Major League Soccer, commonly referred to as MLS, is the top division of soccer sanctioned by US Soccer with teams in the U.S. and Canada. The league was founded in 1993 with the first season being played three years later in 1996 with 10 teams. It has since grown to 22 teams (as of the 2017 season) and is on pace to have 26 teams by 2020 with a long-term goal of 28 teams.
MLS is unique in global soccer in that it plays a March to October season, does not use a relegation/promotion system, and is organized as a single-entity business with the league owning all the teams and holding the player contracts.
The split table format has teams divided into 1 of 2 conferences, the Eastern Conference and Western Conference. Teams play a 34-game regular season and so do NOT play every team home and away as is common in other leagues. The league awards 3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw, and 0 points for a loss. The top teams from each Conference advance to the MLS Cup playoffs with the champion being the winner of the final game, MLS Cup.
The team with the highest point total at the end of the regular season is recognized, however. The Supporters’ Shield was established in 1999 to reward the team with the highest point total. The trophy is a tribute to the fans who helped raise funds to commission the trophy. The league initially did not like the idea of a separate award for the regular season champion.
MLS is guaranteed 3 berths in the CONCACAF Champions League but can have up to 5 representatives. The winners of each Conference earn a berth along with the winner of MLS Cup. If any of these winners is a Canada-based team, the berth is reallocated to the US based team highest on the Supporters’ Shield table that has not qualified. MLS sides can also qualify through the domestic cup competitions, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in the United States and the Canadian Championship in Canada.
After trying to ‘Americanize’ the sport when it launched (using a shootout to break ties and having a countdown clock with the half/game ending when it hit 0:00), the league has adopted more international standards over the last 2 decades. The league follows the rules and standards of the International Football Association Board (IFAB) and has eliminated other ‘americanized’ aspects of the game.
Many teams currently play in soccer specific stadia or venues designed with soccer in mind which has created a European atmosphere at games. A huge contrast to the early years of the league when teams played in giant NFL stadia which tended to make games feel empty even when there were 20,000+ fans.
Like other U.S. sports, MLS team salaries are limited by a salary cap. The cap was largely to keep teams from over spending on players and ultimately facing a similar demise to the old North American Soccer League (NASL). The average salary for players in the league is $316,777 as of 2017.
But the league has a Designated Player rule that allows team to sign marquee players. The first player signed under the rule adopted in 2007 was David Beckham. The rule allows teams to sign any player with only a small percentage counting toward the salary cap.
The foundation is set for MLS to continue to grow and over more time become one of the top soccer leagues in the world.