MLS 101: What Manchester City supporters & NY Yankees fans need to know about Major League Soccer

MLS Cup Trophy (detail)

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Welcome to MLS, Manchester City supporters and New York Yankees fans. We’re sure you might be curious about New York City FC and may be new to Major League Soccer.

Well, MLSsoccer.com has you covered.

Here's a primer that will make it easier for you to chat with the buddies down at your neighborhood bar. When you’re done, you’ll know your Designated Players from your Home Growns, your Cascadia Cup from your California Clasico, and your Supporters’ Shield from your MLS Cup.

HISTORY: Let’s start at the beginning. Major League Soccer’s inaugural season took place in 1996. The league kicked off with ten clubs, divided equally between the Eastern and Western conferences, then added two more clubs, the Chicago Fire and Miami Fusion, in 1998.

Check out the original 10 MLS clubs and learn more about the inaugural season: http://www.mlssoccer.com/history/season/1996

In the early years, D.C. United were the dominant club, winning three of the first four MLS championships. They were led by the Bolivian playmaker Marco Etcheverry and US World Cup star Eddie Pope. The other powerful clubs in MLS’s first decade included the LA Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes, each of whom claimed two titles early on. 

In 2005, a period of steady expansion kicked off that eventually saw the league add nine clubs over the next seven years to reach its current total of 19. (Two clubs were folded in 2001.) New York City FC will be the 20th club in MLS when they formally join in 2015.

Learn more about MLS' history

STRUCTURE: The 19 current MLS clubs are split into two conferences: 10 in the Eastern Conference and nine in the Western Conference.

Eastern Conference Western Conference
Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew
D.C. United
Houston Dynamo
Montreal Impact
New England Revolution
New York Red Bulls
Philadelphia Union
Sporting Kansas City
Toronto FC
Chivas USA
Colorado Rapids
FC Dallas
LA Galaxy
Portland Timbers
Real Salt Lake
San Jose Earthquakes
Seattle Sounders
Vancouver Whitecaps

Check out the current standings

Each club plays a 34-match regular-season schedule that runs between March and October. At the end of the regular season, the top five clubs in each conference qualify for the playoffs, a month-long knockout round that culminates with the MLS Cup.


MLS CUP: The MLS Cup is the league's title match, which takes place in early December. For the first 16 season, the MLS Cup was played in a neutral site, but in 2012, the league changed the rule so that now the highest-seeded team remaining hosts the final.    

In the first 17 years of MLS, 10 different clubs have won the title. The current champions are the LA Galaxy. Here is the complete list of champions:

1996: D.C. United
1997: D.C. United
1998: Chicago Fire
1999: D.C. United
2000: Kansas City Wizards
2001: San Jose Earthquakes
2002: LA Galaxy
2003: San Jose Earthquakes
2004: D.C. United
2005: LA Galaxy
2006: Houston Dynamo
2007: Houston Dynamo
2008: Columbus Crew
2009: Real Salt Lake
2010: Colorado Rapids
2011: LA Galaxy
2012: LA Galaxy

Learn more about the MLS Cup finals.


SUPPORTERS' SHIELD: The other major trophy within MLS is the Supporters’ Shield, which is awarded to the club with the best regular-season record. The Supporters’ Shield winners earn home-field advantage through the playoffs, including the MLS Cup final, if they advance that far, and also a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League (see below).

See the complete list of Supporters’ Shield winners


RECORD HOLDERS: Every league has its benchmarks. Below are some of the most important records and record-holders in MLS history:

Most matches: 416 | Kevin Hartman (1997 - present)
Most goals, all-time: 134 | Jeff Cunningham (1998 - 2011)
Most goals, season: 27 | Roy Lassiter (1996, Tampa Bay), Chris Wondolowski (2012, San Jose)
Most assists, all-time: 135 | Steve Ralston (1996 - 2009)
Most assists, season: 26 | Carlos Valderrama (2000, Tampa Bay)
Most clean sheets, all-time: 112 | Kevin Hartman (1997 - present)

Check out more MLS stats


RIVALRIES: Despite being a relatively young league, MLS already has several heated rivalries. Some of them sprouted up in recent years, and other trace their roots back 30 years and more to different leagues and lower divisions. Here are a few of the biggest rivalries in MLS:

Atlantic Cup: D.C., New York
California Clasico: LA, San Jose
Cascadia Cup: Portland, Seattle, Vancouver
Texas Derby: Houston, Dallas
Rocky Mountain Cup: Salt Lake, Colorado
SuperClasico: LA, Chivas USA
Trillium Cup: Columbus, Toronto  

Learn more about MLS’s rivalries


PLAYERS: MLS operates under a salary-budget system, meaning that each club has a set total salary with which to build its roster. The current salary budget is set at $2,950,000.

However, the roster rules also allow for the acquisition of players whose salaries (or part of their salaries) do not count against the salary budget. The most famous of these players are the so-called Designated Players (DPs), who are generally marquee players. Current DPs include:

Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill (New York)
Federico Higuaín (Columbus)
Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane (LA)
Claudio Bieler (Sporting KC)
Obafemi Martins, Mauro Rosales (Seattle)
Marco Di Vaio (Montreal)

There are also mechanisms in place to help clubs sign and develop prospects. Generation adidas Players are young players, designated by the league as exciting talents, who are selected in the annual SuperDraft. (What’s the SuperDraft? http://www.mlssoccer.com/superdraft/2013). Generation adidas players do not count against a club’s salary budget. Another player designation is the Homegrown Player. These are young prospects signed directly from a club’s academy. Here’s some more on the roster rules and regulations.


INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION: The goal of every soccer club, of course, is to be the best in the world, and to be the best, you have to compete against the best. Within the North American region, MLS clubs compete against the best clubs from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean in the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL).

The CCL is the North America’s version of the UEFA Champions League, and runs from July through May. The most recent champions are Monterrey of Mexico, who have won the last three titles in a row. Learn more.

The winner of the CONCACAF Champions League then advances to compete against the champions from the other continents, including the likes of Manchester United, Barcelona, and Boca Juniors, in the FIFA Club World Cup.

So there you go, a quick seminar on MLS. Now you’re ready to hit the bar.


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