Beginner's Guide To MLS

What is MLS?

Well, you didn't call it 'the MLS', which would have got all the super-serious fans in an uproar. Major League Soccer is a 21-year-old professional soccer league featuring teams from the United States and Canada. Unlike many top flights around the world, though, it didn't replace an older league or cobbled together from existing teams. It was created from whole cloth to fulfill a requirement for the U.S. hosting the 1994 World Cup. Despite some bumps (two teams were contracted in 2001, and another in 2014) the league will grow to 24 teams by 2018 and there are already plans to grow to 28; has stadiums all over the country; and no longer has teams with names like ‘the Wiz' or ‘the Clash.' It does, however, have a 'Real Salt Lake,' a 'Sporting Kansas City' and is currently undergoing a bit of an identity crisis because there might be three 'Uniteds' by 2018, so it's not perfect.

Are the players actually any good?

If you're used to watching the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo play, MLS players will probably disappoint. But that's not really a very fair comparison, and although there are no world-class talents in the league, the level of play is actually fairly high, and it's only getting better. A few years ago a lack of quality was a major issue, but the league's come along in leaps and bounds recently, and boasts some very watchable matches as well as some household names.

Some of the most successful players of recent EPL vintage like Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard now call MLS home. International stars like Kaka, Andrea Pirlo and David Villa do too. Most of the key players for the United States national team have gravitated to MLS in recent years, including Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. And it's not all over-the-hill stars, either, as Sebastian Giovinco (late of Juventus) and Giovani dos Santos (who was once a budding Barcelona star) joined last year.

So it's a bit of a retirement league?

A lot of people like to say that, yes. But take heart, there are plenty of budding talents, too. Orlando City's Cyle Larin won Rookie of the Year in 2015 after scoring 17 goals. Darlington Nagbe seems to have finally unlocked his absurd potential in leading the Portland Timbers to MLS Cup. Ethan Finlay was a major reason for the Columbus Crew's resurgence. Sporting KC's Dom Dwyer has shown the potential to break the MLS scoring record. Jordan Morris already has seven caps for the United States before he'd even made his professional debut with the Seattle Sounders. Don't worry, there are plenty of up-and-comers too.

Who's the best team?

That's a great question, as the field is as wide open as ever. The Portland Timbers won MLS Cup last year, beating the Columbus Crew. Neither team boasted internationally recognized names, but relied upon quick, attractive play and put on a highly entertaining final. There's no reason to think either has fallen off much this year.

The LA Galaxy retooled with a a bunch of former European standouts, among them Ashley Cole, Nigel De Jong and Jelle Van Damme. The Sounders lost star forward Obafemi Martins to China, but they have a bunch of accomplished veterans and some promising youngsters. Toronto FC made some interesting signings on defense and -- stop me if you've heard this one before -- may have finally figured out how to put together a cohesive team. The New York Red Bulls, FC Dallas and Vancouver Whitecaps were all young, fast and really good a year ago and might actually be improved. To put it another way: Picking a favorite isn't easy.

Did I hear MLS is trying out replay?

Yeah, MLS has expressed some interest in this and tried it out in some preseason games and will be overseeing its use in the lower-division USL. But actual implementation in regular-season games is a ways off.

But otherwise the games look like everywhere else?

Correct, the days of downward counting clocks and tie-breaking shootouts are long gone.

Why else should I pay attention?

Because it's fun, mostly. MLS fans have imported most of the best bits of worldwide soccer culture -- the tifo (soccerese for ‘big awesome drawing'), the mass chanting, the flags -- and managed to avoid things like stabbing each other in the legs for wearing the wrong colors.

There's also a sense of parity that just doesn't exist in most soccer leagues. Enough teams make it to the playoffs to keep things interesting, and even the worst teams one season can improve enough in one winter -- the Timbers didn't even make the playoffs in 2014 -- to be contenders in the next. In 21 seasons, 10 different teams have won MLS Cup and 10 different teams have won the Supporters' Shield.

If you're into scarves, being an MLS fan will help add to your collection while keeping your neck toasty and warm. MLS is also great if you're into guys with chainsaws. Although that won't help keep you warm unless you're really into guys with chainsaws.

There's seriously a guy with a chainsaw?

Yes. Sadly, he does not often feature on the field of play.

Is it really a professional league if the stadium is quiet and empty?

No, it's not, but MLS doesn't have that problem. The league averages more than 21,500 fans per match, which is good for ninth best in the world.

If you want atmosphere, check out Seattle, where 44,000 screaming and singing fans is the norm. Their rivals, Portland, match that passion, and if you look almost anywhere in the league, you can find a few hundred lubricated fans banded together as a supporters' group screaming obscenities at the other team's best player.

And how does the multiple trophy thing work?

The league itself awards two major trophies at the end of each year. The first goes to the team that finishes the regular-season with the most points for which they receive the Supporters' Shield. Aside from a trophy -- and some level of pride -- that team also receives home-field advantage in the playoffs.

The MLS Cup is awarded to the team that wins the playoffs. They've tweaked the format over the years, now allowing six teams from each conference (so 12 total). The top two clubs get byes to the conference semifinals, seeds Nos. 4 and 5 and seeds Nos. 3 and 6 have to face off for the right to get there. The winners from each conference meet in the MLS Cup; the winner is the league champion.

There are also three further major competitions in which an MLS team might be involved, the U.S. Open Cup, the Voyageurs Cup (aka the Canadian Championship) and the CONCACAF Champions League. The former is a knockout tournament open to every team in the United States Soccer Federation (think England's FA Cup), the Voyageurs Cup is the rough Canadian equivalent and the Champions League is a competition between the top sides in leagues around North America, Central America and the Caribbean. No MLS side has won it in its current format, but they're getting closer and (theoretically) will one day defeat their Mexican overlords.

Will there ever be promotion and relegation in MLS?

Do you believe in alternate universes?

Where did the new teams come from, then?

Just like all the other North American leagues, they bought their way in. A year ago, MLS added Orlando City SC and New York City FC. Orlando had actually been playing in the lower leagues, while NYCFC is owned by Manchester City and was created entirely from scratch. In 2017, Atlanta and Minnesota are both expected to join. By 2018, a second Los Angeles team and David Beckham's Miami team are supposed to join. Sometime after that, they're planning to add four more teams.

Does anyone understand the roster rules? What is 'Allocation Order'?

OK, so the roster rules are a little bit involved. They're also a little bit... fluid. The short version of this answer is that the structure of the league means the players are actually employed by MLS rather than their teams. There is a limited form of free agency -- that was new this offseason -- and the rules for bringing in overseas players are murky at best and made up on the spot at worst. The short version is 'no'.

As for allocation order, it's probably best not to ask.

What is a designated player?

Since the league is salary capped, it's difficult to bribe convince someone like David Beckham to work on his tan raise the league's profile by coming to Los Angeles. And so, when the LA Galaxy acquired Beckham, a new rule was born: Teams can use a 'Designated Player' spot, which counts for a fixed amount on the salary cap, then pay the DP whatever they want. Currently, teams are allowed up to three DPs. Every team has at least one of those players and 16 teams use at least two of their three spots.

What's with all the weird team names?

When a new league tries to draw off about five different naming conventions at once, what tends to result is a big mess. There are clubs with traditional sounding English names (D.C. United), others that go in for something more European (Real Salt Lake), ones with standard US-franchise names (Chicago Fire), one that is simply named after its owner (New York Red Bulls) and another that was named after its parent club (Chivas USA, which is thankfully no longer a thing). The latest trend is for teams to add "SC" to their names, so now we have Columbus Crew SC and Orlando City SC. That's "soccer club," in case you were wondering.

The most reasonable explanation for this is that MLS is still relatively young and went through a significant portion of its history trying to figure out what it wants to be. The best way to handle the issue is to say your sillily-named team does it right and to then relentlessly mock everyone else's sillily-named team.

What about all these teams with '2' in their name?

That's another relatively new wrinkle to MLS. Starting in 2014, teams were allowed to launch stand-alone reserve teams that would play in the third-division USL. There will be 11 MLS-owned teams this year. Among them are the equally-cleverly-named Sounders 2, Timbers 2, Toronto FC II, Whitecaps 2 and Red Bulls II.

It's 'football'. Stop calling it soccer

I bet you're a lot of fun at parties.