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A Brief Guide to Major League Soccer

A Brief Guide to Major League Soccer

Before last week, I was pretty clueless about the MLS. This made me realise that others probably were too, so here’s a brief guide to the history and structure of Major League Soccer, an establishment that’s only been around since 1993.

Major League Soccer is the major professional soccer league in North America. It is the top tier of the pyramid that includes the various soccer organisations across the continent, and is the only entirely professional league. It currently boasts 19 teams, 16 in the US and 3 in Canada. The following clubs are currently in the league (organised into two conferences):

Eastern Conference
Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, DC United, Houston Dynamo, Montreal Impact, New England Revolution, New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union, Sporting Kansas City, Toronto FC

Western Conference
Chivas USA, Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas, Los Angeles Galaxy, Portland Timbers, Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders FC, Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Competition Format

The Format of the MLS is very different the leagues in Europe. The MLS maintains an ethos of North American sport, with a playoff system at the end of the season deciding the champion (in the MLS Cup)

Major League Soccer’s regular season runs from March to October with its 19 teams playing 34 games in an unbalanced schedule. Teams are divided into the Eastern and Western Conference. Midway through the season, teams break for the annual All-Star Game, a friendly game between the league’s best players and a major club from a different league.

At the end of the regular season, the team with the highest point total is awarded the Supporters’ Shield. The regular season is followed by the 10-team MLS Cup Playoffs ending with the MLS Cup championship final. The MLS Cup is the most prestigious trophy in the MLS, awarded to the eventual winners of the playoffs.

MLS has three automatic berths in the CONCACAF Champions League for its American clubs with an additional spot available via the U.S. Open Cup; Canadian clubs can qualify for a single berth via the Canadian Championship.



The MLS was officially formed on December 17th, 1993 in preparation for the following year’s World Cup. In reality it was yet another attempt to jump start football in America, after the US Soccer Federation had promised FIFA that they would make serious efforts towards instituting a high –level professional league in the country if they were awarded the hosting for the 1994 World Cup.

It was expected that interest in the sport would rise greatly following the staging of the tournament in the States, and that this would give the league a good starting basis. It kicked off for the first time in early 1996 with just 10 teams, who attracted decent attendances. As with other sports in the country, teams were divided into two conferences

Major League Soccer began play in 1996 with 10 founding teams – Columbus Crew, DC United, New England Revolution, NY/NJ MetroStars, and Tampa Bay Mutiny in the Eastern Conference and Colorado Rapids, Dallas Burn, Kansas City Wiz, Los Angeles Galaxy, and San Jose Clash in the Western Conference. The inaugural match was played on April 6, with host San Jose Clash defeating DC United 1-0. United would come back to win the championship however, defeating the LA Galaxy 3-2 in overtime in the first MLS Cup final.

League rules were a mix of FIFA tradition and a throwback to NASL experimentation, with a countdown clock and shootout to determine drawn games among other innovations. Throughout MLS soccer history these experiments were gradually phased out and MLS rules now broadly align with international norms.

DC United were the early powers in Major League Soccer, winning three of the first four league titles, missing out only in 1998 where they lost to the expansion Chicago Fire in the final. Miami Fusion joined Chicago in that year’s expansion as the league expanded to 12 teams.

However the sport never really took off, and the quality of play in the league had been generally poor and uninteresting. This was confirmed by Team USA’s poor performance at the 1998 World Cup, something which increased the rate of the MLS’s decline.

The league had also proved to be less interesting than hoped, and slightly uncompetitive, as DC United coach Bruce Arena emerged as an early stalwart, winning 3 out of four MLS championships. Attendances lowered steadily after the first season, the MLS was losing money, and league had to change its strategy.


They hired a new commissioner, Don Garber, who made it his mission to improve the MLS’ financial situation, as well as build “soccer-specific” stadiums, which would improve the atmosphere of the matches. This managed to improve the situation somewhat, but it was Bruce Arena who returned to deliver a tremendous boost.

This managed to improve the situation somewhat, but it was Bruce Arena who returned to deliver a tremendous boost. It was under his management that the US national team reached the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan, and it once again led to an increase in the popularity of the game. The MLS Cup final, held a few months after the World Cup final, had a record sell-out crowd watch the LA Galaxy winning the trophy.

Landon Donovan scoring for the US in the 2002 World Cup

MLS underwent a significant transition in the years leading up to the 2006 World Cup. After marketing itself on the talents of American players, the league saw some of its homegrown stars depart for more prominent leagues in Europe. Tim Howard, goalkeeper for the MetroStars, was sold to Manchester United in one of the most lucrative contract deals in league history. DaMarcus Beasley of the Chicago Fire left for PSV Eindhoven, while Landon Donovan, on loan from Bayer Leverkusen, was recalled to Germany. Donovan’s stint in Germany was brief; before the start of the 2005 MLS season he was sold back to MLS to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Expansion was again on the agenda and in 2005 two new teams joined the league – Chivas USA in the Los Angeles area and Real Salt Lake in Utah. This was the start of near annual changes to the league line-up. This coincided with the creation of the MLS Reserve Division. Each reserve squad played 12 games a season, providing valuable playing time to develop non-starters on team rosters.

In 2006 the San Jose Earthquakes franchise moved to Houston to become the Houston Dynamo, the first (and so far only) league team to move cities. Toronto FC joined in 2007, San Jose returned in 2008, Seattle Sounders came on board in 2009 and Philadelphia Union made it 16 league teams in 2010.

Although not as badly as before, the league however continued to stagnate. The quality of soccer player remained poor and despite some decent players (including several from Central America), the league lacked real star quality. The best youngsters like Tim Howard and DaMarcus Beasley had left for Europe, and another mediocre showing at the 2006 World Cup saw the MLS forced to once again take stock.


This era in MLS history saw the creation of the designated player rule, where teams could sign one star player whose salary did not count towards the salary cap (but which was met at the team’s own expense). It was designed to attract some of the more famous players from around the world who were earning much higher wages, and it was this that set the stage for the MLS’s biggest marketing exercise – the signing of superstar David Beckham for LA Galaxy on a $250 million, five year contract. The likes of Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Juan Pablo Ángel are some of the first Designated Players who have made major contributions to their clubs.

David Beckham’s move to the MLS has transformed football in the US

The departures of Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, coupled with the return of former U.S. national team stars Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride to New York and Chicago, respectively, highlight the exchange of top prospects to Europe for experienced veterans to MLS.

Several other well-known foreign players have followed Beckham and Blanco to MLS, including Guillermo Barros Schelotto to Columbus and Freddie Ljungberg to Seattle.

Following Beckham’s arrival at LA Galaxy in 2007 every LA Galaxy away game was sold out, it was a celebrity effect that the league had counted on.

By 2008 San Jose had returned to the league under new ownership. In 2009 the expansion side Seattle Sounders FC opened to a crowd of 32,523 at Qwest Field.

The 2010 season ushered in an expansion franchise in the Philadelphia Union and the opening of New York’s soccer-specific stadium, Red Bull Arena. That same summer saw the opening of Philadelphia’s own new stadium, PPL Park and the debut of New York Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry, the leading all-time goalscorer of Arsenal F.C.and the French national team.

The start of the 2011 season saw further expansion with the addition of the Vancouver Whitecaps FC, the second Canadian MLS franchise, and the Portland Timbers. The addition of two West Coast teams pushed the Houston Dynamo into the Eastern Conference. The Kansas City Wizards began play under the rebranded name of Sporting Kansas City. During the season, the Galaxy signed another major international star in Republic of Ireland captain and all-time leading goalscorer Robbie Keane.

Keane assisted his new club in winning both the 2011 Supporter’s Shield and the MLS Cup.

In 2012, the Montreal Impact became the league’s 19th franchise and the 3rd to be located in Canada. The Impact, after playing their first MLS game at Vancouver, made their home debut at Olympic Stadium in front of a crowd of 58,912.

To date, DC United remain the most successful team in the history of Major League Soccer, winning 4 MLS Cup titles, ahead of LA Galaxy, with 3, then Houston, LA and San Jose at 2.

Ownership and Finance

In the United States, we are treated to a different, yet unique model, under which all clubs are part of the single-entity that is Major League Soccer. Clubs are essentially are owned and operated by the league, itself.   The clubs, however, are organized independent of the MLS; the front office and board of directors are the responsibility of the club.  Owners and ownership groups are instead shareholders of Major League Soccer.

Revenue sharing is a requirement among MLS clubs.  Player contracts are negotiated directly by Major League Soccer and are actually contracted with the league, not individual clubs. The introduction of front jersey sponsorships in 2007 increased opportunities for profitability.

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