Major League Soccer (MLS) is the North-American professional soccer league that was founded in 1993 as part of the United States’ successful bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup.
The first season took place in 1996 with 10 teams, but the league has expanded over the years. MLS now has 24 teams, 21 from the U.S. and 3 Canadian clubs.
Initially, the MLS struggled as the teams experienced financial and operational hurdles. But more than 20 years later, football – or as they call it in North America “soccer” – has gained popularity year after year.
The way the game is played is of course very similar to how a football game is played in Europe but the MLS has some unique features. How is the MLS different from the European competitions? Let’s have a shot at it and see how the North-American league contrasts with its European counterparts in five different ways.
In Europe there is no hard-cap on how much a player can earn and statistics show that spending a lot of money on transfers does help in getting to the top of the league. However, in MLS there are strict spending limits in place. Major League Soccer has a salary cap to keep the cost of teams more-or-less equal with the objective to make the league more competitive. And this rule has proven to be successful as the league has crowned 13 different champions in its 23 year history.
However, to allow for the league to grow and attract high-profile players, an exception was added in 2007. The ‘Designated Player Rule’ -nicknamed the Beckham Rule- allows MLS teams to sign up to three players that would be considered outside the team’s salary cap. The rule is named after David Beckham as the Englishman was the first Designated Player ever when he signed for Galaxy in 2007.
All the major European football leagues have rule in place where one or more teams finishing the season at the bottom of the league relegate to the lower division. MLS currently has 24 teams and those teams stay in the first division, even if they finish last. This is not out of the ordinary in North-America as also the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball all operate in the same way.
New teams have been added to MLS, but they had to buy into the league – Minnesota and Atlanta United are examples of this. Major League Soccer has the plan to expand to 28 teams by 2022. The fee for expansion teams 25 and 26 was set at $150 million, the price for clubs 27 and 28 still has to be decided on.
It’s been ingrained in the DNA of Americans to want to see a final game to decide who will be champions. The top six sides from each conference qualify for the MLS play-offs and compete in a knockout format. In the end, a final is played on the ground of the team with the best record in the regular season.
The play-off finalists all qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League – North America’s equivalent of the UEFA Champions League – and will compete in the Club World Cup if they win. The winners of the MLS Cup and the Supporters’ Shield also qualify for the North-American Champions League.
The Expansion Draft was introduced in 2016 when Minnesota United FC and Atlanta United FC joined the MLS and the league went from 20 to 22 teams. Like other North American professional leagues, MLS holds a draft for expansion teams to select certain players from existing teams to build their squad. The existing 20 teams could protect 11 players they absolutely want to keep. Minnesota and Atlanta could then choose from the remaining unprotected players in a back-and-forth draft format.
This rule was particularly upsetting for Belgian Montreal Impact player Lauren Ciman, who was acquired by Los Angeles in 2017. Ciman has a child on the autism spectrum, and his initial decision to move to Montreal was because the special care available in Montreal was apparently superior to what was available elsewhere. As a result, the Belgian was outraged about his forced move away from Canada.
Until 1999, MLS had shootouts instead of penalty kicks. A player would start 35 yards from the goal and had five seconds to put the ball in the net. This shootout system was an attempt to “Americanize” what some viewed as a foreign sport. The shootout system was introduced to resolve tie games, so there would always be a winner. MLS eventually dropped this rule in 1999 and a tie game was then settled with a 10-minute golden goal period. The golden goal experiment was abandoned in 2003 and a game can now end with a draw.