A brief history of promotion and relegation in American soccer

A chart showing soccer team movement up and down the American pyramid from 1996-2012

Let’s get the obvious out of the way up front, shall we? There is not currently, nor has there ever been, a full, traditional system of on-field-merit-based promotion and relegation in any American pro soccer endeavor that I’m aware of.

With that said, the essence of promotion and relegation, the ability to move between levels of a nebulous pyramid, does exist, and has for more than a decade1Many decades, if you want to count the Washington Darts and Rochester Lancers moving “up” from the American Soccer League to the struggling North American Soccer League in 1970. Though that was more a case of the NASL poaching a couple of teams because it had no other choice.. But more than half of the clubs who have ever moved up to a higher level have struggled and, in many cases, either moved back down or folded altogether within four years. And you can hold up the successful second division organizations that have recently become successful first division organizations as examples of how it could work as long as you also understand that Seattle, Vancouver, Portland and Montreal had, on average, nearly two years to prepare for their first MLS seasons, and didn’t try to make the move over one off-season.

What follows is a list of teams that have moved up, down or both, between levels of the game in this country, since 1995 (I believe it’s comprehensive, but additions and corrections are, of course, always welcome22023 note: I need to update this, and will):

After winning the USISL’s outdoor division (they only had the one) in 1994, the Greensboro Dynamo moved up to the Pro League for 1995, marking the first instance of a championship team moving up to a higher division in the modern era. No fewer than 38 other clubs moved from the amateur ranks to the new 55-team league for 1995, including four that exist to this day: the (now Carolina) Dynamo, Charleston Battery, Charlotte Eagles and Long Island Rough Riders.

Both of USISL’s league champions moved up. The Premier League’s Richmond Kickers and the Pro League’s Long Island Rough Riders both became part of the new Select League3Which was going to be a Division II league by 1997 before the merger with the A-League happened. The USISL envisioned its Select League as an A-League competitor, and, in fact, it had been given provisional Division II standing for 1997 prior to the merger.. The Carolina Dynamo joined them, moving up from the Pro League. The Kickers beat the Rough Riders in the semifinals of the league’s Select Six tournament before losing to the California Jaguars in the final. All three teams exist to this day, though Richmond has since found a home in USL Pro, and Long Island and Carolina are in the PDL.

The merger between the USISL and the A-League resulted in a re-shuffling of the deck, with no fewer than 13 teams moving up in class based on their ambitions. (This represents more than a third of all the teams that have chosen to move up a level since 1996). The Select League champion California Jaguars stepped up to the newly-merged A-League, along with the Pro League champion Charleston Battery. The 24-team league also welcomed the Connecticut Wolves, El Paso Patriots, Carolina Dynamo, Long Island Rough Riders and Richmond Kickers from the Select League, Worcester Wildfire from the Pro League and Nashville Metros from the Premier League. All but Connecticut and California are still with us, though none are still in the second division. The Austin (Tex.) Lone Stars, Florida Strikers, Arizona Sahuaros and San Francisco Bay Seals all moved up from the Premier League to the D3 Pro League. The Lone Stars had a modicum of success their first two years, but struggled in 1999 and 2000 before folding. The Seals and Strikers are long gone, while the Sahuaros are currently a USASA team that makes sporadic appearances in the US Open Cup.

The Cascade Surge (based in Salem, Oregon) moved down from the USISL Pro League to the PD(S)L, along with the Chattanooga Express and Yakima Reds. Four Select League teams (the Chicago Stingers, New Jersey Stallions, Cape Cod Crusaders and Albuquerque Geckos) dropped to the D3 Pro League, where the Geckos won the league championship. Yakima, Chicago and New Jersey saw big attendance gains, while Cascade, Chattanooga, Cape Cod and Albuquerque saw their crowds diminish. Not one of those seven teams exists today.

After a frenetic offseason leading into 1997, only five teams stepped up in division for the 1998 season. The Cincinnati Riverhawks made the most ambitious jump, abandoning the PD(S)L after their maiden season for the A-League. Having drawn 1,346 fans per game as an amateur team, the ‘Hawks probably figured the sky was the limit. Unfortunately, the 1,624 fans per game they drew in 1998 at the pro level wasn’t going to pay many bills, and that was their high-water mark by a lot during their six-year stay in Division II. By the end (2003), Cincinnati was averaging under 400 people a game playing in a tiny complex across the river in Kentucky. This franchise was quite the circus, and I actually had the opportunity to become its general manager in 1999 or 2000, I can’t remember which. (Good move to pass on that one, as the franchise was fraught with drama and ineptitude.) Other new A-League teams were the San Francisco Bay Seals (making their second straight move up, this time from D3) and Albuquerque Geckos. The Geckos were a disaster, going 5-23 and moving to Sacramento after the season (where things got even worse – they went 0-28 in 1999 and were taken over by the league during the season, with the ownership group of the Cape Cod Crusaders actually paying their bills). The Seals lasted three years in the second division before disappearing. Two Florida teams, the Southwest Florida Manatees (based in Fort Myers) and Miami Breakers, went from the PD(S)L to the D3 Pro League. Miami went 17-1 but lost in the playoffs and drew 116 fans per game before dropping back to the PDL the next year. The Manatees’ one season in D3 was their last.

The only team moving up the ladder in 1999 was the Indiana Blast, and I had a front-row seat for this one as the team’s Director of Communications & Operations. USL called it a “promotion,” but here’s what happened: the story went that the original owner had purchased an A-League franchise after the 1996 Select Six tournament, before the merger was announced. He opted to keep the team in D3 in 1997, with plans to move it up in 1998. Heavy losses forced him to sell the club before the end of the 1997 season, and the new owners opted to go one more year in D3. With USL not willing to let the A-League option be held indefinitely, and with division rivals Chicago and Rockford dropping to the PDL and Cleveland folding, the Blast were more or less forced to go to the A-League for 1999. They only missed out on the playoffs by one point, but suffered major financial losses (as they would throughout the rest of their existence). They held on, stubbornly, through 2003 before dropping to the PDL in 2004 and then folding.

Coming off the 1998 D3 Pro League championship, the Chicago Stingers were eligible to be promoted to the A-League under USL’s quasi-pro/rel policy4The language actually first appeared in the USISL’s 1997 Media Guide: Promotion/relegation: The A-League will be linked to the rest of the USISL structure through a promotion system which entitles the USISL Division III champion to be promoted to the A-League, provided that the team to be promoted meets criteria set by the USISL and the USSF. The 1997 USISL D3 Pro League champion will be eligible for promotion to the A-League for 1998. Relegation may also be added at some future date, but will not be enacted in 1997.” So blame the Stingers. They screwed up the whole thing. Incidentally, this language appeared, with occasional tweaks, through the 2003 guide (with a note that the women’s W-2 champ could also be promoted from 1999-2001)., but pulled a shocker. Instead of going up or staying put, the Stingers dropped to the PDL (and renamed themselves the Sockers as an extension of the high-level youth club of the same name). They promptly won the 1999 PDL championship as well (averaging just 594 fans per game – a third of what the pro team had drawn two years prior) and came back for 2000 before disappearing. The Stingers/Sockers were just one of the 10 teams that bailed either from the A-League or D3 Pro League. The California Jaguars and Carolina Dynamo both traded the A-League for the D3 Pro League. The Jaguars’ 1999 season was their last, but the Dynamo is still around today (just in the PDL). The Central Jersey Riptide, New York Capital District Alleycats (based in Albany, NY), Orlando Nighthawks, San Fernando Valley Golden Eagles, Miami Breakers, Vermont Voltage and Rockford Raptors all went amateur, leaving D3 behind for the PDL. Only the Voltage survives to this day.

The only movement as the calendar turned was one more D3 Pro League team dropping to the PDL. The North Jersey Imperials, who had been a pro team in division three for three years, went amateur. They had drawn fewer than 500 fans per game as a pro side. As amateurs, they drew about half that for two years before disappearing after the 2001 season. By the time the 2000 season was over, the D3 Pro League had shrunk from a high of 39 teams (in 1997) to just 17 teams in 2001 and the drain was far from over.

The Charlotte Eagles, 2000 D3 Pro League champions, took a leap of faith, as it were, and stepped up to the A-League. The Eagles – a division of Missionary Athletes International – saw similar crowd levels their first two years at the higher level, but increased costs and a 2003 season that saw them draw just over 900 fans per game were all the signs from above the club needed to drop back down to the third division. They went on to win a league title (2005) and a regular-season championship (2008) in USL-2 and are now in USL Pro.

After five years at the professional level (one in the USISL Select League in 1996 and four in the D3 Pro League), the Cape Cod Crusaders dropped to the PDL, where they played through 2008. After drawing about 677 fans a game as a pro club, the Crusaders did about half that in their eight years in the PDL, but did win a league title in 2003. The Texas Rattlers, who could trace their lineage all the way back to the USISL’s founding as an indoor circuit in 1986, dropped from the D3 Pro League to the PDL for 2001, while changing their name to the Spurs. They lasted ten seasons as an amateur club before finally expiring after the 2010 season. Along the way, they had been known as the Garland Genesis, Addison Arrows, North Texas United, Fort Worth Kickers, Dallas Americans, Dallas Toros, Dallas/Fort Worth Toros, Texas Toros, Texas Rattlers, Texas Spurs and, finally, DFW Tornados. Two other teams dropped out of the A-League in 2001: the Boston Bulldogs (neé Worcester Wildfire), who went to the D3 Pro League (where they lasted one season) and the Orange County Waves, who re-invented themselves as a PDL club that exists to this day as Orange County Blue Star5Who once had a forward named Jay Goppingen. You may know him better as current US Men’s National Team coach Juergen Klinsmann..

After finishing second the PDL in attendance in 2001 (at 2,003 a game), the Calgary Storm made the big jump to the A-League for 2002. It didn’t go well. The Storm went 4-21-3, finished last in the league and saw about a 27 percent attendance drop. Still, they soldiered on into the 2003 A-League season where things actually got worse. Owner Mike Vandale cashed in his chips in early July, turning the franchise over to USL, which operated it the rest of the season as Team Calgary. Valdale said he’d lost over a million dollars (Canadian, I presume) in two and a half years. Resurrected in 2004 and renamed the Calgary Mustangs under new owner Juergen Hanne, the team went 4-18-6 and needed to come up with about $600,000 to upgrade the artificial turf surface at McMahon Stadium. That didn’t happen, and the team was never heard from again. Two other teams moved up in 2002, including the 2001 PDL champions, the Westchester Flames. After drawing 212 fans per game in their championship season, the Flames drew 234 per game in 2002, yet somehow lasted three seasons at the pro level before dropping back to the PDL, where they remain to this day. And the New York Freedoms, who had drawn 157 fans per game as a PDL team in 2001, turned pro and promptly saw their crowds shoot up…to 203 per game. Somehow they made it two more years at the D3 level before giving up the ghost. And the Storm, Freedoms and Flames would be the last teams to climb the pyramid until the decade was almost out.

The Chico Rooks, who had spent the previous six seasons at the Division III level, dropped to the PDL. Their attendance average, while lower than in 2001, was in line with what they’d drawn the prior six years overall. After one year in the PDL, they were one of the founding members of the Men’s Premier Soccer League (now the NPSL), and lasted until 2006 when they took a year off to reorganize and never came back. Also dropping in 2002 were the Connecticut Wolves, Long Island Rough Riders and Nashville Metros (all out of the A-League, with the Wolves and Riders going to D3 and the Metros to the PDL6The Metros’ move was actually part of a transaction that returned Virginia Beach to the A-League. The Hampton Roads Mariners’ owners were legally bound to deliver an A-League team to the Virginia Beach SportsPlex after taking the 2001 season off, so they bought Nashville’s A-League slot and the Metros came back to life as a PDL side. An alert reader pointed out that originally I still had the Metros as the Tennessee Rhythm, but they had apparently played that last season in the A-League as the Metros, and WordPress wouldn’t let me strike through the original text. Thanks for the heads-up.) and the Rhode Island Stingrays (from the D3 Pro League to the PDL). Long Island actually won the Pro Select League (that year’s name for the third division) after dropping down, becoming the third of six “self-relegated” teams to do so.

The exodus from the D3 Pro League continued going into the 2003 season, with the Greenville Lions and South Jersey Barons self-relegating to the PDL. Both teams saw significant drops in their already-meager attendance averages (Greenville went from 324 a game to 168, while South Jersey went from 467 per game to 153). The 2003 PDL season would be Greenville’s last, while the Barons still exist (as the Ocean City Nor’Easters) and are a steady participant in the PDL.

The Charlotte Eagles‘ A-League experiment ended, despite the best of intentions, as the club dropped back down to the third division (where they remain, and have been successful, to this day). Charlotte’s attendance figures before, during and after their stay in division two aren’t dramatically different:


1996-2000 (Division III)5561,0821,111
2001-2003 (Division II)4350,4581,173
2003-2011 (Division III)82102,2511,247


Joining them were the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, whose attendance had dropped every year of their A-League existence, from a high of 4,178 in 1999 to 1,783 in 2003. After six seasons in the A-League, the El Paso Patriots went amateur, dropping to the PDL. They moved from the Sun Bowl to Patriots Stadium in 2005 and became the Chivas El Paso Patriots in 2010 thanks to a formal partnership agreement with famed Mexican club Chivas de Guadalajara. The Patriots drew 1,067 fans per game in 2011 in the PDL, where they remain today. Following El Paso out the A-League door was the Indiana Blast, who had slipped from a 13-15 record in 1999 to 3-23-2 in 2003. After seven years of financial losses, the team opted for the PDL, where it lasted just one more season7And a colorful one at that, which included the owner trying to have another team that was closer to a road destination accept a shipment of Blast uniforms and pretend to be the Blast. The league put the kibosh on that one.. Three other teams dropped from the third division to the PDL: the Carolina Dynamo, New Jersey Stallions and Reading Rage. All three saw mild to moderate attendance drops, and while Carolina made the PDL semifinals, New Jersey and Reading failed to make the playoffs. The Dynamo and Rage (as Reading United AC) are still around.

Three more teams deserted the third division for the PDL: The San Diego Gauchos, Westchester Flames and California Gold (based in Modesto) all went amateur, leaving the newly rebranded USL-2 with just nine teams for 2005 (down from 39 just eight years earlier). None of the three made the playoffs, though San Diego had a modest attendance gain. The Gold and Gauchos hung on for two more years in the PDL, while Westchester survives as a PDL club.

The USL 1st Division lost one of its longer-running clubs when the Richmond Kickers decided to drop to USL-2 after nine years. The Kickers, who had drawn about 2,400 a game in their time in Division II, maintained their fan base in Division III and became the fourth of six teams to win the league in their first season after the drop. Despite playing in one of the oldest stadiums in the country, the Kickers are a mainstay now in USL Pro. The other team to drop in 2006 was the Northern Virginia Royals, who left behind eight years of third-division history in which they drew about 340 fans per game for the PDL, where they’ve drawn about 380 per game through 2011.

With Toronto FC joining MLS, the Toronto Lynx dropped out of the USL 1st Division after a decade and joined the PDL. Lynx attendance actually went up slightly in the team’s first year at the amateur level, but has been dropping steadily ever since. They drew just 194 fans per game in 2011. And the Long Island Rough Riders returned to their roots after a trip up and back down the USL ladder as they joined the PDL after 12 years as a pro club. The Rough Riders had started in the USISL’s outdoor division when it was an amateur league, moved up to the Pro circuit in 1995, then to the Select League in 1996 and the A-League in 1997 before dropping back to the D3 Pro League in 2002. Their attendance figures had been all over the place, from a high of 4,147 per game in 1997 to 739 per game in 2003 (the year after they won the third division title). Long Island is still in the PDL today, as one of USL’s longest-running clubs.

The Cincinnati Kings, who had enjoyed a bit of success and not-awful Division III crowds for three years, dropped to the PDL. Their attendance took a major hit (likely because their budget was slashed) and the have struggled to draw mid-three-figures crowds since. They drew just 195 people per game in 2011, their most recent season. And the New Hampshire Phantoms, a third division mainstay since 1996, went with the Kings and joined the PDL, where they (oddly enough) enjoyed a franchise-record for average attendance (2,901, third in the league). Whatever happened, it didn’t last, as the Phantoms went from that to 434 per game the next year, 219 the year after that and 250 in 2011 in the PDL.

The Cleveland City Stars are the most recent example of eyes that were larger than one’s stomach, and it, too, is a cautionary tale. After two successful seasons on the field and in the stands playing in downtown Cleveland, the City Stars jumped8Or were pulled, depending on how the story is told. to the USL First Division for 2009. Put simply, it was a disaster. With their downtown stadium deemed unfit for Division II, the club moved to a high school football stadium in the suburbs, one with permanent football lines (and which carried the name of a local cheese company sponsor, but only during City Stars games). The team went 4-19-7, scored just 22 goals in 30 games, and presented a shocking tableau to viewers of the three home matches carried on Fox Soccer Channel. The other team moving up was a much happier story, as the Seattle Sounders left the second division behind after 15 years and five championships. They were a resounding success in the stands – averaging a league-record 30,897 fans per game, more than eight times what they had averaged their last year in USL-1 – and made the playoffs.

Crystal Palace Baltimore moved up from the USL 2nd Division to the NASL, and ended up playing in the USSF D2 Pro League for that season. It was their last. They drew an announced 1,075 a game (fewer than they’d managed the two prior years in USL-2) and finished the season by bringing only 11 players to a road game in Tampa (one of them their coach). While they announced they were going “on hiatus” for the 2011 NASL season, there seems little chance of them resurfacing, especially after they were sued by seven former youth academy coaches for wages they were never paid.

The Bermuda Hogges, after three seasons in the USL 2nd Division, dropped to the PDL, where they reside today. The Charleston Battery, who had spent 13 years at the second division level, dropped out of the fray in the USL/NASL split and opted for the USL 2nd Division. Their average attendance actually went up slightly from 2009 (and was in line with their historical averages at Blackbaud Stadium) and they won the league championship. The Battery stayed in the third division (in the revamped USL Pro) in 2011 and drew just about what they’d drawn in 2009 in the second division. Charleston remains in USL Pro for 2012. And the Western Mass Pioneers, a regular in USL-2 for a dozen years, dropped to amateur status and saw their crowds go from 1,838 a game to 765 a game. They remain members of the PDL for 2012.

With the USL/TOA split complete, 2011 saw another reorganization of leagues and teams. USL combined what was left of its first and second divisions into USL Pro. Orlando City SC (which had moved from Austin, Tex.) dropped from the USSF D2 Pro League into USL Pro along with the Rochester Rhinos. Rochester saw its crowds continue to fall, going from 6,464 in the USSF D2 Pro League in 2010 to 5,139 in USL Pro in 2011. The Rhinos would have set an all-time Division III record for average attendance had Orlando not racked up 5,415 fans per game and over 11,000 for the league championship match. The other dropper was the Real Maryland Monarchs, who departed the third division after three years of sliding crowds and went to the PDL. Their attendance actually went up slightly, from 608 per game to 659.

The Dayton Dutch Lions moved from the PDL up to USL Pro after a moderately-successful PDL season, but their maiden pro voyage didn’t go well. The DDL won just two matches, finished last in the league and drew an announced 661 per game. The other two “promoted” clubs went from the second division to Major League Soccer. The Portland Timbers challenged for a playoff spot and sold out regularly at newly refurbished JELD-WEN Field, while the Vancouver Whitecaps finished third in the league in attendance (at 20,406 per game), but finished last in the league and would have been relegated had such a system existed.

The Montreal Impact became Major League Soccer’s 19th club after 17 seasons in the second division, completing a four-year period in which MLS poached the second division’s best markets and organizations. No other teams moved down a division, despite rumors that USL Pro’s FC New York was going to drop to the PDL (they folded instead). The PDL may have as many as 73 teams in 2012, including at least 15 former professional clubs who found the amateur level was much more to their liking.

So What’s The Bottom Line?

  • A total of 29 clubs have made at least one move up the pyramid since 1995 (a handful have made more than one move). Fewer than half of those clubs still exist today, and the bulk of those have dropped back down to a lower level in the interim.
  • Nine clubs that won championships in a lower league moved up to the next highest league the following year (as a merit-based promotion scheme would have them do). Four of those teams are no longer in existence and the other five have all since dropped back down because of finances.
  • In all, 46 different clubs have dropped at least one rung on the ladder. Just 22 of those clubs are still in existence.
  • Clubs that have gone from the second division level to the first division (only four: Seattle, Vancouver, Portland and Montreal) have either flourished or (in Montreal’s case) appear to be poised to do so, but only because they’ve had realistic owners who understood what infrastructural additions needed to be made to compete at the highest level and because they had nearly two years to make those additions9Seattle had 492 days from announcement to first MLS match, Vancouver 731, Portland 729 and Montreal will have had 680.. In short, these were the four D2 teams with the access to the most resources, the tradition stretching back a while (three to the NASL), and on-field success (as all except Portland had won a D2 title). Their markets, their clubs and their brands deserved to be in the top fight, and I’m not sure there are any D2 clubs left you can realistically say that about. There are some who might be able to, but it would take some work.
  • A club has the ability to move up the pyramid, but it’s based more on resourcefulness than just winning a small league for one year. Perhaps that’s as it should be. Because if you’re one of the tinfoil hat brigade, you have to believe that the Minnesota Stars – with no owner and who drew 1600 people a game to a stadium in the sticks – should be in MLS in 2012 and the Vancouver Whitecaps – with 20,000 fans per game, millionaire owners and a newly renovated stadium in one of the world’s great cities – should not be.

For the record, I’m not opposed at all to the concept of promotion and relegation. I don’t believe it’s “too complicated,” I think it’s exciting and I think it would be fun. I just believe that until the second division gets its act together and has markets and organizations that can add to MLS, it’s a non-starter. And while USSF could, I suppose, make promotion and relegation a prerequisite for sanctioning going forward (the only hammer it has, really), it’s highly unlikely they’d do so. And don’t look to Zurich for a force-feeding of pro/rel, either – they usually allow governing bodies to handle their own business internally, as long as you don’t try to sue FIFA. It’s not going to happen, no matter how much you rant. True, results-based promotion and relegation is not going to happen between the first and second divisions in this country for decades, if ever.

Kenn Tomasch

Kenn Tomasch