I’m back, ladies and gents! It’s been some time since I’ve been around, but the new season and the new game means it’s time to start cranking out new content! This American had a great time living in Australia over the summer, but I’ve been thinking it’s about time to get back home to the good ol’ US of A and Major League Soccer.
There are a fair few number of international soccer fans out there who have wanted to get into Major League Soccer but didn’t know where to start. “What are these conferences?” they ask. “What’s the Supporters’ Shield?”, “What’s a Generation Adidas player?”, “How do the many different drafts work?” Don’t get me wrong, it’s different, and it was certainly daunting at first for me because as a more casual fan, I watch the games but don’t pay much mind to drafts or have a serious opinion on most signings. Luckily, while different, none of it is too complicated to understand!
I promise that once you make it through your first season or two and have had to do everything, you’ll realise everything you’ve ever been scared of with regards to the MLS was all misplaced. That’s exactly the point of this guide, and if I’ve done my job right, hopefully, we’ll have a couple of people wanting to get a taste of their own for Major League Soccer!
MLS Regular Season
The first major and noteworthy thing is that this is a summer league, not a winter league. Major League Soccer’s “regular season” runs from March to October, with the MLS Cup playoffs beginning immediately afterward.
The league is divided into two conferences – a Western Conference and an Eastern Conference. Why? Well, we’ve got conferences for all of our other national sports, and the only answer I can think of to give is “just because” and that it’s a holdover from the 90s when the US tried to Americanize many aspects of the game.
The conference you’re in affects how many times you play against each other team in the league. Each of the 22 teams in the league for the 2017 season will play 34 “regular season” matches – 17 at home and 17 away. Clubs will play each team in their own conference twice, once at home and once away. Clubs also play each team in the other conference at least once, alternating each year between who hosts and who is away between each team. (ex. If FC Dallas were to host Chicago Fire at home in the 2017 season, they would be the visitors in 2018). There are also three additional intra-conference matches, with one team in each conference playing an extra non-conference match. At the end of the regular season, points are tallied up to determine who the winner of the MLS Supporters’ Shield is, with the usual count of 3 points for a win, 1 for a draw, and nothing for a loss.
MLS Cup Playoffs
The Supporters’ Shield is a major accolade for Major League Soccer, but it’s not the grand prize, however! After the regular season, the top six teams in each conference enter the MLS Cup Playoffs to contest the MLS Cup – Major League Soccer’s equivalent of the NFL’s Super Bowl or baseball’s World Series – and determine who the season’s champion is.
The first round of each conference has the third-seeded team hosting the sixth seed while the fourth-seed hosts the fifth seed in a single match to determine who advances to the Conference Semifinals. In the Conference Semifinals, the top seed plays the lowest remaining seed while the second plays the next-lowest. The winners advance to the Conference Finals. Both the Conference Semifinals and Conference Finals are played as a two-legged aggregate series. The winners advance to the MLS Cup, a single match hosted by the participant with the better record, and the winner of the MLS Cup is the champion for that year.
There are two major cup competitions that run concurrently with the regular season – the US Open Cup, contested by the US-based teams in the MLS and lower leagues, as well as the Canadian Championship contested by the fully professional Canadian soccer teams both in and below the MLS. Obviously, you’ll only participate in one or the other depending on whether you chose one of the US-based teams or one of the three Canadian MLS teams. In either case, both trophies provide entry for a US and Canadian team into the NACL.
Moving on to the NACL, I won’t go over how the NACL functions on its own because that’s beyond the scope of this writing, but I will describe how teams get into the NACL. There are three berths available for US-based teams during the course of the MLS regular season – the winner of the Supporters Shield gets one, the MLS Cup winner gets one, and to the champions of either the Eastern or Western conference which is already not the Supporters’ Shield winner. The US Open Cup provides the fourth berth to a US-based team to the winner.
If a team wins multiple berths, or a Canadian team wins the Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup, the next highest US-based team that hasn’t yet qualified is given that qualification berth. Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, and Vancouver Whitecaps FC are only able to get Champions League soccer through victory in the Canadian Championship.
Of lesser note are the “rivalry cups”. These are contested each season by league rivals, with the winner being the team with the best record against the other in all meet-ups in each season. In FC Dallas’s case, there are three rivalry cups – the Lamar Hunt Pioneer Cup contested with Columbus Crew SC, the Texas Derby contested with Houston Dynamo, and the Brimstone Cup contested with Chicago Fire.
None of these rivalry cups are ever rated as significantly important by the board because they bring no additional prestige to the game and are not standalone competitions. They are just nonsense trophies created by MLS to fabricate rivalries and give teams something to root for. In these competitions, you want the win because that match gives you three points towards the Supporters’ Shield, not because you want the trophy specifically.
That wraps up the basics of the league structure and competitions. In the next update, we will move on to discussion roster composition, and we will go over registration requirements for MLS, as well as the different categories of player on the roster.