Major League Soccer is the highest-level men’s professional league in the United States and Canada. The league began in 1993, and 1996 was the first season with ten teams. Since 1996, MLS has grown to more football clubs from the original ten as the sport grows in popularity with fans.
So how does Major League Soccer work? When is the season, and how do the playoffs work in MLS? Here is the complete breakdown of Major League Soccer and more!
Early History – Before MLS
Before MLS, there was the North American Soccer League from 1968 to 1984. During that time, the league was a free-spending league, which led to the ultimate demise of the league. Revenues between teams were uneven, and eventually, the league folded.
The Start of MLS
In 1993, MLS began due in part to hosting the 1994 FIFA World Cup. The first player to sign in Major League Soccer was Tab Ramos in 1995 for the New York / New Jersey Metrostars. In 1996, MLS debut had ten official teams and D.C. United won the MLS Cup that season against LA Galaxy.
The Early Struggles
During the early years of MLS, the league struggled financially and also to gain respect from fans. Financially, the league struggled early on due to playing in High School Football stadiums, college fields, and even NFL stadiums. In addition to not playing in professional soccer stadiums, securing TV rights was difficult, making it challenging for the sport to gain a national audience. Finally, in 2002, two teams had to fold due to financial issues, and they were Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion.
Traditional fans also did not appreciate the “Americanization” of the sport early on in the league. For example, the schedule for MLS runs from the spring to the fall, while the Premier League runs from the fall to the spring. Another difference is how a winner is crowned during the MLS season compared to the Premier League.
The Growth of MLS
Since 2002, MLS has been growing with new soccer-only stadiums, establishing better national TV contracts, and implementing the Designated Player Rule, which allowed MLS teams to sign players abroad. In 2007, David Beckham joined the LA Galaxy, which helped put a national spotlight on the MLS since he was one of the world’s most famous association football players.
The league continues growing financially through better TV contracts, top player talent, and new soccer-only stadiums as the years have gone by. The association also expanded to more teams across the United States and Canada, which has helped bring new fans of the sport to different cities.
In addition to a better playing product, tv contracts, stadiums, and more, MLS successfully interacted with a younger generation of fans, which was critical in the sport’s growth. One way that MLS was able to bring in a new generation of fans was with their YouTube Channel, Kick TV, which eventually sold to COPA90 later. Using the YouTube channel, Kick TV, and other social media platforms, MLS was able to speak directly to fans and help grow their interest in soccer. MLS continues to have a solid social media presence with fans today.
How MLS Compares to the Other Sports in America / Canada via Popularity?
Most fans in the United States consider the top four sports to be NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL, with NFL being the leading contender. However, there is an argument that MLS is now the number five spot in the country. According to CNBC, in 2021, Major League Soccer saw an increase in audience ratings during the 2021 regular season of 18% year over year across ESPN and ABC.
The MLS Cup in 2021, at one point, had 1.6 million viewers tune in to the game between NYCFC and Portland Timbers. To put that in perspective, NHL, which is the number four sport in America via TV ratings, had 3.51 million people tune into that via game 5 of the Stanley Cup.
That gap between MLS and NHL is starting to close each season, and MLS continues to see an increase in regular season and MLS Cup ratings, which means that it has a chance to crack into the top 4 via popularity in the United States.
How Do MLS Team Score Points During the Regular Season?
- The winning team receives three points
- A tie between two teams receives one point
- A loss gets zero points
When is the MLS Season?
The MLS season runs from late February to October. Running the season during this time is different from the Premier League, which runs from August to May. In the Premier League, teams score points by winning or tying games and can win the Supporters’ Shield at the end of the season for the best record.
However, one thing that separates MLS from other European leagues is the playoff format to determine a winner for that season.
How Many Games in the Regular Season?
There are 34 games in the regular season, with a split between 17 home and away games.
MLS All-Star Game
The Major League All-Star Game is an annual event that takes the best players from the MLS and plays them against an international club. Initially, the All-Star game was to have the best players in the East play the West, but now it has become the best of the MLS vs. an international squad since 2005. The MLS All-Star Game takes place in the middle of the season, and it continues to help grow the sport of soccer and MLS on an international level.
What is the Supporters’ Shield in MLS?
In the Premier League, they crown a champion team based on points. That means a team can technically win this shield before the season is over if, mathematically, no club can match their points with the remaining games. MLS also offers this award to the best team during the regular season but goes one step further and gives them a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the playoffs.
That means a team that wins the Supporters Shield doesn’t automatically win the MLS Cup, which makes it interesting.
How Do Playoffs Work in MLS?
MLS offers a knockout playoff structure, which fans of the NFL are familiar with within the United States and Canada. The playoff structure works by having seven teams make the playoffs from each conference (Eastern Conference and Western Conference), with the best team in both conferences getting a bye in the first round. Whatever teams win their conference bracket, then play against each other in the MLS Cup. Whoever wins that knockout game wins the MLS Cup for that season.
How Popular is the MLS Cup?
During the 2021 MLS Cup between New York City FC and Portland Timbers, more than 1.6 million people tuned into the match. Over the past few years, there has been recent growth in the cup, with ratings at 825k back in 2019.
What Teams Are in Major League Soccer
Major League Soccer breaks down into the Eastern and Western Conference. Here is the complete breakdown of each conference. As a note, there will be more teams in the future!
- Atlanta United FC
- Charlotte FC
- Chicago Fire FC
- FC Cincinnati
- Columbus Crew
- D.C. United
- Inter Miami CF
- CF Montreal
- New England Revolution
- New York Red Bulls
- Orlando City SC
- Philadelphia Union
- Toronto FC
- Austin FC
- Colorado Rapids
- FC Dallas
- Houston Dynamo FC
- Sporting Kansas City
- LA Galaxy
- Los Angeles FC
- Minnesota United FC
- Nashville SC
- Portland Timbers
- Real Salt Lake
- San Jose Earthquakes
- Seattle Sounders FC
- Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Does MLS Have Promotion/ Relegation?
Major League Soccer does not have a pro/rel system like the Premier League. That means every team that enters the MLS will stay at the top level of play no matter what. Check out the complete guide on MLS Promotion Relegation to learn more about why it doesn’t have this system.
Conclusion: What is Major League Soccer?
MLS is the highest professional soccer league for men in the United States and Canada. Since the inaugural season in 1996, the league has grown steadily with more franchises and soccer-only stadiums. The season’s format is slightly different from leagues like the Premier League. Still, the differences help the sport modernize the game for American audiences, which has grown with a new generation of fans.