Major League Soccer Guide

Major League Soccer (MLS) is the top professional soccer league in the United States and Canada. Founded in 1993, the league currently features 29 teams, with 26 teams based in the United States and 3 teams in Canada.

Format of MLS

The league is divided into two conferences, the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference, and features a unique format that is different from other soccer leagues around the world. As of the 2023 season, the Eastern Conference contains 15 teams and the Western Conference contains 14 teams.

Regular Season

The MLS regular season runs from February to October and consists of 34 games for each team. During the regular season, teams will play every other team in their conference twice - once at home and once away. In addition, they will also play a number of matches against teams from the other conference. The number of these games will differ in each conference due to the unequal number of teams.

The 15 Eastern Conference teams will play:

  • Two games against each team in the same conference (28 games)
  • One game against six different teams from the Western Conference (6 games)

The 14 Western Conference teams will play:

  • Two games against each team in the same conference (26 games)
  • One game against 1 or 2 additional teams in the same conference (1-2 games)
  • One game against 6 or 7 different teams from the Eastern Conference (6-7 games)

At the end of the regular season, the top nine clubs in points from each conference (18 total clubs) will qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs.

MLS Cup Playoffs


  • The top 7 teams in each conference will qualify directly to the first round of the playoffs.
  • The teams that finished in 8th and 9th position in each conference will qualify for the Wild card games.

Wild Card games

Each conference will hold a single-elimination game between the 8th and 9th position teams. The winner of the wild card game will progress to play the number one seed in Round One of the playoffs. The games will be hosted bt the teams that finished in 8th position. There will be no extra-time in the wild card games and will go directly to penalties to declare a winner if the game is tied after regulation time.

Round one

The first round consists of a best-of-three series between the top seven teams in each conference plus the winners of the wild card game:

  • 1st vs Winner of Wild Card
  • 2nd vs 7th
  • 3rd vs 6th
  • 4th vs 5th

A best-of-three format means that one team must win two games to progress. If a team wins the first two games, then the third game is ignored.

The first game of the series is hosted by the higher seed. The second game is hosted by the lower seed, and the final game is hosted by the higher seed. There will be no extra-time, and games will go directly to penalties to declare a winner if the game is tied after regulation time.

Conference Semi-finals

A total of eight teams (four from each conference) will progress from the first round and will enter a single-elimination tournament.

  • Winner of 1st vs Wild Card series vs Winner of 4th vs 5th series
  • Winner of 3rd vs 6th series vs winner of 2nd vs 7th series

Each semi-final game will be hosted by the team with the better regular season record and will have extra-time and penalty kicks to determine a winner if required.

Conference Finals

The winners of the semi-final games will progress to the Conference Finals, which will play with the same format as the semi-finals.


Finally, the winners of the two conference finals will meet to decide the ultimate winner of the MLS Cup. The format will be the same as the conference semi-finals and finals.

Cup competitions

In addition to the MLS Cup, there are some additional cup competitions that take place during the season.

Leagues Cup

The Leagues Cup is a tournament containing all 18 clubs from Mexico's Liga MX and all 29 MLS clubs. It is a World Cup style tournament where the top 3 clubs will qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League in the following season. The format is as follows:

  • Group stage Each team is placed into groups of 3, and will play two games in the Group Stage.
  • Knockout Stage The top two teams from each group will advance to a single-elimination Knockout Stage. No matches in the Leagues Cup Group Stage will end in a tie (decided by a penalty shootout).

U.S. Open Cup

The U.S. Open Cup is a tournament contested by teams from all of the professional leagues in the United State Soccer Federation. These include Major League Soccer (MLS), the United Soccer League's Championship and League One divisions, the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), and MLS Next Pro - as well as amateur clubs in the earlier rounds of the tournament that qualify through their respective leagues. The winner of the competition will qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League in the following season.

Supporters' Shield

The Supporters' Shield is an annual award given to the MLS team with the best regular season record. While the MLS Cup is considered the league's most prestigious prize, the Supporters' Shield is viewed by many fans as a more accurate reflection of a team's overall performance throughout the season.

Promotion and Relegation

Unlike many soccer leagues around the world, Major League Soccer (MLS) does not currently have a promotion and relegation system in place. In MLS, all teams are part of the top tier of professional soccer in the United States and Canada, and there is no system for teams to move between different levels of competition based on their performance.

This lack of promotion and relegation in MLS is partly due to the unique structure of the league. MLS is a single-entity league, which means that the league office owns all of the teams and players in the league. This is different from many other soccer leagues, where individual teams are owned by separate entities and compete against each other in a more traditional sense.

In addition, the lack of promotion and relegation in MLS is also a reflection of the current state of soccer in North America. Soccer is still a growing sport in the United States and Canada, and MLS is still working to establish itself as a major professional league in the region. As a result, the league has prioritized stability and financial sustainability over a more open system of promotion and relegation.

Despite the lack of promotion and relegation in MLS, there has been some discussion about potentially implementing a system in the future. Some proponents of promotion and relegation argue that it would help to create more excitement and competition within the league, while others argue that it would be difficult to implement given the current structure of the league and the challenges of building a soccer culture in North America.

For more details, read our article about promotion and relegation.

Current Teams

MLS Eastern Conference Teams
Atlanta United FCAtlanta, Georgia20142017
Charlotte FCCharlotte, North Carolina20192022
Chicago Fire FCChicago, Illinois19971998
FC CincinnatiCincinnati, Ohio20152019
Columbus CrewColumbus, Ohio19941996
D.C. UnitedWashington, D.C.19941996
Inter Miami CFFort Lauderdale, Florida20182020
CF MontréalMontreal, Quebec19922012
Nashville SCNashville, Tennessee20162020
New England RevolutionFoxborough, Massachusetts19951996
New York City FCNew York City, New York20132015
New York Red BullsHarrison, New Jersey19941996
Orlando City SCOrlando, Florida20102015
Philadelphia UnionChester, Pennsylvania20082010
Toronto FCToronto, Ontario20052007
MLS Western Conference Teams
Austin FCAustin, Texas20182021
Colorado RapidsCommerce City, Colorado19951996
FC DallasFrisco, Texas19951996
Houston Dynamo FCHouston, Texas20052006
Sporting Kansas CityKansas City, Kansas19951996
LA GalaxyCarson, California19941996
Los Angeles FCLos Angeles, California20142018
Minnesota United FCSaint Paul, Minnesota20102017
Portland TimbersPortland, Oregon19752011
Real Salt LakeSandy, Utah20042005
San Jose EarthquakesSan Jose, California19741996
Seattle Sounders FCSeattle, Washington19732009
St. Louis City SCSt. Louis, Missouri20192023
Vancouver Whitecaps FCVancouver, British Columbia19732011


In the context of Major League Soccer (MLS), expansion refers to the process of adding new teams to the league in new or existing markets. MLS has undergone significant expansion in recent years, increasing its number of teams from 10 in 2004 to 29 in 2023.

The expansion process typically involves several steps. First, the league identifies potential expansion markets based on factors such as population size, potential fan base, and ownership group interest. The league may also consider factors such as the availability of suitable stadium facilities and local government support.

Once potential markets are identified, the league will usually issue a request for proposals (RFP) to interested ownership groups. The RFP outlines the league's requirements for ownership group structure, financial resources, and stadium facilities. Interested ownership groups then submit proposals to the league outlining their plans for meeting these requirements.

The league evaluates the proposals and selects ownership groups to join the league. The new teams typically go through a multi-year process of building out their operations, including hiring a coaching staff, signing players, and building a fan base. The new teams then begin play in the league in a subsequent season.

Expansion can have a significant impact on the league's overall structure and competitiveness. As the league grows, it may need to reorganize its divisions or schedule to accommodate the additional teams. Additionally, expansion teams may struggle to compete in their early years as they build out their operations and adjust to the league's level of play.

Player Transfers

Player transfers in Major League Soccer (MLS) work differently from those in many other soccer leagues around the world. The rules can get quite complicated, but here's a brief overview of how they work in MLS:

  • Allocation Money: MLS uses a unique system of allocation money to facilitate transfers. Allocation money is a fund that teams can use to acquire players or improve their salary budget. It can be used to acquire players in various ways, such as through the MLS SuperDraft, international transfer windows, or trades with other teams.
  • Salary Cap: MLS has a salary cap, which limits the amount of money each team can spend on player salaries each season. The salary cap is adjusted each year based on league revenue, and teams must remain within the cap while building their rosters. As of 2022, the budget was $4,900,000, and the Maximum Salary Budget Charge for a single player was $612,500.
  • Designated Players: MLS allows each team to sign up to three Designated Players (DPs) whose salaries exceed the salary cap. DPs are typically high-profile, star players who can help attract fans and improve team performance. Teams must pay a significant portion of a DP's salary with their own funds, but they can use allocation money to offset some of the costs. The signing of DPs has been a key factor in the league's growth and increasing popularity in recent years.
  • Discovery List: MLS teams maintain a discovery list of potential players they may be interested in signing. If a team wants to sign a player on another team's discovery list, they must first trade for the player's rights or negotiate a transfer fee with the other team.
  • International Transfers: MLS teams can sign players from other countries, but they must go through the league's international transfer process. This process involves securing a player's International Transfer Certificate (ITC) from their previous club and securing a work visa for the player in the United States.

Overall, player transfers in MLS are heavily regulated and structured, with a focus on maintaining parity between teams and ensuring financial sustainability for the league as a whole.

International Breaks

Unlike other soccer leagues, MLS does not observe international breaks, which are periods of time when players leave their club teams to play for their national teams in international matches. This means that MLS teams often have to play without some of their key players during international breaks, which can impact the performance of both the teams and the league as a whole.

All-Star Game

The MLS All-Star Game is an annual exhibition game that features a team of top MLS players playing against a high-profile international club team. The game is a showcase of the league's top talent and is typically held in the middle of the MLS season.


Like many other soccer leagues around the world, MLS has introduced Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology to help referees make more accurate decisions during games. While VAR has been a controversial addition to the sport, it has helped to reduce errors and improve the overall quality of refereeing in the league.