How does the MLS work? League and playoff system explained
Here's everything you need to know about Major League Soccer, including how the league system works.
How does the MLS work?
MLS – Major League Soccer – is the highest level of professional football in the United States and Canada.
The league is comprised of 28 teams – 25 from the USA and three from Canada – competing for the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup, and runs from late-February or March to October.
It is split into the Eastern and Western Conferences, with sides allocated into these based on geographical location.
For the 2022 season, there are 14 teams in each conference.
Each side plays 34 games during the regular season – 17 at home and 17 away.
Clubs face each team in their own conference twice – once at home and once away – and play eight games against teams from the opposing conference – four at home and four away.
The Supporters’ Shield is awarded to the team with the best regular season record across both conferences.
But the main attraction is the MLS Cup, which is lifted by the end-of-season playoff winners.
Who won the 2021 Supporters’ Shield?
New England Revolution won the Supporters’ Shield in 2021 for the first time in their 26-year history, but the MLS Cup went to New York City.
How do the MLS playoffs work? When do they start?
The MLS Cup playoffs are the annual post-season elimination tournament. They begin in October, after the conclusion of the regulation MLS season.
The top eight sides from each conference qualify for the MLS playoffs and compete in the knockout format.
The top seed from each conference – the side that finishes first – host the eighth seed, second hosts seventh and so on.
All rounds are single-match elimination games hosted by the higher seed. This means that the first round will consist of the second versus seventh-placed sides, third versus sixth and fourth versus fifth.
First-round winners then advance to the Conference semi-finals and then the final – the winner of the final will then advance to the MLS Cup final.
The final is played at the ground of the team with the best record in the regular season.
Can MLS teams play in the Champions League?
Every season, four MLS teams qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League – North America’s equivalent to the UEFA Champions League.
Canadian teams cannot qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League through the MLS.
Two US teams qualify based on regular season results, with one coming from the Western Conference and one from the Eastern Conference.
The third American team to qualify is the winner of the MLS Cup and a fourth can qualify by winning the US Open Cup – the American equivalent of the FA Cup.
If a team qualifies through multiple berths, or they are taken by a Canadian MLS team, the Champions League spot is re-allocated to the next best US team in the overall table.
Canadian MLS clubs play against other Canadian clubs in the Canadian Championship – Canada’s annual cup competition – for one spot in the CONCACAF Champions League.
When is the MLS Cup? Where is it played?
The MLS Cup final is held annually every December, hosted by the team with the best regular-season record.
How many teams are in the MLS?
There are 28 teams in the MLS for the 2022 season.
What are the newest teams in MLS 2022?
Charlotte FC are the only new expansion club for the 2022 season.
How are teams added to the MLS?
Prospective expansion teams must apply to the MLS, who will consider whether to award them a place in the league based on the following criteria:
- Owners that are committed to MLS and have the financial means to invest.
- A fit-for-purpose stadium, or approved plans for a stadium.
- The size of the metropolitan area.
- An established local fanbase.
When does the MLS season start?
The season starts either in late February or at the start of March every year.
When does the MLS season end?
The regulation season finishes in October, while the MLS Cup final is always held in December.
When was the MLS founded?
The MLS was founded in 1996 and is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Which MLS team has the most championships?
LA Galaxy are the most successful team in MLS history, with five MLS Cups and four Supporters’ Shields. DC United have also won four Supporters’ Shields.
Which MLS team has the most fans?
Atlanta United had the highest average attendance during the 2021 MLS season, with 43,964.
They also play in the largest stadium – the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which holds 72,035 and is shared with NFL team the Atlanta Falcons.
How does salary cap work?
In order to maintain a level playing field, each team has a salary cap of $4.9m for the season.
What is a designated player?
Each side is allowed a maximum of three players whose earnings do not fully count towards the salary cap, called Designated Players.
The Designated Player rule was created in 2007 when David Beckham joined LA Galaxy and allows MLS teams to compete for marquee players in the international market.
It has seen names like Steven Gerrard, David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney all head Stateside.
Who plays in the MLS All-Star game?
The MLS All-Star game takes place at the mid-point of the MLS season and has seen an MLS All-Star team face various opponents.
The All-Stars are picked through a combination of fan voting and selections by the appointed manager of the team and league commissioner.
For the last 14 seasons, they have played against European opposition, but 2020 and 2021 they faced a team of Liga MX All-Stars.