MLS has 27 clubs that will compete during the league’s 26th season in 2021. Conference alignment is as follows:
- Atlanta United
- Chicago Fire FC
- FC Cincinnati
- Columbus SC
- D.C. United
- Inter Miami CF
- CF Montreal
- Nashville SC
- New England Revolution
- New York City FC
- New York Red Bulls
- Orlando City SC
- Philadelphia Union
- Toronto FC
- Austin FC
- Colorado Rapids
- FC Dallas
- Houston Dynamo FC
- Los Angeles Football Club
- LA Galaxy
- Minnesota United FC
- Portland Timbers
- Real Salt Lake
- San Jose Earthquakes
- Seattle Sounders FC
- Sporting Kansas City
- Vancouver Whitecaps FC
In addition to the MLS regular season, MLS Clubs also participate in the following domestic and international competitions.
Campeones Cup: The third edition of the annual clash between the champions of Major League Soccer and Mexico’s top-flight league, Liga MX, will be hosted by reigning MLS Cup Champion Columbus SC during the week of September 27. More information on Campeones Cup
Leagues Cup: This annual single-elimination tournament features clubs from MLS and Liga MX, building on the leagues’ rivalry and presenting intense, high-level international competition. The qualified MLS teams for the 2021 tournament are Sporting Kansas City, Orlando City SC, Seattle Sounders FC, and New York City FC. Participating LIGA MX clubs will be confirmed in May, at the conclusion of the 2020-21 season. More information on Leagues Cup
Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League: The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football is one of FIFA's six continental governing bodies for association football. The Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League is region’s most prestigious club tournament, qualifying its champion directly to the FIFA Club World Cup. The following MLS clubs will participate in 2021 edition.
- Columbus SC - MLS Cup Champions
- Philadelphia Union - Supporters’ Shield Winners
- Portland Timbers - MLS is Back Tournament Champions
- Atlanta United - U.S. Open Cup Champions (2019)
- Toronto FC - Canadian Representative
Five (5) MLS Clubs will qualify the 2022 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League tournament:
- MLS Cup winner
- Supporters’ Shield winner
- Highest points in the conference opposite Supporters’ Shield winners
- U.S. Open Cup winner
- Canadian Championship winner.
Canadian Championship: The Canadian Championship is Canada Soccer’s highest domestic professional soccer competition and is a route for Canadian professional clubs into Concacaf Champions League and onto the FIFA Club World Cup. More information on the Canadian Championship
Lamar Hunt U.S Open Cup: The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup – U.S. Soccer's National Championship – is the only high-profile competition in American team sports where amateur sides face professionals in meaningful competition. The history-filled tournament, conducted on a single-game, knockout basis, is open to all professional and amateur teams affiliated with U.S. Soccer.
The eight U.S.-based MLS teams with the highest number of regular season points per game (three points for a win, one point for a tie) at the conclusion of the first three weeks of the 2021 MLS Regular Season will qualify for the 2021 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. More information on the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup
MLS Regular Season
- Each of the 27 MLS clubs will play a maximum of 34 matches in the MLS Regular Season, 17 at home and 17 away, with an emphasis on intra-conference regional play.
- At the end of the regular season, the top seven clubs in points from each conference (14 total clubs) will qualify for the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs.
- Eastern Conference clubs will play six regional conference opponents three times, seven remaining Conference opponents twice, and two different cross-conference opponents twice.
- Eleven of the Western Conference clubs will play eight conference opponents three times, the four remaining conference opponents twice, and two different cross-conference opponents twice.
- Two of the Western Conference clubs will play seven conference opponents three times, the five remaining Conference opponents twice, and three different cross-conference opponents three times.
POINT SYSTEM: Clubs will receive three points for a win, one point for a tie and zero points for a loss.
GAME DAY ROSTERS: Each team can select a maximum of 20 players (11 starters and nine substitutes) for its official match roster. Teams are allowed a maximum of five Normal Substitutions per game to be used over the course of three opportunities, excluding half-time, but including cooling and/or drink breaks.
Additionally, MLS has implemented the concussion substitutes initiative. This new initiative allows teams to make up to two concussion substitutions during a match to replace players with concussions or suspected concussions, regardless of the number of normal substitutions already used. If a team elects to use a concussion substitution, its opponent will receive an additional substitution and opportunity.
Both the Home Team and Visiting Team will be allowed a maximum of 19 individuals on their respective club benches (nine named substitute players, nine staff members, one club physician).
- Two Certified Athletic Trainers (ATCs) must be on the bench and named to the nine-person staff on the official match roster.
- If the Visiting Team has no Official Team Physician on the bench, a maximum of 18 total individuals (nine staff and nine named substitute players) will be allowed on the bench.
- Bench personnel must adhere to mandated health and safety protocols.
- The Home Team is required to have its Team Physician attend each MLS match and be seated on the Home Team bench.
- All individuals seated in the bench area must be listed on the Official Match Roster
Suspended players and/or coaches, injured Players, and non-rostered Players cannot be in the bench area, locker room or on field level from 90-minutes prior to kick-off until the conclusion of the match.
VENUE MEDICAL DIRECTOR: A Venue Medical Director (VMD) will attend every match during the MLS Regular Season and Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. Designated by the Home Team’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO), the VMD is a licensed physician, who must be qualified to evaluate and manage on-field emergencies, including head injuries, and be familiar with the Emergency Action Plan (EAP) of the venue. The VMD’s roles include making the final decision and plan of care in consultation with club medical staff on all emergency situations and evaluations of suspected head injuries and serving as an impartial physician in the event the visiting club does not have a physician on site.
The VMD is required to be positioned at the Fourth Official’s table for the duration of the match.
- The VMD may move away from the Fourth Official’s table to confer with medical professionals and/or technical staffs as needed but must return to the Fourth Official’s table.
- The VMD will not interfere with the duties of those seated at the Fourth Official’s table.
GAME CLOCK: The official game time for all MLS games will be managed on the field by the referee. If necessary, the referee may also allot additional time (a.k.a. "stoppage time”) at the end of each period (first half, second half, and if applicable, first extra time period and second extra time period during playoff matches) to account for injuries, cooling breaks, video reviews, time-wasting, or any other cause, including any significant delay to a restart.
The Stadium clock will start at kickoff of each half. The clock will count upward from 0:00 to 45:00 in the first half and from 45:00 to 90:00 in the second half.
For statistical purposes, the minutes for goals, substitutions, yellow cards, etc., will be listed from the first minute until the 90th minute. A goal scored at 15 minutes 10 seconds will be listed as having been scored in the 16th minute. Events occurring during stoppage time will follow the international norm by being marked with a "+" sign and the additional minutes. For example, a goal scored three minutes into first half stoppage time will be officially identified as happening at "45’+3’".
COOLING AND DRINK BREAKS: MLS mandates the use of cooling breaks if the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) measures 82 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Additionally, the referee can, at any time, implement a discretionary “drinks break” during cases in which player safety is determined to be at risk.
The Fourth Official will be responsible for reading the WBGT at the kickoff spot at the conclusion of the pre-match warmup. A second reading will occur after the whistle blows for the end of the first half to determine if a hydration break is needed.
Implementation and control of the breaks will be managed solely by the referee:
- Each cooling break will last between 90 seconds and 180 seconds in length based on the Referee’s discretion, and each drinks break will last up to and not exceed one-minute in length.
- Cooling and drinks breaks will be held approximately 30 minutes into each half (around the 30th and 75th minute, respectively). The ball must be out of play for either the cooling or drinks break to commence.
- The clock will continue to run, and all time allotted for the break will be added to stoppage time.
- Players must remain on the field of play.
- Coaches cannot leave their respective technical areas.
- Bench personnel cannot enter the field of play (excluding medical personnel).
MATCH POSTPONEMENT: Matches may be postponed when circumstances exist such that continuation of play would pose a threat to the safety of participants or spectators. In cases where a match is postponed prior to kick-off, but after the Official Match Roster exchange, clubs will be permitted to change their rosters regardless of whether the rescheduled match occurs on a date prior to or after the next match in either clubs’ schedule. 2021 MLS Match Postponement Policy
PLAYING FIELD DIMENSIONS AND MARKINGS: The match will be played on a field that remains the same size throughout the MLS Regular Season and Postseason, unless a change is approved by the League and the Visiting Team is notified at least 72 hours in advance of the match. The dimensions and markings of the field will conform to MLS standards and The International Football Association Board (The IFAB) Laws of the Game. No logos on the field, goal nets or corner flags will be allowed without prior League, and where applicable, United States Soccer Federation (USSF) and Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) written approval.
Except where MLS-approved stadium design renders it impossible or impractical, the playing field will be at a minimum 70 yards wide by 110 yards long.
BALL STANDS: Ball Stands will be implemented in all matches during the 2021 MLS season as an opportunity to increase effective match time, as well as prioritize the health and safety of players, and to reduce match manipulation and gamesmanship. All MLS stadiums will provide a total of 13 Ball Stands, with five positioned on the sideline opposite the benches, two outside the home team’s technical area, two outside the away team’s technical area, and two positioned behind each goal line at a maximum distance of 14 yards apart. The Fourth Official’s Table or fourteenth Ball Stand may be used between the benches.
- The team in possession of the restart can access Ball Stands.
- Teams not in possession of the restart should not access Ball Stands.
Ball Stand Equipment
If a Ball Stand is broken or becomes inoperable during the match, the home club will be responsible for immediately installing the onsite replacement.
Officiating and Disciplinary Protocol
REFEREES: All referees in MLS are either USSF or CSA registered match officials, who are trained, assigned and evaluated by the Professional Referee Organization (PRO).
REGULAR SEASON CAUTIONS AND SUSPENSIONS: Fines and suspensions will be levied against players for yellow card accumulations during the Regular Season as follows:
- Player accrues five yellow cards: $250 fine and a suspension from his next MLS Regular Season Match.
- Player accrues an additional three yellow cards (eight total): $500 fine and a suspension from his next MLS Regular Season Match.
- Player accrues an additional three yellow cards (11 total): $750 fine and a suspension from his next MLS Regular Season Match.
- Player accrues an additional two yellow cards (13 total): $1,000 fine and a suspension from his next MLS Regular Season Match.
- For each two yellow cards after the player’s fourth suspension, the player will be suspended from his next MLS Regular Season Match and his fine will be doubled (e.g., fifth yellow card accumulation suspension: $2,000 fine)
GOOD BEHAVIOR INCENTIVE: A player will automatically reduce his yellow card accumulation total by one yellow card each time he appears in five consecutive matches without receiving a yellow card, red card or supplemental discipline in such matches. For clarity, a player cannot have a negative yellow card accumulation total; the Good Behavior Incentive can only reset to a zero-card total. This incentive will be automatically applied a maximum of three times throughout the course of the MLS Regular Season.
For example, if a player on his third caution of the season completes five consecutive matches without receiving a card or supplemental discipline, that player will have one yellow card caution removed from his cumulative total, leaving the player with a total of two yellow cards. This player now has two remaining Good Behavior Incentive opportunities for the MLS Regular Season. If that player completes five more consecutive matches without receiving a card or supplemental discipline, one more yellow card is removed from his cumulative total leaving the player with a total of one yellow card and one more Good Behavior Incentive opportunity.
BENCH BEHAVIOR POLICY: Coaches, staff and substitute(d) players will be fined and/or suspended if they leave the bench to:
- egregiously protest (as determined by the MLS Disciplinary Committee) an official’s decision AND/OR
- express dissent toward an official.
- Engage in acts of unsporting and/or irresponsible behavior.
- Under the 2021/22 IFAB Laws of the Game, bench personnel can be issued “Technical Area Warnings”, yellow and red cards.
MLS Disciplinary Committee:
DISCIPLINARY ACTIONS MAY INCLUDE BUT ARE NOT LIMITED TO:
- Coaches and/or players who leave the bench to protest an official’s decision.
- Audio captured from field microphones and official’s wireless communications devices can be used to issue supplemental discipline.
- The first violation will serve as the club’s official warning.
- Any additional violations of the policy will result in fines and/or suspension.
- The first violation will serve as the player’s official warning.
- Any additional violations of the policy will result in fines and/or suspension.
- The MLS Disciplinary Committee will have the authority waive the aforementioned warning and impose suspensions and/or fines on any incident it deems to be egregious.
Coaches, Team officials, and club staff members:
- In all instances, coaches and all technical staff will generally be held to a higher professional standard than players.
- A coach, technical staff member or team official guilty of misconduct may be issued a yellow card or red card by the Referee.
- Any coach, technical staff member or team official sent off from an MLS match by the Referee shall receive an automatic one-match suspension and fine.
- Any coach, technical staff or team official acting in an unprofessional manner, in the opinion of the League, shall be subject to a fine and/or suspension as determined by the League Office.
- As per The IFAB Laws of the Game, if the offender cannot be identified, the most senior coach in the technical area at the time of the incident will receive the yellow card or red card.
- Major fines and/or suspensions, at the sole and absolute discretion of the League Office, shall be levied against players, coaches, or other tea officials for conduct detrimental to MLS (whether or not they were cautioned by the Referee for such match conduct).
Medical staff who receive a red card during a match will miss the remainder of that match and will be suspended for at least the club’s next match consistent with MLS Competition regulations. The League, at its sole discretion, can suspend any member of the medical staff retroactively if warranted.
- If a suspension occurs because the medical staff has been found guilty of referee assault/abuse or an egregious act (as determined by the MLS Disciplinary Committee or the League Office), the medical staff member will not participate in any matchday related activities (e.g., player care) and is prohibited from entering the stadium tunnel area, locker rooms or field level at any time on matchday.
TEAM OFFICIAL REGULAR SEASON CAUTIONS AND SUSPENSIONS: The club will be responsible to track yellow card totals for team officials during the regular season and postseason. Fines and suspensions will be levied against team officials for yellow card accumulations during the Regular Season as follows:
- Team Officials who accumulate three (3) yellow cards over the course of the Regular Season shall be fined and suspended for their next MLS Regular Season match.
- Yellow Card Accumulation thresholds will reset at the beginning of each season.
- The League Office may use discretion to apply any appropriate sanction regardless of the aforementioned recommendations.
- Similar to the application of yellow card accumulation for players, yellow cards will reset at the end of the Regular Season (if a team qualifies for the Playoffs) and also before MLS Cup.
ENTERING THE FIELD OF PLAY: Bench personnel, including players, are prohibited from entering the field of play at any time (excluding medical staff needed to tend to an injury).
- Any bench personnel, including substitute(d) players, who enter the field during a non-confrontational incident (as determined by the MLS Disciplinary Committee) and excluding spontaneous and momentary “celebrations”, will be issued a written warning for the first offense and be fined for subsequent violations.
- Any bench personnel, including substitute(d) players, who enter the field during a confrontational incident (as determined by the MLS Disciplinary Committee) will be suspended and fined.
- The MLS Disciplinary Committee will have the authority to waive the warning and impose suspensions and/or fines on any non-confrontational incident it deems to be egregious and/or repeat behavior of an individual.
THROWING/KICKING AN OBJECT TOWARD A FAN(S): Any player(s) or staff member who throws (strikes) or kicks an object (e.g., ball) toward a fan(s) shall be sanctioned.
GAME SUSPENSION MANIPULATION: Players suspended from MLS Regular Season and postseason games who are released from their clubs for National Team duty will have their suspension(s) held in abeyance until the full completion of their international duty. International duty begins on the player’s call-in start date and ends upon the completion of the player’s final scheduled match during that specific FIFA International Window.
A player will have his suspension held in abeyance if: (i) he leaves prior to the opening of the international window and/or; (ii) he returns to the National Team during the same window.
DISCIPLINARY COMMITTEE: The mission of the MLS Disciplinary Committee is to ensure player safety and preserve the integrity and reputation of Major League Soccer. The MLS Commissioner, in his sole discretion, may issue disciplinary action for any on-field misconduct.
The MLS Disciplinary Committee, comprised of three former MLS players (one designated by the MLS Players Association), one former MLS coach and one former MLS referee, will use the following parameters in determining when it can act under Video Review:
Parameter 1: Where the Officials Do Not See the Incident, and therefore do not have the opportunity to act, the Committee will review any and all evidence and may act to discipline a player (i.e., an off-the-ball offense).
*Parameter 1 incidents are subject to consideration of the Official Warning and Official Notices clause.
Parameter 2: Where the Officials See an Incident and issue a red card, the Committee may review the play for further disciplinary action, over and above the mandatory suspension and fine. Supplemental discipline (suspension and/or fine) will be administered if the Committee believes:
- The offense is egregious in nature; and/or
- It must act to protect player safety; and/or
- It must protect the integrity of the game; and/or
- The player is guilty of repeat behavior.
*Parameter 2 incidents are subject to consideration of the Official Warning and Official Notices clause.
Parameter 3: Where the Officials See an Incident, and Do Not issue a red card or act on a case of clear and obvious simulation/embellishment that meets the conditions for suspension, the Committee shall issue the following:
A. One (1) Match Suspensions - On incidents in which PRO acknowledges an on-field Referee/VAR error AND the Committee is unanimous at Red Card and One (1) match or Action Taken (simulation/embellishment) or in cases pursuant to Official Warnings or repeat behavior
B. Two (2) or more Match Suspensions - On incidents in which discipline warrants at least a two (2) match suspension.
The play in question must be, in the unanimous opinion of the Committee from all available evidence:
- a clear and unequivocal red card; and
- egregious or repeat behavior in nature, and/or
- such that the Committee must act to protect player safety or the integrity of the game; and/or
- Clear and obvious simulation/embellishment.
*Parameter 3 incidents are subject to consideration of the Official Warning and Official Notices clause.
Official Warnings and Official Notices
As described in this section, an official disciplinary warning (an “Official Warning”) or an official disciplinary notice (an “Official Notice”) may be issued to a Player under the following circumstances:
Official Warnings: If the play in question was (A) in the unanimous opinion of the MLS Disciplinary Committee from all available evidence, an act of clear and obvious simulation or embellishment that resulted in a penalty kick or a red card (including a second yellow) to the opposing player or (B) (i) in the unanimous opinion of the MLS Disciplinary Committee from all available evidence, a clear, obvious and unequivocal red card and the offense was egregious in nature and/or the MLS Disciplinary Committee must act to protect player safety or the integrity of the game and (ii) the play was seen by the official but the Player was not issued a red card for the incident and PRO does not acknowledge a Referee/VAR error, the MLS Disciplinary Committee may issue an Official Warning to the Player with notice to the Player’s Club and the MLSPA.
- If the Player, having already been given an Official Warning under this Section 1, subsequently commits a similar offense in the same League Season that is also reviewed by the MLS Disciplinary Committee under the same parameters and circumstances described in (A) or (B) above, the MLS Disciplinary Committee may deviate from Parameter 3 of Section VI.B.1 and issue the Player a one-game suspension.
- The “probationary" period for incidents of Serious Foul Play will be cleared by the player if he does not receive a yellow or red card or supplemental discipline in his next five (5) consecutive MLS Regular Season matches.
- In cases where a Player is guilty of Violent Conduct repeat behavior, the Player will remain on probation for the remainder of the season, including post-season.
Official Notices: In cases of repeat behavior (i.e., more than one instance in which the player was reviewed by the MLS Disciplinary Committee) for an offense of a similar nature in which the actions do not merit an Official Warning, a suspension and/or fine, the MLS Disciplinary Committee may issue an Official Notice to the Player, with notice to the Player’s Club and the MLSPA, to indicate the Player’s behavior is being monitored for future offenses.
- The purpose of the Official Notice in these instances is to notify the player that his conduct is approaching, but has not yet crossed, the “line” by which he may be disciplined.
- The “probationary" period will be cleared by the player if he does not receive a yellow or red card or supplemental discipline in his next three (3) consecutive MLS Regular Season matches.
- In subsequent instances of similar behavior, the fact that the Player has previously been issued an Official Notice for particular conduct may not be used by the MLS Disciplinary Committee as an aggravating factor when considering discipline. In other words, each play is reviewed by the MLS Disciplinary Committee on its own merits without consideration to prior instances of the same or similar conduct.
All Official Warnings and Official Notices will reset at the end of each League Season.
EXCEPTIONS TO PARAMETERS UNDER VIDEO REVIEW:
The MLS Disciplinary Committee may act on any incident in which Video Review is either non-operational, or the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) and/or Referee misapply the Video Review Manual protocol.
- In instances when Video Review is non-operational, or the VAR and/or Referee misapply the Video Review protocol, the MLS Disciplinary Committee may act according to the above listed parameters, except there shall be no minimum match suspension threshold to act.
- Non-reviewable situations of potential misconduct, such as, but not limited to, simulation/embellishment, mass confrontation, public criticisms, the use of offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or violating the Anti-Discrimination and Harassment Policy will be adjudicated according to the above listed parameters.
- The MLS Disciplinary Committee will generally follow the above parameters. However, the Commissioner still maintains the authority to determine whether on-field misconduct has occurred, and can issue supplemental discipline, including fines and suspensions, for off-field misconduct deemed detrimental to the reputation and public image of MLS.
Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs
At the end of the 2021 MLS Regular Season, the top seven teams from each conference (14 Clubs total) will qualify for the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs. The Audi MLS Cup Playoffs will again consist of single-elimination matches hosted by the higher-seeded team and follow a straight bracket format through MLS Cup on Dec. 11 (3 p.m. ET, ABC, UniMás, TSN and TVA Sports.
More information about the postseason schedule will be announced at a later date.
Qualification for the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs will be determined by points earned in each respective conference if every club plays the same number of matches during the regular Season (three points for a win, one point for a tie, zero points for a loss).
In the event that two or more teams finish the regular season with an equal number of points, the following tiebreakers will be used.
- Total number of wins
- Goal Differential
- Goals For (GF)
- Fewest Disciplinary Points*
- Away Goals Differential
- Away Goals For
- Home Goals Differential
- Home Goals For
- Coin Toss (tie of two clubs) or Drawing of Lots (tie of three or more clubs)
For Canadian clubs, matches played in the U.S. will count as home matches where each Canadian club is designated as the home club.
When two or more teams are tied in the standings on points, the above tiebreakers will be used until one team ranks ahead of the other(s).
After the winner of the MLS Regular Season Tiebreaker advances, any remaining tied clubs not advancing from the first round MLS Regular Season Tiebreaker shall again go through a second round MLS Regular Season Tiebreaker in order to determine the next advancing club. The MLS Regular Season Tiebreaker system will continue until qualification/seeding has been determined.
* Disciplinary Points are calculated as follows:
- Foul - 1 Point
- Technical Area Warning - 2 Points
- Yellow Card - 3 Points
- 2nd Yellow Card - 7 Points
- Straight Red Card - 7 Points
- Coach Dismissal - 7 Points
- Any Supplemental Discipline - 8 Points
When a Player receives a second yellow card, his Club will receive a maximum of seven (7) points total.
**A Player who receives a yellow card, who then receives supplemental discipline for that yellow card, will receive eight (8) points toward the Club’s total Disciplinary Points calculation for this incident.
*A Club can only receive a maximum of eight (8) points for any individual incident.
The format for the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs will consist of 13 single-elimination matches, including MLS Cup, with the top seed receiving an opening-round bye.
More information on the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs will be announced at a later date.