Major League Soccer (MLS) is a men’s professional soccer league sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation, which represents the sport’s highest level in the United States and Canada.
The league comprises 27 teams – 24 in the USA and 3 in Canada – and plans to expand to 30 teams by the 2023 season. MLS constitutes one of the major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada. The league is headquartered in Midtown Manhattan.
Major League Soccer was founded in 1993 as part of the United States’ successful bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup.
The inaugural season took place in 1996 with ten teams. MLS experienced financial and operational struggles in its first few years, losing millions of dollars and folding two teams in 2002.
Since then, developments such as the proliferation of soccer-specific stadiums around the league, implementation of the Designated Player Rule allowing teams to sign star players such as David Beckham, and national TV contracts have made MLS profitable.
With an average attendance of over 20,000 per game, MLS has the third-highest average attendance of any professional sports league in the US after the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB) and was the seventh-highest attended professional soccer league worldwide by 2013.
The MLS regular season typically starts in late February or early March and runs through mid-October, with each team playing 34 games. The team with the best record is awarded the Supporters’ Shield.
Fourteen teams compete in the postseason MLS Cup Playoffs in late October and November, culminating in the league’s championship game, the MLS Cup.
Instead of operating as an association of independently owned clubs, MLS is a single entity in which each team is owned by the league and individually operated by the league’s investors.
The league has a fixed membership like most sports leagues in the United States and Canada, which makes it one of the world’s few soccer leagues that do not use promotion and relegation.
Major League Soccer’s regular season runs from late February or early March to October. Teams are geographically divided into the Eastern and Western Conferences, playing 34 games in an unbalanced schedule.
With 27 teams in 2021, each team plays two games, home and away, against every team in its conference and one game against all but four or five of the teams in the opposite conference.
The 2020 season was the first season in league history in which teams will not play against every other team in the league. At the end of the regular season, the team with the highest point total is awarded the Supporters’ Shield and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Teams break for the annual All-Star Game midway through the season, an exhibition game containing the league’s best players. The format of the All-Star Game has changed several times since the league’s inception. 2020 was the first year in which the MLS All-Stars were planned to play against an all-star team from Mexico’s Liga MX, before the event’s cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unlike most major soccer leagues around the world, but similar to other leagues in the Americas, the MLS regular season is followed by a postseason knockout tournament to determine the league champion. Fourteen teams participate in the MLS Cup Playoffs in October, which concludes with the MLS Cup championship game in early December.
Major League Soccer’s spring-to-fall schedule results in scheduling conflicts with the FIFA calendar and with summertime international tournaments such as the World Cup and the Gold Cup, causing some players to miss league matches.
While MLS has looked into changing to a fall-to-spring format, there are no current plans to do so. If the league were to change its schedule, a winter break would be necessary to accommodate teams located in harsh winter climates.
It would also have to compete with the popularity and media presence of the National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), and National Hockey League (NHL), which all run on fall-to-spring schedules.
The Supporters’ Shield is an annual award given to the Major League Soccer team with the best regular-season record, as determined by the MLS points system.
The Supporters’ Shield has been annually awarded at the MLS Supporters’ Summit since 1999 and has been recognized as a major trophy by the league.
It echoes the practice of the top European leagues in which the team with the best record is the champion. Since 2006, the Supporters’ Shield winner has earned a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League if they are an American-based team.
D.C. United and LA Galaxy, with four Supporters’ Shields each, have won the most shields of any MLS team.
MLS Cup Playoffs
The MLS Cup Playoffs is the annual postseason elimination tournament of Major League Soccer. The final match of the tournament is the MLS Cup, the league’s championship game.
Under the current format adopted for the 2019 season, 14 teams qualify for the tournament based on regular-season point totals—the seven highest-placed teams from both the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. Audi is the title sponsor of this tournament.
Awarding a championship through a postseason tournament differs from most other soccer leagues around the world, where the team with the most points at the end of the season is deemed champion.
MLS awards the regular-season champions with the Supporters’ Shield, and the winner must be a U.S.-based team in order to earn a direct berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, the continental tournament.
The MLS Cup is the annual championship game of Major League Soccer (MLS) and the culmination of the MLS Cup Playoffs.
The game is held in early November and pits the winner of the Eastern Conference Final against the winner of the Western Conference Final. The MLS Cup winner is awarded the title of league champion.
MLS uses a playoff tournament following the regular season to determine its annual league champion, a method common to every other major North American sports league.
This format differs from most soccer leagues around the world, which consider the club with the most points at the end of the season to be the champion. MLS honours that achievement with the Supporters’ Shield.
A US-based team that wins the MLS Cup is awarded one of the country’s four berths in the following season’s CONCACAF Champions League.
The three Canadian teams of MLS can only qualify for the Champions League through the Canadian Championship – if any of them should win the MLS Cup, the Champions League berth tied to the game is passed on to the highest-placed US-based team in the overall regular-season table that did not already qualify.
The inaugural MLS Cup was held on October 20, 1996, in which D.C. United defeated the LA Galaxy. The Galaxy are the most successful team in MLS Cup history, winning a record fifth title in 2014.
MLS teams also play in other international and domestic competitions.
Every year, four to five MLS teams – four from the U.S. and one from Canada – play in the CONCACAF Champions League against other clubs from the CONCACAF region.
Two US-based MLS teams qualify based on regular-season results from the previous year – the teams with the highest point total from each of the two conferences, one of whom is the Supporter’s Shield champion.
The third US team to qualify is the reigning MLS Cup champion.
A fourth US-based MLS team can qualify by winning the US Open Cup. If a team qualifies through multiple berths, or if any of the three MLS berths are taken by a team based in Canada, the berth is reallocated to the highest-placed US-based team in the previous season’s overall table that has otherwise not qualified.
Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver compete against other Canadian sides in the Canadian Championship for the one CONCACAF Champions League berth allocated to Canada.
Since 2018, the reigning MLS Cup champion plays in the Campeones Cup, a single game against the Campeón de Campeones from Liga MX, hosted by the MLS team in September.
The inaugural edition saw Tigres UANL defeat Toronto FC 3–1 on September 19, 2018, at BMO Field in Toronto.
Another inter-league competition with Liga MX, the Leagues Cup, was established in 2019. The 2020 edition of the tournament was originally planned to pair eight MLS clubs against eight Liga MX clubs in a single-elimination tournament hosted in the United States, reviving an inter-league rivalry that previously took place in the now-defunct North American Superliga, before its cancellation.
Major League Soccer’s 27 teams are divided between the Eastern and Western Conferences. Each team is allowed up to 30 players on its first team roster. All 30 players are eligible for selection to each 18-player game-day squad during the regular season and playoffs.
MLS has regularly expanded since the 2005 season. The league plans to grow to 30 teams with the additions of Charlotte FC in 2022, St. Louis City SC in 2023, and potentially Sacramento Republic FC at a date to be determined.
The league features numerous rivalry cups that are contested by two or more teams, usually geographic rivals. Each trophy is awarded to the team with the best record in matches during the regular season involving the participating teams. The concept is comparable to rivalry trophies played for by American college football teams.
- Atlanta United FC
- Chicago Fire FC
- FC Cincinnati
- Columbus Crew
- D.C. United
- Inter Miami CF
- CF Montréal
- Nashville SC
- New England Revolution
- New York City FC
- 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
- Portland Timbers
- Real Salt Lake
- San Jose Earthquakes
- Seattle Sounders FC
- Vancouver Whitecaps FC