by that number. This continues until the First Division reaches sixteen teams.

At this point, the First Division will remain at sixteen teams permanently and change to a single table. Each team plays 30 regular season matches [two against all other teams]. The top eight teams qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs, played much like the current playoffs except that the Second Division conference champions have their first round matches against the seventh and eighth overall seeds. The league will then evaluate the competitive balance between the divisions and adjust the number of promoted teams accordingly.

Further expansion results in an increase to the Second Division, up to a maximum of 24 teams. When it expands beyond 24 teams, the Second Division undergoes fission, with twelve teams forming the Third Division and the others remaining in the Second Division. The Third Division conference champions also qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs, which expand to twelve teams accordingly. Promotion and relegation between the Second and Third Divisions will be handled in a similar fashion as with the First and Second Divisions.

Eventually, MLS will end up with three divisions of 16 teams each, with promotion and relegation amongst the divisions.

Year Total Teams First Division Second Division Third Division MLS Cup playoffs
2013 19 10 E, 9 W N/A N/A 10 1st Div
2014 20 10 E, 10 W N/A N/A 10 1st Div
2015-7 24 6 E, 6 W 6 E, 6 W N/A 8 1st Div + 2 2nd Div
[unknown] 28 16 6 E, 6 W N/A 8 1st Div + 2 2nd Div
[unknown] 40 16 12 E, 12 W N/A 8 1st Div + 2 2nd Div
[unknown] 41 or more 16 6 or more E, 6 or more W 6 E, 6 W 8 1st Div + 2 2nd Div + 2 3rd Div

As with all ARRRGH restructurings, under no circumstances will the league be permitted to attach sponsors’ names to the names of the leagues, or to give them names that do not correspond to their position in the ladder [eg, the Second Division may not be called “League One”, even if the First Division is changed to “Premier League”].