Major League Soccer: A Guide

It’s safe to say that interest in soccer is typically Eurocentric. Countries such as England, Spain, Italy, France, and Germany have all the stars, all the money, and all the drama and excitement enough for one season every year. But, soccer does not just exist in the European bubble. Across the pond, Major League Soccer is growing in popularity. For the outsider, though, it can be a little confusing, especially if you’re used to the traditional league format found on the continent. We hope to clear all of your questions up for you with our guide to Major League soccer. 

History of Major League Soccer 

Major League Soccer was founded in 1993 as part of the USA’s push to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup. However, the first session did not take place until 1996, with ten teams taking part. D.C. United won this inaugural season, while Tampa Bay Mutiny emerged as Supporter’s Cup winners. 

In 1998 the league expanded to 12 teams, but it was beset with financial difficulties that led to two clubs folding in 2001. There are varying theories why this happened. One potential reason was the attempt to Americanize the sport, including extra time in regular league games, and a unique penalty shootout that gave the taker five seconds to score. 

These adjusted rules alienated traditional soccer fans and failed to attract interest from newcomers. The rules were abandoned in favor of more traditional Laws of the Game. 

The year 2002 saw an upturn in fortunes thanks in part to the USMNT reaching the Quarter-Final of the World Cup in Japan and South Korea. The league also began marketing to homegrown players and the MLS Reserve Division gave playing time for the second string to gain valuable minutes and experience. 

Further expansion came in 2007 when Toronto FC joined the league, while David Beckham also boosted Major League Soccer’s profile when he signed for LA Galaxy. Other quality players, such as France legend Thierry Henry joined New York Red Bulls the next year, and the next decade saw Frank Lampard, David Villa, Didier Drogba, and Kaka all sign for clubs in MLS. 

By 2015, MLS had expanded to 28 teams, and there are currently 26 teams that perform in the league, with a planned expansion to 30 teams in 2021. 

Major League Soccer Format 

Eastern and Western Conference

The MLS is split into two conferences. These are the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. Immediately, this is a far cry from essentially any other league in the world. However, the general Conference format in the first stage of the season shares similarities with the classic league formula. 

Each team will play other teams in the same conference twice a season, like the EPL and other leagues have Home and Away games. However, teams will also play each team from the opposite conference once. The team with the best record across both conferences throughout the season is crowned MLS Supporter’s Shield Champions. 

The league runs from March to October, which differs from the typical August to May found in Europe. This is not to be different, though. Instead, it ensures there is no winter schedule, which could cause problems in places such as Vancouver, Toronto, and Minneapolis where the temperatures regularly drop at least 20 degrees below freezing. 

Play-Off Stage

After everyone has played each other, the league progresses to a Play-Off stage to compete for the MLS Cup. As the format adjusts each year to accommodate expansions, it’s hard to give an entirely clear overview of what this entails. However, the 2019 season saw seven teams from each conference progress to the Play-Off format. 

The first-placed team from both conferences receive a first-round bye, which gives teams incentive to push to perform, rather than being happy to finish in the Top Seven. It also encourages competitiveness throughout the season, rather than having some teams giving up too soon. 

The Play-Off includes single-game eliminations, with the second placed team facing the seventh, third place playing sixth, and fourth and fifth teams playing one another. The knockout stages progress to a Conference final. This is followed by the winners of both games competing in the MLS Cup final. 

Convoluted? Perhaps. But it adds something refreshing to soccer, especially if you’re new to the league. 

No Relegation?

No. If there is one aspect of MLS that bucks the trend of other global leagues, it is the distinct lack of relegation. This is because of several reasons. For one, MLS operates as a single entity, meaning that the MLS as a whole can be considered one business. The owners agree contracts with shirt sponsors and sporting brands, like Adidas. This is a stark difference to other leagues, which work independently to agree sponsorships and shirt deals. 

The other reason is parity. Unlike the rest of the world, all teams in Major League Soccer have a salary cap, which puts these teams on the same level and prevents any monopolies where the richest team can buy the league. Therefore, the difference in quality is nowhere near as much as say that between Juventus and Benevento or Manchester City and West Brom. 

Legendary Major League Soccer Players 

Major League Soccer may not have the history of other leagues across the world, but there have been a few legendary players who have both begun and completed their career there. 

  • Landon Donavon 
  • Chris Wondolowski
  • Robbie Keane
  • Marco Etcheverry
  • Dwayne De Rosario

Plus a special mention to David Beckham, simply because it’s David Beckham. 

Stars of the Future? 

With the improvements in Major League Soccer over the past few years, future stars are emerging. We have seen this with Alphonso Davies, who joined Bayern Munich from Vancouver Whitecaps. Here are some potential stars of the future: 

  • Mark McKenzie (CB, Philadelphia Union, 20)
  • Matias Pellegrini (W, Inter Miami CF, 19)
  • Brian Rodríguez (W, LAFC, 19)
  • Mason Toye (ST, Minnesota United, 21)
  • Jesus Ferreira (CF, FC Dallas, 19)

The Major Leagues

Major League Soccer has come a long way since its inception in 1993. It isn’t on the same level as the Big Five leagues across Europe yet, but an increased interest in soccer cards and soccer along with increased investment and recognizable names, means there is plenty of potential for growth. What we’re trying to say, is watch this space, and consider giving MLS a go, it might just surprise you. 

Be sure to stay tuned for our article covering the top teams to follow in MLS. 

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