How The MLS System Works

How The MLS System Works


Following up on my previous article about why the MLS will be successful in the future, I have realized that not many people know just how the MLS works today. Sure there are two tables, a playoff system, and some weird rules about players and salaries, but who knows exactly what goes on in this league? Fortunately for readers, I do, and for what I don’t know, the MLS website definitely does.

League Structure

As mentioned before, the league is split up into two tables: Eastern Conference and Western Conference. The structure is based on the geographical distribution of clubs. Have a look at the image:

map of mls

Teams in the East are: Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, DC United, Kansas City Wizards, New York Red Bulls, New England Revolution, and Toronto FC.

The Western teams are: Chivas USA, Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo, Los Angeles Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, and San Jose Earthquakes.

When Seattle enters the league next year, it will be in the Western Conference, and when Philadelphia enters the league in 2010, it will join the East.

The MLS lumps all teams together into one table to decide on a couple of awards:

  • The first place team overall wins the MLS Supporters Shield and qualifies for the CONCACAF Champions League
  • The first through fourth place teams overall qualify for the SuperLiga

In the regular season, all teams play thirty matches. They play everybody home and away (that’s 26) and then play against a four teams from their own conference again. I’m not sure, but I think the four teams that each team play is assigned at random.

Squads (or Rosters)

Major League Soccer, following in the footsteps of American leagues such as the NBA and NFL, have a salary cap. What this means is that each club can only pay their players a certain amount of combined money. For example, if the salary cap was set at $3 million, I could pay three players $1 million, or I could pay one player $2 million and the other two half a million.

moneyThe new Designated Player Rule (known affectionately as the Beckham rule) allows each MLS club to pay two players as much as they want. Obviously, this is named after David Beckham because of his gigantic deal with the Los Angeles Galaxy that pays him between 4 and 5 million dollars a year until 2011.

There are many small rules about team rosters that are not worth going into because they never affect the game being played. However, one more rule to take note of is this: each team is allowed eight international players (or non-US citizens). Toronto FC, because of their Canadian location, have been given two extra international roster spots that may only be used on US nationals.

The SuperDraft and Supplemental Draft are also carried over from other domestic sports leagues, where clubs can acquire former college players and young players that are members of Generation adidas — a special program for gifted younger players.

Recap of this year’s MLS SuperDraft.


The MLS playoffs, known as the MLS Cup, are one of the hot debatable topics in American soccer. However, I am here to inform about the playoffs, not give opinions, so here it is.

Qualifiers for the playoffs are:

  • The top three teams from each conference
  • The next two best MLS teams, regardless of conference

There are three rounds of playoff matches. There are Conference Semi Finals, Conference Finals, and the MLS Cup Final. The Conference Semi Finals are played over two legs, with the lower placing team hosting the first match. The Conference Championship is one-off, hosted by the higher placing advancing team. The MLS Cup Championship is hosted at a neutral site (in 2008 it will be the Home Depot Center, the home of the LA Galaxy).

Continental Competitions

Of course, knowing how good a team is against clubs from its own country is a worthless endeavor if they aren’t going to be matched up against other clubs from across the continent (or the world).

concacafThere are two continental competitions that MLS teams are eligible for: the SuperLiga and the new CONCACAF Champions League, which fans have needed for a long time.

The SuperLiga is played between the top four MLS clubs and four clubs from the Mexican Premera División. The exact details of the competition have not been announced.

The CONCACAF Champions League will be played among 24 teams, four of which will come from the MLS. The top two MLS clubs will not enter until the group stage, but the other two will have to participate in a two-leg preliminary round. There will be four groups of four in the group stage, with teams playing all other teams in their group twice. The knockout round, all the way through to the Final in late April 2009, will be played over two legs. The winner of the competition will advance to the FIFA Club World Cup.

In the Future…

There are several things that will probably change. A few of these concepts (including the David Beckham rule and the allocation of extra international players) are up for review in 2009. Since the league is planning on having only eighteen teams by 2012, the single table and uneven scheduling will probably remain for a while. For now, fans will have to enjoy what the MLS has to offer until they make reforms to the format. Even when the reforms start, it is bound to be slow, just like the league’s expansion. So the key for MLS fans, as ever, is to be patient.

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  1. and for new MLS fans too. I just got season tickets for the Rapids this season and am still getting up to speed on how the league works.

  2. For Premiership fans, here’s another way to think about MLS. The Supporters Shield, mentioned above is the true league championship, as it is based on the combined table after the regular season. The playoffs can be thought of as an abbreviated league cup, all of which takes place after the regular season (it just excludes those teams that wouldn’t perform well anyway). Even though the winning team is crowned “Champion”, the “Champion” is not always the best team in MLS.

    What of an “FA-Cup” type competition you ask? Well for that, the US has the US Open Cup, which is open to sides from MLS as well as lower leagues such as the USL.

    I hope this helps.

  3. Liviu, great article. It is good to see you spreading the knowledge about the game in the US.

    A couple of minor factual points:

    – According the MLS Players Union Beckham was scheduled to make $5.5 million in 2007, plus incentives.
    – The 4 “extra” games are not assigned at random but are given to regional rivals. For example DC United will play an extra game against NY, New England, Toronto and Chicago since those are the closest teams to DC.

    I agree that the Supporter’s Shield is the award is a credit to the top team during the “regular season” and with the spot in the CONCACAF Champion’s League it gives some value to the award. The “playoffs” can really be looked at as an end of season Cup Competition that only allows the 8 best (out of 14, 15 or 16) teams to compete.

    A very good article and a “must read” for anyone that wants to get up to speed on MLS.

  4. Correction on the MLS Playof Format – only the TOP 2 teams from each division automatically qualify – then the next best 4 teams qualify after that.

  5. Robert, this is quoted directly from the MLS website


    Who Qualifies: Eight teams qualify for the 2008 MLS Cup Playoffs. Playoff berths will be determined by points in the standings upon the completion of the regular season. All 14 teams will have played 30 games.

    1. The top three teams in each conference qualify.
    2. The two MLS teams with the next most points, regardless of conference, receive “wildcard” berths.

  6. What is sad about the MLS is living in Saint Louis, Missouri, it is easier for me to get Series A and Premier league games on the television then MLS. They need to promote more and show more games, then more would be interested in how the league works.

    AS Roma will beat Real again and tie up with Inter on Sunday.

  7. Robert, Liviu Bird is right on the playoff format. Last year it was the top 2 teams from each conference then the next best 4. For some reason this year it changed to the top 3 teams plus the next best 2.

    It doesn’t really change things. It is pretty unlikely that 6 teams would have come from one conference and 2 from the other one anyway. With this rule change MLS has ensured that won’t happen.

  8. Bless you Liviu! I hadn’t realized how much I’d forgotten/never known about the rules concerning international players.

    On the point about expansion- I’m actually fairly glad that it’s been progressing so slowly. It IS frustrating, but it seems that’s the way to keep the league from imploding magnificently or simply fizzling out like past leagues in the US.

  9. as long as MLS continue improving and expanding, and the playing standard improving..i’ll be happy. but it’ll be good for the league and Americans in general if MLS adding more teams though. say..up to 24 teams or so. this will provide more competitions and more playing times for the players, especially for those who vies for international games. 5 months of off-season is too long for me. 2 or 3 months should be enough for the players. resting too long will cause the players to regain their fitness slowly and i think this is bad for the league during the early part of the season. more live TV shows will be great too.

  10. hey thanks for the great article i enjoyed reading it, im thinking about giving the mls a go next year from england and needed to get the info on how the whole league works.

    Glad to see that you have got a salary cap already as i feel that this is the way forward for most other leagues. You may need to add more teams to the league if it is goin to keep growing, and also the 4 & 5 months off is much to LONG! need to keep the people interested in the league.

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