1988: When U.S. Soccer made plans for a ‘new and revolutionary’ promotion/relegation system

As some still pine for an open system, U.S. Soccer - and one Sunil Gulati - actually planned for it three decades ago. Then, MLS came along.

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In 1988, only weeks after the United States was awarded the right to organize the 1994 World Cup, the U.S. Soccer Federation unveiled to its members an ambitious three-pronged plan to advance soccer in this country.

The 16-page report was called, simply:

The U.S. Soccer Federation

The Development Plan: An Overview

Its goal was to develop short-, medium- and long-range plans to move the sport forward. The original NASL had recently folded, and there was no men’s professional league. The landscape was unrecognizable compared to today.

"People keep telling us that our biggest problem is we don't have a professional league and our players don't play top-notch games," then USSF international games committee chairman Sunil Gulati said at the time.

Gulati, who in 2006 would become USSF president, and Scott LeTellier, then counsel for the 1994 World Cup, wrote the plan.

The short-term plan was for the men's national team to acquit itself well at the Summer Olympics and qualify for the 1990 World Cup. The U.S. struggled in Seoul, but reached Italia '90, the first time it had participated in the World Cup since 1950.

The medium-term was a six-year plan to produce a men’s national team that was properly prepared for the 1994 World Cup. Up until then, no host team failed to reach the second round, and the Americans could not afford to embarrass themselves.

The plans were passed by acclamation by the National Council at the Annual General Meeting in Philadelphia in 1988.

Werner Fricker, then the USSF president, said the development plan would emphasize the short- and medium-terms.

"While the long-term goals, although of course, equally important, will necessarily require much more time and careful nurturing at the grassroots level," he wrote in the report.

That task was much more daunting: Establish not only a viable first-division professional league, but supporting second and third tiers that would include promotion and relegation.

"With a relegation/promotion system that is unique to American sports, there is no precedent," Scott LeTellier, then counsel for World Cup 1994, said at the time. "This would be new and revolutionary."

Three decades later, it would still be revolutionary. U.S. Soccer has not adopted promotion/relegation, and it isn’t anywhere close to happening at the highest levels, as MLS leadership has made clear.

In 1988, it wasn't certain when the three-tier league plan would be implemented.

"While no specific timetable has been set for the development of various elements of this professional structure, the Federation will use all of its power to facilitate this development," the report said. "It must, however, be understood that it is vital to the success of this league that various components of it are rooted in sound foundations."

Some of the report's details:

* A First Division, a national league, would consist of a maximum of 32 teams.

* A Second Division, of four leagues, with a maximum of 12 clubs in each, would have a total of 48 teams.

* And a Third Division, which would have eight professional regions with a maximum of 12 teams in each league for 96 clubs.

"A system of relegation [by which the top teams from the lower divisions may advance to higher divisions, relegating lower teams], unique to American professional sports, is also to be implemented," the report stated.

"Under this system, any community in America, provided it meets certain standard discussed below, could field a team in the National League."

After consulting with the Pro Council, the USSF's board of directors was charged with creating rules and regulations for promotion and relegation, the report said. Pro/rel would not take effect until the First and Second Divisions were full, with the maximum number of members.

A map in the report outlined the eight possible regions which the Third Division would include:

Standards would be created in five categories: competitive, technical and organizational, economic viability, team competition and a commitment to youth and amateur soccer.

The report also said the USSF would develop a United States Cup for professional teams that would include amateur teams qualifying through regional competitions. It never got to fruition, but it certainly sounds like what the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is today.

So, what happened to promotion and relegation?

Well, Major League Soccer happened.

In August 1990, a new USSF president, Alan I. Rothenberg, was elected. He helped create MLS, and general policies were changed because the owners did not want to duplicate NASL history.

In wake of the demise of the original NASL, where high salaries were paid -- some critics claimed wasted -- to some aging foreign players who were well past their prime, MLS’ founding fathers wanted a league that could sustain itself and not go out of business due to inflated salaries.

With U.S. soccer's lower professional divisions and clubs still trying to get a foothold in many areas in the American Professional Soccer League and the U.S. Interregional Soccer League (the United Soccer League today), D-2 and D-3, respectively, at the time, pro/rel was deemed unfair to MLS owners who had invested and lost millions not to play in the top flight.

So, the single-entity league concept was unveiled in December 1993 with a salary cap and other restrictions that prevented overspending.

Slowly, but surely, some of the 1988 plan's concepts have become or are becoming reality.

MLS will house 23 teams this season with Miami preparing to play in 2020 while it has not been determined when Nashville will field a team.

The USL is making a distinction between which teams will play in its second and third divisions, and has floated the idea of promotion/relegation between the two. The North American Soccer League is now unsanctioned and not competing in the spring of 2018 after losing D-2 status. The National Independent Soccer Association was formed in 2017, with hopes of playing as a D-3 pro league in the near future. NISA has addressed a desire for pro-rel at some point.

There is also an unofficial fourth tier of soccer in the U.S., though it is not professional, with the Premier Development League, National Premier Soccer League, United Premier Soccer League and local amateur leagues.

As for pro/rel, several U.S. Soccer presidential candidates -- including Eric Wynalda, Kyle Martino, Paul Caligiuri, Michael Winograd and Hope Solo -- favored the concept or some form of it.

With Carlos Cordeiro being elected president, the likelihood of pro/rel is nil.

But the possibility of promotion might have a chance at the lower professional levels.

Led by Jacksonville Armada owner Robert Palmer, there are talks about the possibility of Division Zero, in which community-based soccer teams in the lower divisions would be able to move up the ranks and eventually become pro teams someday.

At the moment, that is only talk -- just as the 1988 plan ended up being.

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