MLS Beginner’s Guide: How It Works

Major League Soccer, or MLS, is the highest level men’s soccer league in the United States. There are currently 26 teams in Major League Soccer, three of which are located in Canada. Although there have been multiple different soccer leagues in the United States, starting in the late 19th century and even after the first nationally successful league began in the late 1960s, Major League Soccer is certainly the most prominent, popular, and profitable soccer league currently and of all time in the U.S.A., and its goal is to become one of the top soccer leagues in the world.

History of MLS

Although the first successfully organized national soccer league in the U.S. came about much later in comparison to that of other countries around the world (possibly due to the size of the U.S.), Major League Soccer is approximately the same age as the English Premier League. The league was founded in 1993 and held its first season in 1996 after the United States Soccer Federation, the official governing body of soccer in the U.S. and more commonly known as U.S. Soccer, pledged to create a Division 1 professional soccer league as part of its bid to host the 1994 World Cup.

MLS started with 10 teams in 1996 and a television rights deal with ESPN. While certain teams initially dominated, such as D.C. United, the league itself struggled in its first few years due to a lack of attendance, financial problems, and unsuccessful efforts to “Americanize” the sport. These problems ultimately resulted in the dissolution of two added teams and a $250 million debt. It wasn’t until 2002, when the U.S. Men’s National Team made it to the quarterfinals in the World Cup, that MLS started to shed its inchoate skin and find success.

The mid-2000s saw MLS adopt the rules and standards of the International Football Association Board (IFAB), a global body that formed in the British Isles and created the codified set of rules known as the Laws of the Game that FIFA recognizes and enforces. Around this time, Major League Soccer also started constructing new soccer-specific home stadiums for its teams rather than continue to use NFL stadiums. Some MLS players ended up joining European teams, including legendary goalkeeper Tim Howard, and the league was also able to successfully expand and include more teams.

In 2007, when Toronto FC joined the league, English superstar David Beckham joined LA Galaxy, and Stan Kroenke (owner of the Los Angeles Rams, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and Arsenal FC) bought the Colorado Rapids, all of which increased the popularity and revenue of MLS, the league finally started to look successful. Since then, the league has continued to succeed, profit, and expand and will only continue to do so in the near future.

MLS Teams

Major League Soccer is divided into two conferences, the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. This year, there are 26 teams in Major League Soccer, 14 of which are in the Eastern Conference, 12 of which are in the Western Conference, and six of which have had their debut season in the past four years. MLS plans to expand the number of teams to 30 by 2023. These are the teams in MLS this season as well as the teams that are slated to join the league in the next few years:

MLS Eastern Conference

TeamLocationYear Team Joined
Atlanta United FCAtlanta, Georgia2017
Chicago Fire FCChicago, Illinois1998
FC CincinnatiCincinnati, Ohio2019
Columbus Crew SCColumbus, Ohio1996
D.C. UnitedWashington, D.C.1996
Inter Miami CFFort Lauderdale, Florida2020
Montreal ImpactMontreal, Quebec2012
Nashville SCNashville, Tennessee2020
New England RevolutionFoxborough, Massachusetts1996
New York City FCNew York City, New York2015
New York Red BullsHarrison, New Jersey1996
Orlando City SCOrlando, Florida2015
Philadelphia UnionChester, Pennsylvania2010
Toronto FCToronto, Ontario2007

MLS Western Conference

TeamLocationYear Team Joined
Colorado RapidsCommerce City, Colorado1996
FC DallasFrisco, Texas1996
Houston DynamoHouston, Texas2006
LA GalaxyCarson, California1996
Los Angeles FCLos Angeles, California2018
Minnesota United FCSaint Paul, Minnesota2017
Portland TimbersPortland, Oregon2011
Real Salt LakeSandy, Utah2005
San Jose EarthquakesSan Jose, California1996
Seattle Sounders FCSeattle, Washington2009
Sporting Kansas CityKansas City, Kansas1996
Vancouver Whitecaps FCVancouver, British Columbia2011

MLS Planned Expansion Teams

TeamLocationConferenceYear Team Plans to Join
Austin FCAustin, TexasWestern2021
Charlotte FCCharlotte, North CarolinaEastern2022
Sacramento Republic FCSacramento, CaliforniaWestern2023
*TBDSt. Louis, MissouriEastern2023


Major League Soccer’s regular season begins around early March and ends in early October. This differs from the top leagues in Europe whose seasons run from August to May. MLS’s schedule sometimes poses problems for the league and its players due to international summer tournaments, such as the World Cup.

Another difference between MLS and the top European leagues is that Major League Soccer, like American sports, has playoffs at the end of the season to determine the winner of the league. These playoffs start in October after the regular season has wrapped up, and the championship game, called the MLS Cup, is played in November or December.

Points System

Following suit with the rest of the soccer world, MLS uses points to rank teams during the season. A team receives three points for a win, one point for a draw, and no points for a loss. These points accumulate over the course of the season and determine where each team is placed on the table at the end of the season.

If two or more teams finish the season on the same number of points, MLS determines which team finishes higher by using these methods in this order: 1) most wins, 2) goal differential, 3) goals scored, 4) fewer disciplinary points, 5) away goal differential, 6) away goals scored, 7) home goal differential, 8) home goals scored, 9) coin toss (2 clubs), and finally 10) drawing of lots (3 clubs).

Playoffs, Supporters’ Shield & MLS Cup

Due to the ongoing expansion and development of the league, the league format has been constantly updating over the past few years. As of the 2020 season, however, there are 34 games in a season. Each team plays its conference opponents twice (home and away) along with 10 games against teams in the other conference. Overall, each team plays 17 home games and 17 away games.

At the end of the season, the team with the most points/best record wins the Supporters’ Shield. However, MLS also utilizes a playoff system to determine the winner of the MLS Cup, the true MLS season trophy. The top seven teams from both conferences earn a spot in the playoffs, with the top-seeded team getting a bye past the first round of playoffs. All rounds are single-match elimination and hosted by the higher seed. In each conference, the number two seed plays the number seven seed, the number three seed plays the number six seed, and the number four seed plays the number five seed. The first two winners then play each other in the conference semifinals, while the winner of the match between the fourth and fifth seed play the conference winners. After that, the two final teams from each conference play in the conference finals before the winners of those matches meet in the MLS Cup.

Rivalry Cups

Like in all sports, many MLS teams have rivalries with each other. In soccer, matches between rivals are called derbies. In MLS, these matches have been dubbed rivalry cups, and bragging rights aren’t the only thing at stake. The winner of a rivalry cup actually receives a trophy, adding an extra incentive for rival teams. The winner of the rivalry cup between Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas, known as the Texas Derby, actually receives an 18th-century cannon instead of a trophy.

Salary Cap & Designated Player Rule

Every team in MLS has the same salary budget for the 18-20 players on its senior roster. As of 2020, the salary budget for each team is $4,900,000, and the maximum salary budget charge for a single player is $612,500. This budget is allocated to each team by the MLS. Teams also have ten other players on a supplemental roster that do not count towards the team’s yearly salary budget.

Another key MLS rule to know is the Designated Player Rule. The Designated Player Rule states that each team is allowed three players whose salary and transfer fee exceed the salary cap of $612,500 per player. However, the amount of compensation above the salary budget charge will be the responsibility of the club rather than MLS. This rule was created for David Beckham when he joined LA Galaxy in 2007. Since then, clubs usually give the Designated Player status to their best or longest-tenured players, and the rule is most notable for its allowance of MLS teams to bring over famous players from Europe. Current high-profile Designated Players include Jozy Altidore of Toronto FC, Nani or Orlando City SC, and Chicharito of LA Galaxy. Other famous past Designated Players include Thierry Henry, Kaká, David Villa, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Steven Gerrard, Andrea Pirlo, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Zlatan Ibrahimović, and Wayne Rooney.

Other U.S. Soccer Leagues

While there have been and still are many rudimentary soccer leagues in U.S. history, the main leagues are MLS, USL Championship, USL League One, and National Independent Soccer Association (NISA). MLS is the first division of soccer in the United States, while USL Championship is the second division and League One and NISA make up the third. Currently, there is no mobility between the three divisions through promotion and relegation but rather only through financially draining bids to reach the next level. Hopefully, the United States soccer league system will adopt promotion and relegation in order to transition into a more entertaining and higher-stakes league system in the future.

U.S. Open Cup

On the other hand, the cup competition in the United States already mirrors everything about the historic cup competitions in the European top leagues, such as the FA Cup in England. The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is a cup tournament that every soccer team in the United States can compete in, including teams in MLS, USL Championship, USL League One, NISA, and even teams in amateur leagues.

The rounds of the tournament work the same as those in Europe. The amateur teams compete against each other in the first round to determine which teams will qualify. The teams from the third and second divisions of U.S. Soccer are then added in the second and third rounds before the MLS teams finally join in the fourth round. As expected, the stronger sides, mainly MLS clubs, dominate and make it the furthest, but there is always a chance that a smaller, amateur side could make a run in the tournament.

Future of MLS

Major League Soccer, as well as organized soccer in the United States in general, is still relatively new. However, the efforts of U.S. Soccer and MLS to develop the sport and the competition are apparent, strong, and look to be successful. It won’t be long before Major League Soccer truly looks the real deal, and if all goes according to plan, MLS could even join the top soccer leagues in Europe on the list of the best soccer leagues in the world.

Win, lose, or tie, Chelsea 'til I die, keep the blue flag flying high. Born and raised in New York City and an avid viewer of the English Premier League. Besides playing and watching soccer, I love to bike and write songs.

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