Major League Soccer 101: Everything You Need to Know to Start Watching MLS

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So, you’ve been enjoying some Premier League, but you’re wondering if maybe there’s another option that won’t require 7 a.m. wake-up calls on your precious, work-free weekends. Maybe even an option that allows you to watch those U.S. Men’s National Team players you idolized this summer play on a regular basis.

Might we suggest Major League Soccer? The North American league is growing by leaps and bounds with its ambitious expansion plans, a brand new TV contract, an incoming wave of talent and jam-packed soccer-specific stadiums.

It also happens at normal sports hours.

While it’s too late to get in on the ground floor of MLS, the league is still young enough that getting onboard now makes you something of an early adopter.

In order to become fully invested in MLS, you’ll need a few questions answered. To that end, Paste Soccer has compiled a primer on the league and it’s quirks that should have you playoff-ready in no time.

When does it happen?

Unlike all of the of the big European leagues, MLS runs a Spring to Fall schedule that helps take advantage of better weather through the summer months. While this sometimes makes for hot and humid conditions, the alternative is likely worse. Would anyone want to play in Toronto in March? How about New England in November?

Despite the logic of MLS playing through the summer, the schedule does cause conflicts with international tournaments and is regularly brought up for debate among American soccer supporters. In addition to the issue with international play, the off-schedule situation with Europe (and to a lesser extent other regions) makes selling and signing players a little more difficult.

It has weird rules, right?

Yes. If your job is something like tax accountant, you’ll probably love MLS. The league is thick with a host of odd rules and regulations that govern everything from how amateur players enter MLS to the way players hit the competition’s restrictive salary budget.

Like other American sports leagues, MLS has a draft. Incoming college players, the occasional high school player deemed good enough, and the occasional foreign player are made available to clubs. The worst team from the year before picks first, then the second-worst team, and so forth, until everyone has picked. There are numerous exclusions from the draft, like players developed within MLS club academies, and those entering MLS as young players are not always strictly amateurs.

MLS uses a function called “allocation money” to allow teams flexibility within the salary structure. Allocation money is like Monopoly money, in that it isn’t actual money and only has value within MLS. Allocation money is divvied out at the league offices’s discretion; no one really knows how much there is, who has it, or how it impacts the salary cap from year to year. Allocation can also be used as incentive, and to help teams improve after a bad season or when international competition looms. The teams participating in this season’s CONCACAF Champions League, for example, receive extra allocation money to give them a leg up.

Rather than run through the litany of MLS regulations (limits on foreign players, homegrown players not counting against the salary budget, etc.), just keep in mind that the league can change any of them on a whim, and often does. Just ask Jermaine Jones.

What does single entity mean?

Glad you asked. The single-entity element of MLS is often among the more difficult concepts for new fans to grasp. Essentially, it works like this: rather than operating as 19 (soon to be 21) individual companies, MLS works as one massive organization with 19 (soon to be 21) individual franchises. This means that players in the league are not technically (read: legally) contracted to clubs, but are instead signed up by the league itself and then “allocated” to one of the 19 (soon to be 21) teams.

The system has evolved since the league’s inception in 1996, and teams are essentially free to sign players as they’d like, but MLS is always careful to maintain the basic tenets of single-entity for one specific reason: lawsuits. By maintaining central control, MLS is able to circumvent American anti-trust laws and exert more control over things like salaries and free agency. If teams receive too much latitude in their operations, the league could face another challenge to the model.

It happened once already, back in 2002, in a case called Fraser v. Major League Soccer. Needless to say, the league won the case and single-entity was here to stay (for now).

What style of soccer will I see?

So much of the discussion around the game of soccer in the modern world is based on issues of “style.” Barcelona’s tiki taka, to cite one example, is heralded as the gold standard of fluid, attractive play.

For most of its history, MLS has been known as an athletic, physical league more apt to feature teams playing direct styles than teasing the ball around looking for small openings and trading on technical ability. A relatively low caliber of player necessitated approaches that took full advantage of the players’ best assets: fitness, speed and a willingness to initiate contact. As a result, refereeing in North America developed to allow rougher play than might be expected—or tolerated—elsewhere.

Since the dawn of the league, MLS has evolved a bit. Play can still be physical and dependent on speed and athleticism, but more clubs are looking to foster a more attractive style every year. The influx of higher caliber foreign players, and the improving skill level of American youngsters entering the league, are making for a more visually appealing league than ever before.

MLS is not La Liga, but neither is it the “kick and rush” league of the past.

What’s the talent level like?

Closely tied to the notion of league style is the perception of MLS quality. The disparity of wages from the top (Designated Players) to the bottom (entry level players making as little as $45,000 a year) naturally creates a league that is uneven in the level of talent across the range of players.

Overall, MLS quality is on the rise. While not in the same category as Europe’s top leagues (the Premier League, the Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A), MLS can occasionally deliver very good soccer that is difficult for all but the most ardent snobs to dismiss. The baseline technical ability of the average MLS player sits at an all-time high thanks to a combination of factors: more spending on foreign talent, better incoming American players, and stronger scouting.

It’s worth asking if comparisons of quality between the top leagues and MLS is even a fair proposition, as natural as it seems. Major League Soccer’s built in controls, many of them meant to foster parity, create a competition that is much more even than any of the high profile leagues in England and the continent. While the Premier League has a reputation of being the best league in the world, no one would argue that West Ham or Sunderland are close to the quality of Manchester City or Arsenal.

In MLS, even the best teams can’t be that much better than the worst teams.

I like chanting. Is there chanting?

The history of organized MLS support goes all the way back to the beginning of the league. The Barra Brava, a group of South American-inspired fans supporting D.C. United, are one of the most famous examples of a long-standing supporters group.

More recently, organized groups have come to the forefront of the league’s marketing efforts. Originally focusing on the massive youth soccer-oriented crowd for fans, MLS is now actively promoting the idea of fans who stand for 90 minutes and sing and chant throughout the game. Toronto’s entry into MLS in 2007 pushed a more European style of support. Now, a host of individual groups and the teams they support, have become famous for their intense stadium atmospheres. At the risk of leaving out several groups, the Timbers Army in Portland, several groups in Seattle, and a collection of groups in Kansas City give their teams a unique home field advantage that is rare in American sports.

In new MLS cities like Orlando and Atlanta, the creation and growth of supporters groups is part of the process that (the clubs hope) will deliver the same sort of exuberance that is exploding across the league.

Where did MLS come from?

As a prerequisite for awarding the United States the hosting rights for the 1994 World Cup, FIFA demanded the U.S. Soccer Federation launch a top-flight league. The last attempt to make the professional game work in the U.S., the North American Soccer League (NASL), collapsed in 1984.

After an open bidding process for league concepts, the USSF sanctioned MLS to start play in 1996. As mentioned in the section single-entity section, MLS operated under a unique single-entity structure. Single-entity was a hedge against the massive losses suffered by NASL owners during the last attempt to make pro soccer work, working both as a cost-control measure and as a way to ensure all of the principal investors in the league shared the risk.

MLS is now in it’s 19th season. The initial decade, retrospectively identified as “MLS 1.0” by league observers, was marked by teams with horrible names and wearing ugly uniforms playing in oversized American football venues. The dominate team during the era was Bruce Arena’s D.C. United side, who won MLS Cup thee of the league’s first four seasons. Stars of that period included D.C.’s trio of Raul Diaz Arce, Marco Etcheverry and John Harkes, Miami’s Carlos Valderrama, and Americans like Eric Wynalda of the San Jose Clash and Brian McBride of the Columbus Crew.

Current MLS commissioner Don Garber took over from original commissioner Doug Logan in 1999 (the same year the Crew inaugurated the league’s first “soccer specific stadium” in Columbus). It was Garber who convinced the league’s owners to contract the two Florida franchises, the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion, in 2002 in the face of mounting losses.

Since, MLS has only grown. Multiple waves of expansion have the total number of teams at 19, with two more to follow next year, and new purpose-built stadiums are popping up all over the country. Excepting Seattle and their unique situation at Century Link Field (where they routinely draw crowds of 40,000), only two current teams are without soccer stadiums or have one under construction: D.C. United and the New England Revolution.

The introduction of the Designated Player in 2007, the rule that allowed for David Beckham’s signing by the LA Galaxy, started a liberalization of the spending restrictions that continues to this day. MLS history, very much like the style of play, is uneven. That’s a byproduct of the struggle of the league to be fiscally responsible while pushing for greater relevance.

How many teams are there?

After folding the two Florida teams in the early 2000s, MLS began expanding again in 2005 with the addition of Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA. In the nine years since, the league has added a further seven teams, with two more (New York City FC and Orlando City SC) set to join next season.

The expansion process is rarely transparent, though commissioner Don Garber has outlined a basic criteria for a city to get an invite to the American soccer party. First and foremost on the list is a purpose-built stadium close to transportation hubs, preferably in an urban, downtown setting. An ownership group of significant means and an intention to treat the sport and the team as a serious, top-level asset is a must. Often, existing fan bases or mobilized group of pro-MLS supporters can make a city more attractive, as was the case in Philadelphia with the Sons of Ben, a group started with the sole purpose of bringing an MLS team to their city.

More than any other outward sign of growth, it’s expansion that drives the most interest. MLS does not have a cap on the number of teams it hopes to reach, and cities are even now lining up to grab a spot—Sacramento, Minneapolis, San Antonio, and Las Vegas are just a few of the locales currently in play.

How much do the players get paid?

MLS salaries cover a wide range, from the equivalent of “elementary school teacher” all the way up to “CEO of a multinational corporation.”

At the bottom end are entry level players, typically in their first few seasons of professional soccer. The minimum salary in MLS is a paltry $36,000 a year, just enough to scrape out a basic living in most cities.

On the other end of the spectrum are the top level Designated Players, guys like Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley. These players, who typically bring a combination of talent and marketability, take home millions of dollars a season. As teams are limited to just three DPs (also sometimes called “over-budget” players because league rules cap the maximum salary for non-DP players), the number of stars in the league making seven figures is relatively small.

Most MLS players fall between the two extremes, with the bulk of salaries sitting in the high five and low six figures. MLS cost control, and the limits on players’ ability to move within the league (there is no free agency, per se), create a competition that doesn’t pay on a level near other notable leagues, but squeezes more value from what it spends than most.

What’s all this conference and playoffs business?

MLS competition is based on the notion that playoffs are a perfectly good way to determine a champion, just as is the case in every other major American sports league. This runs counter to the way most soccer leagues around the world operate, where titleists are typically determined by overall record across the whole of a season.

Further, MLS is divided into two conferences, the Eastern and the Western. With 19 teams playing the 2014 season, the conferences are unbalanced: the East currently has 10 teams to the West’s nine. Despite the disparity, the same number of teams, five, qualify for the playoffs from each conference. After 34 games, the top three teams qualify for the conference semifinals, while the fourth and fifth place team play a one-off knockout game at the home of the higher place club to complete the four. Both the conference semifinals and the conference finals, the round that determines the conference’s representative for MLS Cup, are played over two legs. The team with the better aggregate score advances.

The MLS Cup Final is a single game hosted by the team that finished with more regular season points.

Also unlike most leagues, the schedule is not balanced. That means teams play their conference rivals three times each over the course of the season and the clubs from the other conference once.

Who are the big teams?

In England, there’s the Big Four. Spain has Real Madrid and Barcelona. In Germany, it’s always a mild surprise when a team other than Bayern Munich manages to win a league championship.

MLS is built to avoid the idea that only a few teams can take home the trophy at the end of the season. Parity reigns in Major League Soccer.

Call it the NFL’s influence on American soccer. With so many of the league’s original owners also being American football titans, and considering that Don Garber cut his teeth working for the NFL, it makes sense that MLS operates under the philosophy that no one team should dominate the league. By enforcing parity through a salary cap and other mechanisms, MLS hopes to keep as many fans engaged in their team’s fortunes as possible.

MLS uses a playoff tournament to determine its champion as much because of parity as because playoffs are so American sports.

OK, sold. Where can I watch?

For the 2014 season, Major League Soccer’s national TV schedule is split between ESPN and NBC Sports. The league’s relationship with ESPN goes back to the very first season of the league, thought the “Worldwide Leader” hasn’t always given MLS, or soccer, the sort of big time treatment fans would like.

That has changed, of course, and coming off of the successful World Cup broadcast in Brazil, ESPN is pushing its MLS offerings heavily. Unfortunately, the national TV schedule has no regularity; both ESPN and NBC Sports will present games at various times on various days of the week.

For 2015, however, things will be get a little better. The contract moves from ESPN and NBC Sports to ESPN and Fox. Dedicated national TV windows are laid out, the better to maximize the audience with a known time and place for games.

In addition to the national TV profile, every MLS team has a local TV deal. So now you really have no excuse not to watch.