USA Promotion/ Relegation Simulation: What I Learned

 In Football Manager Simulations

Using the Football Manager 2018 database and my interest in simulation experiments, I decided to test the idea of a promotion/relegation league in the United States. If you frequent the workshops and websites associated with FM you’ll know this isn’t really anything new, each new version of the game seems to eventually have a data set for a United States pyramid with promotion and relegation.

I decided to crack open the editor and set my own up so that I could fully understand, and when needed adjust, every aspect of the league. Here’s how it went:

Methods

I set up four leagues of 22 teams in the United States based ranked on the team’s reputation.  This put most of the MLS teams along with the New York Cosmos and Tampa Bay Rowdies into the top tier, while I added expansion club LAFC to the second tier. I chose to do that for two reasons, first in the game the club didn’t have a full roster and second, it seemed to fit the overall scheme of wondering how promotion and relegation would work.

I also chose to exclude all the Canadian clubs. No offense to my friends in the Great White North, but I wanted to feature as many American clubs as possible and adding Canadian clubs would have meant adding a lot of lower league clubs as well. By doing this, Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal all became “simulated” in an unknown league. They did buy and sell players from the American leagues and interacted normally with the world of soccer.

I set the league up with an Autumn to Spring schedule with games played on Saturdays. I also created an open cup, league cup, season-opening shield, and lower league cup. While I did have a youth league,  I neglected to create a reserve league, a significant mistake on my part. I only noticed its absence once I was deep into my final version and did not want to go back to begin again after a few earlier false starts. I regret not going back and do think this hurt the overall simulation.

Finally, due to the lack of game development for normally unplayable lower league teams, I did go through all of them to check attendance numbers, stadium details, and to make sure they had the basics of a youth system. Additionally, I threw a lot of cash into the game. I’ll explain why I did this and the results a bit later.

Results

Positives:

Playing a promotion/relegation system is a lot of fun. Anyone who plays Football Manager knows that. There is something challenging and beautiful about taking a team from the top to the bottom, promoting the impossible team with a glorious year, or saving the team at the bottom from a slide into the next league below. This is just as much fun in the United States as it is with any other league. Seeing the new teams coming up into the top tier to try their luck with the big boys is always fun. Seeing teams like the Sacremento Republic, Reno 1868 FC, and the Jacksonville Armada rise into the “premier league” was as cool as seeing teams like NYCFC, Colorado Rapids, and San Jose Earthquakes tumble into obscurity.

Since Football Manager 2018 was published when the NASL was barely still a thing, I was happy to preserve those teams and see them compete with the USL clubs. While the USL clubs were generally the ones getting promoted, the NASL clubs all represented well. Further down it was great to see all of the NPSL clubs battling it out without regional separations. This was also useful to continue to learn about all the clubs in the American pyramid. I found myself constantly watching the lower league tables with genuine interest.

I forged two links with lower league clubs. The Central Florida Kraze and the Orange County (CA) Blues. With these leagues playing matching seasons to the top league, moving players between the clubs felt organic and helpful in terms of developing my youth.

That feeling of organic reality was perhaps the biggest positive. The United States soccer pyramid felt alive and fluid. The various cups and leagues meant there were chances for teams to develop and play significant numbers of games. Soccer in the U.S. can at times in the real world feel compartmentalized. You’ll never see scores from USL, the NASL, the NPSL flash across the TV screen during an MLS game. The major news outlets rarely find space within their pages and websites to cover the length and breadth of soccer across the country. When the pyramid is linked, as in this game, the results outside of the division you play in seem to matter just a bit more.

Negatives:

The first problem was money, or the lack thereof. After a few test rounds, I found it necessary to pump a considerable amount of money into all the teams in an effort to encourage both the buying of players and the development of clubs. Even after giving every team in the lowest two divisions a half million dollars each, and the teams in the top two divisions each five million and twenty million respectively, the transfer markets were still quiet. Additionally, teams only rarely sold players overseas or dipped into the international market, probably less than they do in real life. This exposed to me the challenges of the lower rung clubs in the United States. While we argue about the quality of MLS, which I do believe has some quality despite the critics, we never consider just how much of a drop off there is between MLS and the lower leagues. In this simulation, it was considerable.

On the same level, it took a lot of luck for a team to get promoted to the top tier and stay there. While this is always true in promotion/relegation leagues, it felt extra impossible for clubs to stick it out.

Also, despite playing a more internationally traditional schedule, teams from the United States still could never beat a Mexican team for the CONCACAF Champions League. I came close with Orlando City once, the New York Red Bulls did as well, but still no luck.

While playing for three and a half seasons didn’t tell the whole story, I started to see the league separating into a haves and have-nots that felt a lot like most of the top-heavy European leagues I’m always pleased MLS isn’t. Clubs with better attendance and larger stadiums were able to retain players and were the only ones to make real moves. Atlanta United, the Seattle Sounders, and the New York Red Bulls were the only clubs during this period to really challenge. I should note here that I played as Orlando City and did give myself a bit of extra cash to start out with. In theory, this allowed me to spend some extra cash on transfers, I almost always overpaid for domestic transfers on purpose just to throw more cash into those teams to see if they would spend it. Hey, just because I’m testing the league structures it doesn’t mean I can’t have a bit of fun too right?

Conclusions

While I’m not sure three and a half seasons is enough to really give the full version of how promotion/ relegation would work in the United States, it gave me a glimpse of how difficult it would be. The lower league teams just aren’t prepared for the competitive nature and organization possessed by our nations top-flight clubs. This leads me to believe any call for a promotion/ relegation system should come with a substantial call for the development of the lower league clubs in terms of facilities, youth systems, and finances.

As it stands the lower leagues never developed players worth buying by the top tier clubs and never had the money to develop a system that could produce such players.

At the same time, I have to be honest about just how much a simulation can actually teach us. Would the excitement of teams fighting for promotion be enough to revolutionize what is already a booming grassroots supporter culture in the U.S.? Would that level of interest from the public come with more money for development? These are scenarios that the simulations in Football Manager just can’t grasp at this point.

A promotion/ relegation league felt more American than the variety of closed leagues that define the pyramid now. Soccer for all felt real, as clubs from Arkansas and Mississippi competed with clubs from Florida and California, and players from across the nation were playing professionally.

I’m not honestly sure if using the Football Manager game to simulate a real-world promotion/ relegation system in the United States is accurate. I think it is interesting, insightful, and does provide a significant amount of talking points to consider if one is for or against the idea. That was my goal, not to prove or disprove the validity of promotion/relegation leagues in the United States, but more to simply consider if we as a soccer playing nation wanted to really consider this, what would it look like and what would it take to be successful.

I am personally agnostic about promotion and relegation in the United States. I completely understand the appeal, find the thought of it fascinating, while at the same time understanding both how the history of the sport in the U.S. and the structures that exist in their present form make any thoughts of implementation extremely challenging.

Future Research

I have already started a new database with Football Manager 19 and a new promotion/relegation US soccer pyramid. I’ve taken some lessons from this first experiment and also added a wrinkle that may or may not make it more interesting. More on that later.

Here is how the leagues shook out after three and a half seasons; beginning with a Premier League, then an A League, a B League and a C League. Many of the teams listed below are now defunct due to the tentative nature of soccer in the United States, this database represents who was around in 2017.

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