Everything you need to know about the MLS

Despite the fact that it’s not even near of being the biggest sports league in the United States and that it started to gain significant popularity just recently (mostly due to the exorbitant investments and signings they have been making), the MLS, or Major League Soccer, has been around for almost three decades, and has had some incredible moments and players throughout those years that are worth going through.

Founded in 1993, the MLS has transformed from its early beginnings of being a humble, 10-team league into a vibrant and competitive 29-teams league that captivates fans nationwide.

However, it is safe to say that, over the past few years, the MLS has started to attract many viewers outside the U.S. as well since many top players from around the world have chosen America’s soccer league over some more historic and prominent European leagues.

Therefore, given the rising popularity of this exciting and relatively new top-flight football league, we decided to create this comprehensive guide where we venture into the core of the MLS and unveil its history and unique competition format, but also go through the varied array of teams that compose it.

So, if you’re looking forward to knowing more about this enthralling football league, we encourage you to keep reading!

History

NASL

Although the MLS as we know it today was founded in 1993 and had its inaugural season in 1996, soccer in the U.S. goes way back as the MLS had a predecessor called the North American Soccer League (NASL), which existed from 1968 until 1984.

Although the NASL struggled during its first decade of existence, the league peaked in popularity during the late ‘70s following a shocking move from the New York Cosmos, the league’s most prominent and successful team, as they managed to sign Brazilian legend Pelé back in 1975.

As if that wasn’t enough, the former New York team also signed other prominent figures in the world of football during the next few years, including Pelé’s compatriot Carlos Alberto, who together lifted the world cup in 1970, and Franz Beckenbauer, who had captained the 1974 FIFA World Cup-winning West Germany national team.

These signings consequently paved the way for other huge footballers to arrive to the U.S. in the following years, as historic players like Johan Cruyff, Gerd Müller, Bobby Moore, Eusébio, George Best, and others, also played in American soil during NASL’s heyday.

Notwithstanding the significant rises in attendance to the league’s games—like for example, 1978’s Soccer Bowl between the New York Cosmos and Tampa Bay Rowdies that attracted over 70,000 fans and continues to be a record attendance for any club soccer championship in the United States as of today—the NASL disappeared after the 1984 season following excessive expansion and conflicts with the players union, but mostly due to the early ‘80s economic recession, which left the United States without a top-notch soccer league.

The birth of the MLS

Four years went by where no football (or better said, soccer) was played professionally in the States, until 1988 when the U.S. soccer federation was required by FIFA to start a top flight professional league in exchange of awarding them with the 1994 World Cup host privilege, and that is how the MLS was born.

As mentioned before, the MLS didn’t kick off until 1996, eight years after the commitment to FIFA was made. The league starred 10 teams, which were divided into two groups of five called Western Conference (San Jose Clash, Los Angeles Galaxy, Colorado Rapids, Kansas City Wix and Dallas Burn) and Eastern Conference (NY/NJ Metrostars, Columbus Crew, Tampa Bay Mutiny, New England Revolution, and D.C. United).

Each of the 10 MLS teams played 32 games, and the best 4 teams of every conference advanced to the MLS cup playoff; however, the rules were a bit different back then.

Fearing that fans would find draws unappealing and tedious, the league decided to adopt shootouts when games ended in a tie, which would result in one point for the team that ended winning such shootout. In addition, the league also tried to revolutionize the game by implementing a countdown clock instead of running clock, like IFAB’s standards suggest.

These rules deviations were discarded following the 1999 season when the league was facing the lowest attendance rate of its short history, as league executives believed that these rules alterations were not effectively attracting American sports fans but were instead repelling traditional soccer fans.

Eventually, the MLS started to comply with all of IFAB’s and was on route to become the MLS we know today.

MLS’s decline and resurgence 

The Major League Soccer incurred an approximate loss of $250 million in its initial five years and over $350 million from its inception until 2004. These escalating losses along with the dwindling attendance led league officials to contemplate folding. However, a lifeline emerged as owners Lamar Hunt, Philip Anschutz, and the Kraft family injected new financing, paving the way for expansion with the addition of more teams.

Following the new sponsorship contract, just a couple of years went by until the MLS’s biggest inflection point came in 2007: The arrival of designated players.

The designated player rule, often referred to as the “Beckham Rule” due to its initial association with the signing of soccer icon David Beckham by the LA Galaxy, allowed teams to sign up to three players whose salaries would only partially count against the team’s salary cap.

And what is a salary cap you may ask, well, salary cap is a fair play rule often applied in American sports, and it refers to the maximum amount of money that a team is allowed to spend on player salaries during a specified period. The purpose of a salary cap is to promote parity and competitive balance among teams by preventing wealthier teams from outspending their rivals and creating an uneven playing field.

Before the introduction of designated players, MLS operated under a strict salary cap, limiting the ability to sign high-profile international players without affecting the overall team budget. This constraint somewhat hindered the league’s competitiveness on a global scale.

The influence of designated players extended beyond the playing field. The acquisitions of international luminaries resulted in heightened media attention, elevated attendance numbers, and enhanced the league’s overall commercial allure. Notably, David Beckham’s transfer to the LA Galaxy attracted considerable interest, spotlighting MLS as a premier destination for well-established football stars.

The success of designated players prompted a shift in perception about MLS, transforming it from a retirement league for aging stars to a competitive and attractive destination for both seasoned professionals and emerging talents as we know it today.

Season Schedule and Format

Regular Season

The MLS regular season usually kicks off in the months of March/April and ends in October, but for the past two seasons it has started in February, meaning this could be a new trend for the competition.

Following this year’s expansion to 29 clubs after the addition of St. Louis City SC to the Western Conference, the regular season consists of 34 league matches for each team in both Eastern and Western conference, where they play against teams from their own conference as well as inter-conference matches.

Unlike the majority of professional football leagues around the world that award the championship to the team with the most points at the end of the season, the MLS has a playoffs system similar to those seen in other major American sports leagues such as the MLB, NFL, and NBA, where they hold a postseason tournament to determine what team was the best throughout the year.

Another particular thing about the MLS is that they also have a Supporter’s Shield award, which is an annual accolade that is presented to the team with the highest points total at the end of the regular season.

Although some may consider it a meaningless award, others argue that winning the Shield is a significant accomplishment that reflects consistency and excellence throughout the season.

As a matter of fact, most traditional football/soccer enthusiasts claim that the Supporter’s Shield  is even more relevant than the MLS cup trophy as it demonstrates a team’s ability to perform at a high level over an extended period of time, which is essentially what teams are expected to do in traditional,  top-flight football leagues from around the world, particularly Europe.

It is also worth mentioning that the MLS goes through a mid-season stoppage that lasts a little over a month, starting mid-July and ending late August.

However, there’s still action during this stoppage time as there are two competitions meant to take place during this period: The All-Stars Game where the top players from the MLS are selected to represent the league against a high-profile international club (this past season was big old Arsenal from London), and the Leagues Cup, an annual tournament between clubs from the MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX.

Postseason

Following the regular season, the postseason starts during late October and finishes early December, and receives the top 9 teams from each division.

The playoffs’ first round is called Wild Card, and faces the teams in the 8th and 9th spot (or seed) of each conference. The winner will then face their conference’s top-seeded team in Round-One, or what people in Europe would essentially call round of 16.

This Round-One consists of a best-of-three series where the top-seeded teams host the first game and the third one if necessary (Every Round One game will have a winner; there are no ties nor aggregate score).

There is a playoffs bracket for each conference, meaning that teams from the Eastern conference won’t face teams from the Western Conference up until the cup final.

The playoffs brackets are defined as follows for each conference (we will refer to them as A1, A2, A3 and A4 for later reference purposes):

  • No. 1 vs. No. 8/9 (A1)
  • No. 2 vs. No. 7 (A2)
  • No. 3 vs. No. 6 (A3)
  • No. 4 vs. No. 5 (A4)

Following the culmination of Round One comes the conference Semifinals (or Quarterfinals), which will face the winner of A1 against the winner of A4 and the winner of A2 against the winner of A3. All of these will be single elimination matches which will host the best-seeded team.

Then comes the Conference Finals (semifinals) where the two advancing teams will face each other in order to determine the conference’s champion, who will then face the other conference’s champion in the MLS Cup Final.

Just like the Conference Semifinals, the Conference Finals and MLS Cup Final consist of single elimination matches and are hosted by the highest-ranked finalist in the overall Supporters’ Shield table.

While this is the current look of the MLS season, keep in mind that this league has gained a reputation for consistently altering its playoff format throughout the years, experimenting with both two-leg ties and single-game knockouts in its efforts to find an optimal structure, so don’t be surprised if next season’s format is a bit different, or even entirely different.

Teams composing the MLS

Atlanta United FC

Established in 2014, Atlanta United commenced its MLS journey in 2017, entering the league as the twenty-second team through the expansion process.

Despite being one of the newest teams to arrive to the league, Atlanta FC has already gained massive popularity, mostly because they managed to reach the playoffs in their debut season, and by their second season they had already won their first trophy.

  • Conference: Eastern.
  • Location: Atlanta, Georgia.
  • Stadium and capacity: Mercedes-Benz Stadium –  42,500, expandable to 71,000.
  • Accolades: 1 MLS Cup (2018), 1 U.S. Open Cup (2019), 1 Campeones Cup (2019).

Austin FC

Established in 2018, the team commenced its inaugural season in 2021. This marks a significant milestone as they are the initial major professional sports league team to grace the capital of Texas. Before 2021, this city stood as the largest in the United States without such representation.

  • Conference: Western.
  • Location: Austin, Texas.
  • Stadium and capacity: Q2 Stadium – 20,738.
  • Accolades: None.

Charlotte FC

Charlotte FC was awarded an MLS expansion team in December 2019. The team’s ownership group is led by David Tepper, who is also the owner of the Carolina Panthers in the NFL. The team’s crest features a crown as a nod to Charlotte’s nickname, the Queen City.

  • Conference: Eastern.
  • Location: Charlotte, North Carolina.
  • Stadium and capacity: Bank of America Stadium – 38,000, expandable to 74,867.
  • Accolades: None.

Chicago Fire FC

Chicago Fire FC was founded in 1997 and played its inaugural season in 1998, where they won both the MLS Cup and the U.S. making them one of the most successful expansion teams in the history of American soccer.

  • Conference: Eastern.
  • Location: Chicago, Illinois.
  • Stadium and capacity: Soldier Field – 61,500.
  • Accolades: 1 MLS Cup (1998), 1 Supporter’s Shield (2003), 4 U.S. Open Cup (1998, 2000, 2003, 2006).

Colorado Rapids

The Colorado Rapids were established in 1995 and are one of the original ten clubs in Major League Soccer. The team is known for boasting one of the league’s most enthusiastic fanbase, with supporters’ groups playing a pivotal role in creating a lively atmosphere during home matches.

  • Conference: Western.
  • Location: Commerce City, Colorado
  • Stadium and capacity: Dick’s Sporting Goods Park – 18,061, expandable to 19,680.
  • Accolades: 1 MLS Cup (2010).

Columbus Crew

Another member of the original 10 clubs that founded the MLS, Columbus Crew is one of the most successful and well-known teams in the league, apart from being the reigning champions. They became the first team in the MLS to have their own soccer-specific stadium, which marked a before and after for the league.

  • Conference: Eastern.
  • Location: Columbus, Ohio.
  • Stadium and capacity: Lower.com Field –  20,371.
  • Accolades: 3 MLS Cup (2008, 2020, 2023), 1 U.S. Open Cup (2002), 3 Supporters’ Shield (2004, 2008, 2009), 1 Campeones Cup (2019).

D.C. United

The first ever team in the MLS to be crowned champions, D.C. United is another powerhouse that has been around the MLS since day one. In terms of trophies, D.C. United is the joint-most successful overall club in American soccer tied with LA Galaxy and the former NASL club, New York Cosmos.

  • Conference: Eastern.
  • Location: Washington, D.C.
  • Stadium and capacity: Audi Field –  20,000.
  • Accolades: 4 MLS Cup (1996, 1997, 1999, 2004), 3 U.S. Open Cup (1996, 2008, 2013), 4 Supporters’ Shield (1997, 1999, 2007, 2009), 1 CONCACAF Champions Cup (1998), 1 Copa Interamericana (1998).

FC Cincinnati

FC Cincinnati was officially announced as an expansion team in MLS in May 2018 and played their first MLS season in 2019, becoming the league’s 24th team. FC Cincinnati is living a great moment as of now since, despite losing in the Conference Finals against future champions Columbus Crew, they are the current holders of the Supporter’s Shield trophy.

  • Conference: Eastern.
  • Location: Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • Stadium and capacity: TQL Stadium –  26,000.
  • Accolades: 1 Supporters’ Shield (2023).

FC Dallas

Formerly known as Dallas Burn, FC Dallas is another team that was part of the 10 charter clubs that started the MLS. While FC Dallas has been a strong regular-season performer over the years, capturing the MLS Cup has proven elusive for them.

  • Conference: Western.
  • Location: Frisco, Texas.
  • Stadium and capacity: Toyota Stadium –  19,097.
  • Accolades: 1 Supporters’ Shield (2016), 2 U.S.Open Cup (1997, 2006).

Houston Dynamo FC

Founded on December 15, 2005, the club originated when their previous owners transferred the players and staff of the San Jose Earthquakes to Houston after the conclusion of the 2005 season. The Houston Dynamo secured success in the MLS Cup, clinching the championship in its inaugural two seasons; and it’s safe to say that these early triumphs firmly established the team’s standing in MLS history.

  • Conference: Western.
  • Location: Houston, Texas.
  • Stadium and capacity: Shell Energy Stadium –  22,000.
  • Accolades: 2 MLS Cup (2006, 2007), 2 U.S.Open Cup (2018, 2023).

Inter Miami CF

The team that is co-owned by English football legend David Beckham and that has skyrocketed in popularity this past year following the arrival of arguably the best football player in the history of the game, Inter Miami CF, was officially announced as an MLS expansion team in January 2018 and began playing in the league in 2020.

  • Conference: Eastern.
  • Location: Miami, Florida.
  • Stadium and capacity: DRV PNK Stadium –  21,000.
  • Accolades: 1 Leagues Cup (2023)

LA Galaxy

Another one of the league’s original franchises, the LA Galaxy is arguably the most successful and popular team of the MLS.  In terms of trophies, LA Galaxy is the joint-most successful overall club in American soccer tied with the New York Cosmos and LA Galaxy, but is the team with the most MLS Cup victories (5). Over the years, the team has featured numerous soccer legends and iconic players such as David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, and many others.

  • Conference: Western.
  • Location: Los Angeles, California.
  • Stadium and capacity: Dignity Health Sports Park –  27,000.
  • Accolades: 5 MLS Cup (2002, 2005, 2011, 2012, 2014)), 4 Supporters’ Shield (1998, 2002, 2010, 2011), 2 U.S. Open Cup (2001, 2005)), 1 CONCACAF Champions Cup (2000).

Los Angeles FC

LAFC was officially established as an MLS expansion team in 2014, and entered the MLS with high expectations and a vision to establish itself as a force in the league. The club’s inaugural season had to wait until 2018, but it was worth it as the club made an immediate impact on the league, winning the Western Conference and Supporters’ Shield just the following season.

  • Conference: Western.
  • Location: Los Angeles, California.
  • Stadium and capacity: BMO Stadium –  22,000.
  • Accolades: 1 MLS Cup (2022)), 2 Supporters’ Shield (2019, 2022).

Minnesota United FC

Minnesota United FC was founded in 2010 and initially played in the North American Soccer League (NASL), a professional soccer league that was named for, but had no connection to the original NASL we mentioned earlier. In 2017, the team made the transition to Major League Soccer (MLS) as an expansion franchise, but it kept the same name and logo it had on the NASL.

  • Conference: Western.
  • Location: Saint Paul, Minnesota.
  • Stadium and capacity: Allianz Field –  19,400.
  • Accolades: None.

CF Montréal

Established in 1992, CF Montreal, previously known as the Montreal Impact, initially competed in the United Soccer League (USL) before making a significant move to the MLS as an expansion team in 2012, becoming the third and latest Canadian team to join the league.

  • Conference: Eastern.
  • Location:  Montréal, Québec, Canada.
  • Stadium and capacity: Stade Saputo (19,619) – Olympic Stadium (61,004)
  • Accolades: 4 Canadian Championship (2013, 2014, 2019, 2021).

Nashville FC

Nashville SC was established in 2016, and the team began play in the United Soccer League (USL) before being awarded an MLS expansion franchise. The club transitioned to MLS in 2020, marking its inaugural season in the top tier of North American soccer.

  • Conference: Eastern.
  • Location:  Nashville, Tennessee.
  • Stadium and capacity: Geodis Park – 30,000.
  • Accolades: None.

New England Revolution

The New England Revolution was one of the ten founding teams of Major League Soccer when the league began in 1996. The team was established to represent the New England region, including states such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. The New England Revolution team is one of those that consistently qualifies for the playoffs, but unfortunateñy, they haven’t won a single MLS Cup yet, losing all the 5 finals they’ve played.

  • Conference: Eastern.
  • Location: Boston, Massachusetts.
  • Stadium and capacity: Gillette Stadium –  20,000, expandable to 65,878.
  • Accolades: 1 Supporters’ Shield (2021), 1 U.S. Open Cup (2007), 1 North American SuperLiga (2008).

New York City FC

New York City FC (NYCFC) was officially announced as the 20th MLS franchise in May 2013. The team played its inaugural season in 2015, becoming the first MLS club based in New York City, which immediately granted the team a huge and loyal fanbase.

  • Conference: Eastern.
  • Location: New York City, New York.
  • Stadium and capacity: Yankee Stadium –  28,743, expandable to 47,422.
  • Accolades: 1 MLS Cup (2021), 1 Campeones Cup (2022).

New York Red Bulls

The club was originally established in 1995 and was one of the league’s 10 original founders under the name of New York/New Jersey MetroStars before undergoing a significant rebranding in 2006, becoming the New York Red Bulls.

  • Conference: Eastern.
  • Location: Harrison, New Jersey.
  • Stadium and capacity: Red Bull Arena –  25,000.
  • Accolades: 3 Supporters’ Shield (2013, 2015, 2018).

Orlando City SC

Orlando City SC was founded in 2013 and entered MLS as an expansion team in 2015. Orlando City SC has had notable players in its roster, and players like Kaká, who was a FIFA World Player of the Year, featured for the team in its early years. Although they don’t have a huge name like that as of now, the team has continued to attract talent both domestically and internationally.

  • Conference: Eastern.
  • Location: Orlando, Florida.
  • Stadium and capacity: Exploria Stadium –  25,500.
  • Accolades: 1 U.S. Open Cup (2022).

Philadelphia Union

The Philadelphia Union was founded in 2008 and played its first MLS season in 2010, becoming the 16th franchise to join MLS. Although the team struggled during its first seasons, in recent years, the Union has seen increased success on the field, being one of the teams that consistently qualifies for the playoffs, from the Eastern Conference.

  • Conference: Eastern.
  • Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
  • Stadium and capacity: Subaru Park –  18,500.
  • Accolades: 1 Supporters’ Shield (2020).

Portland Timbers

The Portland Timbers were founded in 2009 when the city was awarded an MLS expansion franchise. However, the team’s history dates back further to the original Portland Timbers, which played in the North American Soccer League (NASL) from 1975 to 1982.

  • Conference: Western.
  • Location: Portland, Oregon.
  • Stadium and capacity: Providence Park –  25,218.
  • Accolades: 1 MLS Cup (2015).

Real Salt Lake

Real Salt Lake was established in 2004 and played its first MLS season in 2005 as a result of the league’s expansion efforts to bring soccer to different regions of the United States. Team owners decided to pay homage to the Spanish club Real Madrid (a team admired by the club’s initial owner Dave Checketts), by adding Real to their name.

  • Conference: Western.
  • Location: Salt Lake City, Utah.
  • Stadium and capacity: America First Field –  20,213.
  • Accolades: 1 MLS Cup (2009).

San Jose Earthquakes

The franchise was established in 1995 as one of the original teams in Major League Soccer when the league was founded; however, they were originally known as the San Jose Clash.

The team briefly relocated to Houston in 2006 and became the Houston Dynamo. However, due to the strong soccer tradition and fan support in San Jose, the Earthquakes returned to the league in 2008 as an expansion team.

  • Conference: Western.
  • Location: San Jose, California.
  • Stadium and capacity: PayPal Park –  18,000.
  • Accolades: 2 MLS Cup (2001, 2003), 2 Supporters’ Shield (2005, 2012).

Seattle Sounders FC

Seattle Sounders FC was established in 2007 as an MLS expansion team. The Sounders became the league’s 15th team and began playing in the 2009 season. Seattle Sounders FC has demonstrated remarkable success on the field, consistently securing a place in the MLS playoffs and making multiple appearances in the MLS Cup Final.

  • Conference: Western.
  • Location: Seattle, Washington.
  • Stadium and capacity: Lumen Field –  37,722.
  • Accolades: 2 MLS Cup (2016, 2019), 1 Supporters’ Shield (2014), 4 U.S. Open Cup (2009, 2010, 2011, 2014), 1 CONCACAF Champions Cup (2022).

Sporting Kansas City

Sporting KC was founded in 1995 as the Kansas City Wiz and was part of the MLS inaugural season in 1996. The team underwent a series of rebrandings, including a change to the Kansas City Wizards and eventually to Sporting Kansas City in 2010.

  • Conference: Western.
  • Location: Kansas City, Missouri.
  • Stadium and capacity: Children’s Mercy Park –  18,647.
  • Accolades: 2 MLS Cup (2000, 2013), 1 Supporters’ Shield (2000), 4 U.S. Open Cup (2004, 2012, 2015, 2017).

St. Louis City SC

The newest kid in the block, the St. Louis City SC team joined the MLS this past season, and did it in great fashion after reaching the Conference Semifinals where they lost to Houston Dynamo in a very close and passionate match.

  • Conference: Western.
  • Location: St. Louis, Missouri.
  • Stadium and capacity: CityPark –  22,423.
  • Accolades: None.

Toronto FC

The Canadian franchise was established in 2005, and it joined MLS as an expansion team in 2007, becoming the first Canadian team in the league. Toronto FC is known for taking great advantage of the designated player rule to sign high-profile international players, bringing notable names like Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, etc.

  • Conference: Eastern.
  • Location: Toronto, Ontario.
  • Stadium and capacity: BMO Field –  30,000.
  • Accolades: 1 MLS Cup (2017), 1 Supporters’ Shield (2017), 8 Canadian Championship (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020).

Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Established in 1974, the Vancouver Whitecaps FC initially participated in various leagues before officially entering the MLS in 2011. Following in the footsteps of Toronto FC, they became the second Canadian team to join the MLS.

  • Conference: Western.
  • Location: Vancouver, British Columbia.
  • Stadium and capacity: BC Place –  22,120.
  • Accolades: 3 Canadian Championship (2015, 2022, 2023).

Conclusion

In summary, the journey through the history and teams of Major League Soccer reveals a dynamic and ever-evolving landscape of soccer in North America, and one that just seems to keep improving and improving while attracting thousands of fans around the globe.

Since its modest inception in 1996 to the contemporary era, the league has expanded not just in its size but also in its influence, holding fans in thrall with exhilarating matches and nurturing a profound sense of community among its supporters, making it a must-follow league for football/soccer lovers all around the world.