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A beginner’s guide to MLS for 2017

Just now getting into Major League Soccer? We can help.

MLS: CONCACAF Champions League-C.D. Dragon at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

You can find the entire 2017 MLS season preview here!

What is MLS?

Well, you didn't call it “the MLS,” which is a good start. Major League Soccer is a 22-year-old professional soccer league featuring teams from the United States and Canada. Creating the league was a requirement for the U.S. hosting the 1994 World Cup and despite some bumps (two teams were contracted in 2001) the league will grow to 24 teams by 2020 and is already working on plans to grow to at least 28, has stadiums all over the country, and no longer has teams with names like “the Wiz” or “the Clash” (sadly). It does, however, have a “Real Salt Lake,” a “Sporting Kansas City,” and will have three “Uniteds” — none of which united anything, except the haters — 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. 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.

Most of the United States national team is here now, several returning after successful stints in Europe. The likes of Giovanni dos Santos, Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa and Kaká are making themselves right at home, while aging English legends Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard found it much tougher than they had probably envisioned before both retired.

Who's the best team?

That's a great question. The field seems to be pretty wide open, as it perpetually is. The Seattle Sounders are the defending champions, although they were far from the best team last year. But they did manage to win the title without much contribution from Clint Dempsey, and he appears to be healthy again. Toronto FC might have the most talent, were a penalty shootout away from winning last year, and looked poised for another strong run.

The LA Galaxy have retooled around Mexican star dos Santos, adding Romain Alessandrini from Ligue 1 and the Portland Timbers added some impressive pieces, most notably Lanus’ Sebastian Blanco. And while it’s probably too early to call them a MLS Cup contender, even expansion side Atlanta United looks pretty stacked.

Of course, there’s also FC Dallas, who won the Supporters’ Shield last year and is the first team in MLS history to post back-to-back seasons of at least 60 points. They’ll be without playmaker Mauro Diaz until at least midseason, but they should be contenders either way.

What's all this stuff I've heard about messing with offsides and not allowing draws?

We prefer to pretend that the 1990s never happened. Don't worry, MLS plays by normal FIFA rules now. However, the league is planning to become one of the first to roll out video replay — around midseason if FIFA gives the green light.

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.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Portland Timbers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

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 to be contenders in the next. Going into the league’s 22nd season, 11 different teams have won MLS Cup and just as many 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 feature on the field of play, though we’re sure the Timbers will continue to petition the league to make that happen.

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 21,000 fans per match, which is good for eighth best in the world. The league is also poised to break its own attendance record for a fourth straight year with two new teams coming in — one of whom has already sold 55,000 tickets to their opener — and yet another new stadium scheduled to open.

MLS: MLS Cup Champions-Seattle Sounders FC Parade Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

If you want atmosphere, check out Seattle, where 44,000 screaming and singing fans is the norm and an estimated crowd of 70,000 flooded downtown for their MLS Cup victory parade (above). Those crowds could be rivaled in Atlanta while their Pacific Northwest neighbors, Portland, match that passion. Heck, 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 tweaked the format a little back in 2015, and now allow 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?

Look, a squirrel!

Sorry for asking. Where did the new teams come from, then?

Just like they do in the other big American sports leagues, they bought their way in. This year, MLS added Atlanta United and Minnesota United. Minnesota had actually been playing in the lower leagues, while Atlanta was created entirely from scratch. In 2018, Los Angeles FC is expected to join. Although David Beckham’s Miami team seems rather ill-fated, they will theoretically begin play in the near future of some alternative timeline. Additionally, a group of at least 12 other cities have already formally entered the process to get the league to 28 teams by 2024.

Do these new teams already have fans?

A lot even! In addition to selling 55,000 tickets to their home opener, Atlanta United has nearly 30,000 season-ticket holders. Minnesota United’s numbers aren’t quite as awe-inspiring, but they’ll have more than 30,000 fans at their home opener and will likely have nearly 12,000 season-ticket holders of their own.

Where are they playing?

Both will open in college football stadiums. While that may seem like a return to the bad old days of MLS, know that Atlanta will be moving into a state-of-the-art stadium designed for both soccer and American football at midseason, while Minnesota will have a soccer palace of their own in 2018.

Does anyone understand the roster rules? What is the “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. The rules for bringing in overseas players are murky at best and made up on the spot at worst. The short version is “no,” there are not many people who have a truly thorough understanding of the roster rules. There is, at last, a limited form of free agency within the league, but that’s only served to add another layer of complication.

As for allocation order, it's probably best not to ask. That could be its own post by itself. Just let your favorite team’s GM sort it out.

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 David 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 at least half of them are using all 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 a few more that are reborn NASL teams (like the Sounders). 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 now second-division USL. LA Galaxy II were the first MLS-owned team in the league, but they're now joined by eight other 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.

How does it feel to hold the same opinion as Piers Morgan? Does it feel bad? You should feel bad.