By FRANCO PANIZO
PORTLAND, Ore. — One of the hottest topics in the American soccer scene, and one that seemingly never grows stale, is when MLS will move away from its single-entity business model and towards the promotion-relegation structure that is seen throughout much of the rest of the world.
MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott touched that very topic on Tuesday morning, and his response was quite a blow to those who were hoping to see that system implemented at some point in the future.
Abbott sat with reporters on the 15th floor of a Portland hotel overlooking the city’s downtown area for a comprehensive interview in which he discussed some of the biggest issues surrounding the league right now at length, including expansion, the current situation of Chivas USA, and the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).
But the subject that might have drawn the most interesting response was that of promotion and relegation. Abbott was asked if he saw that system as something that could be introduced to MLS at some point down the road or if it would never come to fruition.
He succinctly chose the latter.
“I would say it never happens,” said Abbott.
Abbott did not go into details, but MLS executives have long laid out many of the reasons why they think promotion and relegation would not work in the United States and Canada. That belief might not please everyone, but it is what MLS confidently thinks is in the best interest for the sport in the two North American countries.
What might also bother some soccer purists is that the league has no immediate intention of switching to the international calendar. FIFA president Sepp Blatter made some surprising comments on Monday when he said that MLS had agreed to do so, but Abbott squashed those claims while leaving the door open for MLS to make the switch later on.
“We looked at it last fall and we concluded that at this point in time, it was not a change that we could make,” said Abbott, echoing the comments MLS commissioner Don Garber made on the topic last year. “We don’t rule it out for some point in the future, but there’s not an imminent plan to change to the international calendar.”
Something that is on the league’s agenda is the upcoming CBA negotiations with the MLS Players’ Association. Abbott insisted that MLS is not hoping for the kind of work stoppage that threatened the start of the season back in 2010, but knows that plenty of things will need to be ironed out before a new deal is put in place.
“CBAs, by their very nature, involve contention,” said Abbott. “There will be disagreements over a whole variety of issues. Sometimes that contention can get a little noisy and there will be public aspects to it and we’d prefer that doesn’t happen. My view is if we can keep it in the negotiating room, I think that provides everybody more flexibility to get something done.
“But I have no illusions to about the fact that it will get public and contentious at some point. But we don’t go into with that. … We will be very open with our players about (the challenges) and we will be very clear about the financial condition of our teams and our league and clear about the type of investments we can make and clear about the type of investments that we can’t make. We don’t go into it looking for a fight, and neither do they.”
A new deal will likely be in place by the time the 2015 season starts, but Chivas USA’s rebranding might not be. Abbott said there is a chance that the league-owned club could still be operating under the name Chivas USA next year, especially if searches for a new owner and soccer-specific stadium to call their own continue.
Abbott said MLS has spent a lot of time talking to potential buyers, but did not have a timetable for when the league might officially sell Chivas USA. He did, however, reiterate that MLS has no plans to relocate the troubled club out of Los Angeles.
“We love rivalries,” said Abbott. “We see that in the Northwest. We think that the rivalry in LA can be as compelling. That’s the rationale for why we have both (New York City FC) and the Red Bulls in New York.”
Talk of expansion was inevitable and Abbott mentioned several interested markets, including Las Vegas, Sacramento, Minnesota, San Antonio and Austin. All those cities are seemingly competing for the 24th franchise – and possibly the 23rd if David Beckham’s Miami plans fall through – set to be awarded by 2020.
Abbott was asked why MLS would stop at 24 given all the interest there currently is in acquiring teams, and he gave a detailed response as to why while also making it sound like MLS could expand past 24 teams after the turn of the decade.
“When we started the league, we did a lot to study all the other professional sports leagues, and we studied the North American Soccer League, specifically,” said Abbott. “We were concerned not about the ultimate size but the rapidness of the expansion. When we think about expansion, we try to think about it strategically. What’s the right rate of growth for us?
“We’ve determined that the right rate of growth for us is to get to 24 teams by 2020. We think that’s the right balance for a variety reasons – the player pool that we have, the way our television contracts work – so other than to say it’s our business judgment, I can’t point to any one particular answer.”