Major League Soccer 101


Seasoned Supporter
Mar 20, 2014
Herts, UK
So Major League Soccer, then. What's it all about?

Obviously, Major League Soccer (MLS) is the top division of soccer in the USA. MLS (calling it THE MLS is actually technically wrong) has been around since the 1996 season, presently consists of 19 teams and spans both the United States and also Canada.

You said presently consists. Obviously NYCFC is joining. Is there anyone else?

Major League Soccer is a constantly-expanding league. Since its humble beginnings in 1996 as a ten-team organisation it has seen eleven team join and two drop out, as well as one relocation. Expansion was restrained in the early years, but nine new teams in the last decade and four more confirmed for the future shows that the league now feels confident in its infrastructure and set-up and is ready to enlarge itself to a size comparable with other top-tier US sports leagues.

At present, NYCFC and Orlando City are due to join for the 2015 season, with Atlanta and Miami due to enter franchises in 2017. More expansions have been rumoured, but none confirmed.

So just how big is this thing going to get?

No-one is quite sure. Some reports say that Don Garber (MLS Commissioner) wants 24 teams, others say that he might press on for 30. Garber is quoted as having said he wants 24 teams by 2020, but he's already got 23 signed up for 2017 and who knows how what he thinks about the future post-2020. A number of prospective entrants have been mooted, including Minneapolis, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Sacramento and Detroit. Others have suggested that the Cosmos could even join to be New York's third team in the metropolitan area (if only the second in the actual city). If the bait was dangled in front of other interested parties, who knows how many might declare interest?

There's also other considerations. Does MLS want to branch out into states or regions where it has no current representation, or into TV market shares which are presently untapped? Is it more interested in which clubs would fill their stadia, or which owners would pony up the most cash? The true answers is "we don't know, wait and see".

So MLS didn't exist before 1996. Was soccer even played before then?

I've addressed this in a fair bit of detail in American Soccer History 101. I suggest you read up on it there.

I mainly watch European football. I hear that MLS has a Conference system, though. Is that like the one in the NFL?

Yes it is, but unlike the NFL the two Conferences did not begin as rival leagues. Additionally, unlike the NFL and MLB, the Conferences are not national but are geographical - one in the west and one in the east. In this regard, it is actually more like the NHL, though it does not have any divisions within the Conferences. The Western Conference consists of nine teams from Vancouver to Dallas. The Eastern Conference stretches from Houston to Montreal.

So what happens when those four new teams join? They're all from eastern states!

Yes, they are. The truth is, again, that we're not sure. With so many clubs on the east coast, many speculate that a two-Conference system will simply be untenable. The popular theory, however, is that the league will stretch to three Conferences, rather than reducing to just one. It is possible that Houston Dyname and Sporting KC will simply switch, leaving eleven teams in the west and twelve in the east, however.

So maybe I'm not too familiar with US sports at all. What are these Conferences. Are they like different tiers, like the Premier League and the Championship?

Nothing of the sort. All teams are at the same level, competing for the same prize. The Conference system is simply a way for MLS to handle having a large amount of teams while also having long travel times, which are both hard on team logistics and on the players' bodies. It is designed to make each team's schedule weighted towards playing teams in their own locale while not cutting out national competition altogether. All teams play 34 games - 17 home and 17 away. However, a team from one conference will only play each team from the other conference a single time, either home or away. They will then play teams from their own conference either two or three times. Obviously, this results in some teams playing some teams at home a disproportionate number of times. This is mitigated to an extent the following season, when all home and away matches are reversed from the previous season.

So does MLS have any of the other features of US sports? Does it have a Playoff system?

Yes. This is the other feature of the Conference system. At the end of each regular season the top five teams from each Conference go through to the Playoffs, although this phase is known instead as the MLS Cup. The teams in place 4 in each Conference play a game against the 5th placed team in the same Conference first of all, in a one-legged knock-out match where the 4th placed team has home advantage. The winners of those two games then join the top three from each conference in the MLS Cup Conference Semifinals. Each Conference plays two-legged knock-out games until a winner has been found. The two winning teams then contest the overall national final, which is the final of the MLS Cup. The winner takes home the trophy and is considered the overall winner of the league.

So there's no prize for finishing top of the league in the regular season?

Actually, there is. After 34 games, the team at the top of the combined table wins the Supporters' Shield.

What about other stuff? Is there an All-Star game?

Yes there is. For the first few seasons MLS ran an All-Star game between its two Conferences, as is the traditional in other major American sports. Since 2002, however, the All-Star game has been played against a guest team, usually these days either a British club or a major European side. Despite the supposed mismatch in quality the All-Star side usually wins, though this may be partly as they tend to face opponents who are just returning from their off-season and out of form, while the All-Stars are right in the middle of their own season and are in perfect shape.

I've always been told that soccer is just "not American", and it won't take off. Surely MLS is doomed to fail?

You'd be surprised. MLS is booming right now, it has got itself into a good situation with TV contracts finally being agreed nationally as well as internationally, and average attendances have surpassed that of the NBA and NHL. In fact, MLS is currently 16th on the list of sports leagues worldwide by game-day attendance, attracting average gates of 18,594 in the 2013 season. Several clubs have built a reputation for their support and fan culture, and this time the league might just finally have found the right combination.

I heard that there are no real transfers in MLS - not like in European or South American football, anyway. What's up with that? How do teams fill their rosters?

This is all covered in another 101. I suggest you read up on Drafts 101.

I know that teams are under a salary cap...but they also have "Designated Players". What are they?

This will all be covered in our next 101 lesson, Salary Cap 101...when I get round to writing it. For now, though, you'll just have to be satisfied with what we've learned so far, and perhaps read up on my lesson notes from American Soccer History 101 or Drafts 101.
Yes! I finally got round to posting it! However, unlike Drafts 101, which I felt was pretty comprehensive when I got to the end, this one feels like it still has some gaps left. This may be because it's getting close to 2am, once again I've been writing this for three hours non-stop, and I'm pretty gorram tired, but I'm not sure I've got it all. If you guys have any questions which you think need to be added then please state them, and I'll add them when I can.
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There's definitely a Salary Cap/Roster 101 in the pipeline. After that, I have nothing planned, but I am willing to take requests. Or let other people write, if they want to, of course. I never meant to suggest that I would be the only one to write stuff here.
Great stuff, Falastur Falastur

You're the man! We're fortunate to have you around here.

I often wish I could be a valuable message board member. But then I think, nah, screw it. I'll stick with being an asshole.
Great stuff, Falastur Falastur

You're the man! We're fortunate to have you around here.

I often wish I could be a valuable message board member. But then I think, nah, screw it. I'll stick with being an asshole.
I'm kinda in the same boat. Except I'm not even an asshole. I'm just a jackass who happens to work fucked up hours and can spend an unreasonably large amount of time scrolling through threads. Cheers to moments of sadness and self-reflection!

edit: oh, let's not forget the newborn deciding she wants to sleep in 15 minute shifts!
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Haha, I think you're giving me a little too much praise. I just have a "thing" for absorbing rules and statistics and then being able to recite them, but I still occasionally get things wrong and at the end of the day it's a very niche skill. Obviously I'm interested in the whole of the club but you'll notice that I'm far from the most active poster on the more mainstream areas of the forum. In terms of actually growing the club and seeing the stuff you propose form the very identity of a club which hopefully will last for decades, you both are far more valuable than I am.