The MLS has a particularly long off-season, especially when your club is typically out of the post-season conversation by mid-September. The winter blues are approaching, and thinking honestly about the future of the Philadelphia Union doesn’t help. So, I thought I’d fantasize. What if MLS became a promotion/relegation league? Would the Union flourish, fall deeper into the abyss, or remain pretty much what they have been and what they are today?
It makes sense to believe with the threat of being relegated to a lower division for the following season, club ownership would feel more pressure to win, spend and maintain their club’s place in the highest tier division. Earnie Stewart and Jim Curtain have made it clear to the media as well as season-ticket holders, the Union do not have the spending capabilities of an LA Galaxy, NYCFC, etc. But not many clubs do. The other option to avoid relegation is to make drastic changes after failing year after year. They haven’t shown the ability to do that either. The question is, would relegation force their hand?
I can attest as a former season ticket holder, I’ve felt that my payments were simply funding the Philadelphia Union Academy and the actual club I pay to see is more of an after-thought to management. The Academy, as necessary as it is for future success, is also their crutch, and unfortunately their fallback when they’ve run out of excuses for missing the playoffs yet again. Union supporters won’t care about a well-established academy if in a few years the club we pay to see is still mediocre.
I’m a realist and know that if pro/rel happens, it won’t happen in MLS for many, many years. Not because pro/rel doesn’t utilize a play-off system and that’s what America is used to. You can still have your top clubs included in a playoff at season’s end. The problem is, there aren’t enough long- established MLS clubs that could maintain their fan base after a year or two in a lower division. I honestly believe if the Union were relegated, they’d lose at least a third of their supporters and the club would no longer be able to survive in this market. So promotion/relegation or not, the solution lies in Union management no longer dragging their feet, making changes to the club and staff when losing becomes a trend, and not taking its supporters for granted.
I can recall sitting in the stands at Talen Energy Stadium late this summer, watching the Union blow another lead with less than fifteen minutes to go. Earnie Stewart was sitting in the box right behind me, Chris Albright at his side. A few angry, apparently inebriated fans left early but told those in Earnie’s box exactly what they thought about the state of the Union before exiting. Stewart and Albright sat stone-faced. I know they could see them and heard what they were saying. A few minutes later, the final whistle sounded, I turned around and Stewart and Albright were nowhere to be found. That’s the thing. Soon they won’t be able to escape the disappointment of the fans. Don’t get me wrong, they are the most welcoming group of guys and do take the time to talk to fans under other circumstances. The 2018 season is the tipping point for this regime. If they finish towards the bottom of the East or barely make the play-offs and are eliminated right away, Stewart won’t be able to fall back on the Academy to appease Union supporters. This group won’t be able to rely on affability. They are under-estimating the vitriol and commitment of their supporters and another season like this I believe will force their hand.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports