The new fan's guide to MLS

New to Major League Soccer (MLS)? Welcome!

Here’s your own personal 3-minute crash course to get you up to speed on what many call "the most competitive league in the world":

The Basics

MLS is the top-flight soccer league in the USA and Canada which launched in 1996 and now features 22 teams with expansion clubs Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United set to debut this year. Two more teams will join the league by 2020, including a second team in LA (LAFC) and still even more on the way.

Minnesota will visit Portland, the 2015 champs, on March 3 to kick off the season, which concludes with MLS Cup in December.

What’s at Stake

After a 34-match season, the top six teams in each conference (East & West) qualify for the playoffs, where the last team standing is the MLS Cup champion. The finalist with the best regular-season point total earns the right to host the title match.

The Seattle Sounders are the defending champs, beating Toronto FC last December in a dramatic shootout for their first title (watch the highlights here).

Any Given Matchday ...

There have been 11 different teams that have won the MLS Cup in the league’s 21-year history and a big reason why is that each MLS team has an equal base salary budget with which to build a 28-man squad ($3.66 million in 2016).

Each team is permitted to spend money over and above that budget amount for three of those 28 players, known as Designated Players (like Clint Dempsey, David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco).

Also, in addition to the baseline budget, MLS owners have injected another $37 million for player investment which is spread evenly across all clubs and was increased this year.

Building an MLS Team

Teams recruit their own players to build their respective 28-man squads.

They can sign unattached players and acquire others via international transfers or loans. They can contract their own academy products (Homegrowns), as well as trade for players on other MLS teams. There are also periodic drafts (SuperDraft, Waiver Draft, Re-Entry Draft) in which the worst-performing teams get the first pick from a pool of available players.

Finally, there's a list of select US senior and youth national team players, as well as those sold abroad for a transfer fee, who can only join an MLS club via a specific "allocation" order, with worst-performing teams getting the top selections here, too.

Supporting an MLS Team

Each club has multiple supporters groups, including some with chapters outside their home city.

But you don’t have to be a member of a supporters group to follow MLS:

Other Competitions

Similar to what occurs in other countries around the world, MLS clubs also compete in other tournaments outside league play, namely:

  • The CONCACAF Champions League (MLS clubs receive up to five berths) which provides the winner a ticket to the FIFA Club World Cup and the domestic cup competitions.
  • US Open Cup (for 19 US-based MLS teams) and the Amway Canadian Championship (for three Canada-based MLS teams). The winners of both these competitions will receive berths in the CONCACAF Champions League.

Key 2016 Dates

  • Feb. 22-23: CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal 1st legs
  • March 1-2: CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal 2nd legs
  • March 3-5: MLS 2017 Opening Weekend – Week 1
  • March 14-16: CONCACAF Champions League semifinal 1st legs
  • April 4-6: CONCACAF Champions League semifinal 2nd legs
  • April 19/26: CONCACAF Champions League final 1st and 2nd legs
  • June 23-25: Heineken Rivalry Week
  • June/July: Canadian Championship (3 MLS clubs enter competition)
  • June: US Open Cup 4th Round (17 MLS clubs enter competition)
  • July 7-17: CONCACAF Gold Cup group stage (no MLS games in this period)
  • Aug. 2: MLS All-Star Game presented by Target
  • August 23-27: Heineken Rivalry Week
  • October 15: Final Push to the Playoffs – Week 32 (simultaneous conference matches)
  • October 22: Decision Day – Week 33 (simultaneous kickoffs)
  • October-December: Playoffs & MLS Cup
  • Full schedule

*= Based on past tournaments. Official dates for 2017 to be announced.