Major League Soccer (MLS) is the United States' and Canada's top-tier professional soccer
league. Its predecessor league, the North American Soccer League (NASL) went out of business in 1984. MLS was founded in 1993 as a condition FIFA imposed on the US Soccer Federation in exchange for allowing the United States to host the 1994 World Cup
. MLS operates more like the other North American professional sports leagues. Unlike almost every other Association Football league in the world, it currently does not have a relegation/promotion system.note
Each of the teams in the league are franchises granted by the league, as opposed to being completely individual entities like their European counterparts.note
The league has been criticized by its European counterparts and FIFA for its spring-to-fall scheduling, conflicting with the FIFA calendar and major summer tournaments, especially the World Cup.note
MLS also relies on an American-style playoff format to determine its championship.note
It currently has 18 teams, 15 in the U.S. and three in Canada. The league will expand to 20 teams in 2015, and to at least 22 teams in 2017, with two teams guaranteednote
and and a thirdnote
pending approval of stadium financing.
In all but a few cases, teams play at 18,000 to 30,000 seat soccer-specific stadiums which are much cheaper to build, can also be used to host rock concerts and high school and college football games, and look much better packed with fans than in the early years of the league, when the majority of teams played in NFL stadiums which are downright cavernous for soccer. The New England Revolution and D.C. United still play in that type of venue, along with Seattle Sounders FC; in the latter case ticket demand is enough to justify it.note
The Vancouver Whitecaps FC play in a current CFL stadium, and are the only current team to play in a retractable roof stadium. The San Jose Earthquakes play most of their games in a former college football stadiumnote
, but that team will move into its own new stadium in 2015.
A regular MLS Season is played in a modified double round robin format, with all 19 teams playing 34 regular-season games. The standings are determined by the standard FIFA point system, with a win equal to 3 points, a draw with 1 point, and none for a loss. At the end of the regular season, the team with most points wins the Supporter's Shield trophy, and gains the number 1 seed at the playoffs.
Since the 2012 season, the top 5 teams in each conference have earned spots in the MLS Cup Playoffs. The First Round in each conference is a single match between the 4th- and 5th-place teams, hosted by the 4th-place team, with the winner advancing to the Conference Semifinals. The Conference Semifinals and Conference Finals are two games each, with the team garnering higher aggregate goals advancing to the next round. In the case of a tie at the end of the second leg, the away goals rule will be applied first (a new feature for the 2014 season). In other words, the team that scored more goals away from home will advance. If the teams are tied on both total goals and away goals, extra time is played. If the teams are still tied, penalty kicks are used (note that the away goals rule is not
used after extra time). The winners of the Conference Finals advance to the MLS Cup, a single match that is now hosted by the team that finished higher in the regular-season standings. Again, in case of a tie, extra time is used, with penalty kicks if necessary.
This replaced a system in which the 2 top teams in each conference (including of course the regular season champion) were automatically guaranteed a playoff spot, with the last 4 slots allotted to the next 4 teams with the best regular season record, regardless of conference. This caused a bit of a Mind Screw
for spectators, especially when teams from a single conference dominated the last 4 standings. (This made it possible for a Western Conference team to play in the Eastern Conference playoffs and vice-versa, making the whole concept of conferences pointless.)
The league is divided into the Eastern and Western Conferences. Though team names originally followed the American convention of [City] [Nickname], many teams have switched to European-style names (Ex: The Kansas City Wizards are now Sporting Kansas City), or a hybrid of the two (Ex: "Seattle Sounders FC"). Many teams, especially those brought into the league in the last few years, are reincarnations of teams from lower-tier national leagues such as the USL and NASL (Ex: Portland Timbers). Officially, such teams are disbanded and the new team formed with the same management, and staff, but they generally acknowledge continuity with the prior franchise for record-keeping purposes.
Eastern Conference teams
Western Conference teams
- Chicago Fire - One of the more successful teams, they won the MLS Cup in their first season, 1998. They've fallen on hard times recently but have started to undergo a renaissance. They're also known for being the first club for Carlos Bocanegra, the former United States national team captain. Named for the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
- Columbus Crew SC - Notable for celebrating the working-class side of their fanbase. Won the MLS Cup in 2008, as well as three Supporters' Shields. The team is credited with building the first "soccer-specific" stadium in the league, establishing the model for subsequent non-shared stadiums in the league.
- D.C. United - Second to the LA Galaxy in overall honors, with 4 MLS Cups and 4 Supporters' Shields. One of the founding members of MLS, the name "United" was adapted from English club names (like Manchester United and Leeds United) and is a reflection of Washington D.C.'s status as the capital of the United States. For most of the early years of MLS, D.C. United had the only European-style name. Also was the only MLS franchise to share a home pitch with a Major League Baseball team when the Nationals played at RFK Stadium for three seasons, meaning they played on turf laid over dirt in some places for part of the year.
- Montreal Impact - The third Canadian team to join the league (after Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps in that order), they replaced a second-division (USL/USSF/NASL) club of the same name in 2012. Some high-profile matches are played at the larger Olympic Stadium.
- New England Revolution - Perhaps the least successful of the ten charter franchises. The Revs have not won the Cup, nor have they won the shield... despite being runners-up five times in the Cup, and second overall once. Their only trophies have been from the Open Cup or international competitions. Sister team of the Patriots and play in Gillette Stadium.
- New York Red Bulls - Originally the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (later just the MetroStars, with no region identifier), they are the only MLS team to have their sponsor, who also own the franchise, included in the team name. Current team of Tim Cahill, and also the most recent club of Thierry Henry, who retired after the 2014 season. Also notable for having a severe case of Every Year They Fizzle Out (like cans of Red Bull) when they're in good years, especially as of late. Typically, the Red Bulls will field one of the most skilled and talented squads in the league, but fail to make the cup.
- Philadelphia Union - another of the newer franchises in MLS, Philadelphia Union got started in 2010 and is based in the riverside suburb of Chester with a stadium having a beautiful view of the nearby Commodore Barry Bridge. A lot of their culture is related to Benjamin Franklin and The American Revolution — they have 13 stars on the crest, their name is a reference to the union of the Thirteen Colonies, they put a snake on the crest to reference Franklin's famous "Join or Die" political cartoon, their oldest and biggest supporters group is called the Sons of Ben...you get the idea.
- Toronto FC - The first Canadian team to join MLS, having started playing in 2007. Though their MLS career is rather undistinguished (they have never finished higher than 11th in the league), they have been more successful in the Canadian Championship (contested by Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, and Vancouver Whitecaps FC since 2008, and also by the NASL's FC Edmonton since 2011 and Ottawa Fury since 2014), winning four years in a row from 2009-2012.
- Colorado Rapids - one of the ten charter franchises of the MLS. Not exactly a decorated club, though they do have one MLS Cup to their name. Also notable for being the last team to put advertisements on their kit, finally doing so during the 2014 season.
- FC Dallas - formerly the Dallas Burn, they changed their name upon transferring to a soccer-specific ground, Pizza Hut Park (now Toyota Stadium) in 2005.
- Houston Dynamo - An expansion team in 2006note . Originally named "Houston 1836" to reflect the year Houston was founded and to have a European-style name along the lines of Schalke 04. However, the name displeased the Hispanic community in Houston, who related 1836 with the war for Texas independence. "Dynamo" comes from Houston's energy industry and many former Soviet Union-era clubs such as Dynamo Moscow. They immediately won two MLS Cups. Also one of two MLS teams with a Distaff Counterpart in the National Women's Soccer League, namely the Houston Dash.note
- LA Galaxy - Five times and current MLS Cup champions (2002, 2005, 2011, 2012, 2014), their most recent Cup broke a tie with D.C. United for most decorated team. Made big news in 2007 by signing David Beckham. Current team of Robbie Keane, and also home to Landon Donovan for the final 10 years of his careernote .
- Portland Timbers - Joined the league in 2011, replacing the United Soccer Leagues team of the same name. Has found quite a fanbase (even if the closest they got to a title was the semifinals in 2013) and hosted the 2014 All-Star game. The other MLS team with an official Distaff Counterpart, namely Portland Thorns FC.
- Real Salt Lake - based on Utah, the "Real" in its name is meant to associate themselves with Real Madrid as well as having a European-sounding name. It was not until 2006 when Real Salt Lake and Los Blancos established a mutual partnership, with RSL and Real Madrid meeting twice a year for a friendly (one at home and one away), the training of RSL players at Santiago Bernabeu, and the establishment of a Real Madrid youth academy in Salt Lake City.
- San Jose Earthquakes - a 2008 expansion team that replaced the original San Jose Earthquakes team that moved to Houston after the 2005 season. Officially a continuation of the original team in terms of history and records, they are the 2001 and 2003 MLS Cup Champions, as well as the 2005 and 2012 MLS Supporters' Shield Champions. They played some of their better-drawing games in Oakland their first few years back due to the stadium issues that were still present. However, they will soon have a new stadium thanks to the vote going their way in a recent voter referendum. Originally known as the San Jose Clash, the Earthquakes adopted their current name from the original NASL franchise of the same name in 1999.
- Seattle Sounders FC - Joined the league in 2009. Has had a good run in the league so far, leading the league in ticket sales each year, winning the U.S. Open Cup four times (including three in a row), and also claiming the Supporters' Shield in 2014. Partially owned by comedian and game-show host Drew Carey. Current team of Clint Dempsey, captain of the U.S. national team.
- Sporting Kansas City - formerly the Kansas City Wizards, they adapted the "Sporting" name in association with European Club names. Winners of two MLS Cups (2000 and 2013), plus the Supporters' Shield in 2000 and the US Open Cup in 2004 and 2012. Most notable for defeating Manchester United in a friendly on July 25, 2010. Their home stadium is in Kansas City, Kansas, whereas most franchises in the Kansas City area play their home games in Kansas City, Missouri (which is the larger of the two).
- Vancouver Whitecaps FC - Began MLS play in 2011, having also played in the USL with Seattle and Portland; currently the only MLS franchise with a retractable roof venue and to share their stadium with a CFL team, the BC Lions. The second Canadian team to join the league after Toronto FC. One of the club's owners is NBA All-Star and South African-born, British Columbia-raised Steve Nash. They have managed the unenviable feat of being the runners-up in five consecutive Canadian Championships (to Toronto FC from 2009-2012 and Montreal Impact in 2013).
Three MLS teams have gone defunct, two of which came in the same year. Due to ownership and stadium troubles, the franchises both closed their doors after the 2001 season. The league has recovered since then, with no dying teams until 2014.
- CD Chivas USA - Before the 2014 season, it was under the same ownership as its then-parent club, the Mexican team Club Deportivo Guadalajara, whose nickname is "Chivas" (Spanish for goat). It was regarded by both Guadalajara and Chivas USA fans as the B-team of CD Guadalajara, making the former the only football club in the world with a reserves team playing in another country in another league. Controversially known in the 2013 season for their push to have a team of all Mexican and Mexican-American heritage, with two dismissed non-Latino youth coaches filing a discrimination lawsuit. Shortly before the 2014 season, the team was bought by MLS.
- After two seasons of abysmal numbers,note the league decided to fold Chivas USA, and instead sold the franchise rights to an investor group led by venture capitalist Henry Nguyen. The replacement will start play in 2017 as an expansion team, paired with Atlanta. This new team will not carry over the records from Chivas, making that franchise effectively dead in MLS' eyes.
- Miami Fusion FC - The Fusion were one of MLS's first two expansion teams, joining in 1998 alongside the Chicago Fire. They were the first team to pick a hybridized name. They were a decent team overall, making the playoffs in three of their four years of existence and winning the 2001 Supporters' Shield. However, their incredibly low budget, equally low revenue, and lack of support meant that MLS pulled the plug on the franchise before the 2002 season.
- Tampa Bay Mutiny- The Mutiny started off as one of the hottest teams in MLS, winning the Supporters' Shield for the inaugural season. However, they ended up losing the Eastern Conference final to eventual champions D.C. United. They went into a funk over the next few years as the team traded off its stars and moved into a new stadium. They underwent a strong resurgence in 2000, but failed to make it past the quarter-finals. They followed this up with an atrocious 2001, in which they racked up only 14 pointsnote . This still stands as the worst season by points in league history, and it was on that note that the Mutiny folded.
New expansion has been a hot topic since 2003, after the storm of the early-2000s downturn passed. Some have gone well, like the Cascadia Cup (Seattle, Portland, Vancouver). Others, not so much (CD Chivas USA). Some came out of left field (Salt Lake City, Toronto) but turned out okay. Five future teams have been confirmed:
- New York City FC will enter the league in 2015. Unlike the Red Bulls or the NFL's Jets and Giants, they're trying to play in the Big Apple itself; until a stadium is built, Yankee Stadium in The Bronx will host their games. (This is not by coincidence—the New York Yankees own a 20% stake in the team, with Manchester City owning the rest.)
- Orlando City SC is also scheduled to enter the league in 2015. Their ascent comes at the tail end of a whirlwind grassroots rise as a third-division minor league team. The team will play in the remodeled Citrus Bowl while their permanent home stadium is constructed near the Amway Center, which is expected to open by their second season.
- Atlanta is scheduled to enter MLS in 2017. Arthur Blank, founder of The Home Depot and owner of the Atlanta Falcons, will own the team, which will share the Falcons' new stadium, scheduled to replace the NFL team's current home of the Georgia Dome in 2017.
- Los Angeles FC has been announced as an expansion team separate from CD Chivas USA, which folded after the 2014 season. The ownership group is led by Harry Nguyen and includes names like Vincent Tan, Magic Johnson and Mia Hamm. The new LA team will begin play alongside Atlanta in 2017. The current plan is for a new stadium to be built specifically for the team; Chivas USA shared a stadium with the LA Galaxy.
- Miami will enter the league once it can build a new stadium, which won't happen until at least 2017. That team is backed by now-retired English football icon David Beckham, his business partner Simon Fuller (creator of the Idol franchise), and Miami-based Bolivian telecom billionaire Marcelo Claure. Beckham exercised an option in his original MLS contract to buy an expansion team at a reduced pricenote .
As in any league, rivalries exist between teams. Many arise on their own, whether based on the teams' shared history (such as the Atlantic Cup
between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls, two of the league's founding teams) or geographic proximity (such as the California Clásico
between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the San Jose Earthquakes, the now-defunct Honda Super Clasico
between the Galaxy and CD Chivas USA (to be revived, though maybe with different sponsorship, when LAFC enters the league), and the Cascadia Cup
between the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders FC and Vancouver Whitecaps FC). Others were deliberately created by teams under common ownership (such as the Lamar Hunt Pioneer Cup
between the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas) or other unconventional premises (Columbus Crew and Toronto FC, whose Trillium Cup
competition began with a bet between the two cities' mayors, and is named for the official flower of both Ohio and Ontario).
Many such rivalries are officially recognized by the teams and have been assigned a trophy. While most such contests award the conventional plaque or cup, the Texas Derby
between FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo awards the winner possession of an 18th century cannon. The Other Wiki has plenty of information on recognized MLS rivalries