A Beginner’s Guide to Major League Soccer
The Major League Soccer season just completed its third week of the 2022 season and there are plenty of exciting story lines to follow. The World Cup is just around the corner (Nov 2022) and that alone is enough reason for some to begin following the players who can represent our region for this year’s tournament. The league has added 10 new teams in the last 10 years (and lost 1), so it’s possible you’re interested in following the local club. Maybe you heard this could be the year an MLS club knocks off Liga MX and wins the CONCACAF Champions League.
Whatever brought you here, it may be helpful to learn some of the unique aspects of the league. After reading this beginner’s guide you should be able to pick out your favorite club, maybe a few to root against, and know what sets Major League Soccer apart from the rest of the soccer world and the other American Major Leagues. If you just want to know who to root for and who to hate, skip to the end.
Major League Soccer’s Beginning
MLS kicked off with 10 teams in 1996. It attempted to piggyback on the wave of soccer support generated from the 1994 World Cup. The league introduced some flashy new rules, namely a new version of penalty kicks. To keep the story short, the first few years of Major League Soccer were more than disappointing. The US Men’s teams had a disappointing showing in the 1998 World Cup which further drove down national interest, and by the millennium there was fear the league would fold. The current commissioner, Don Garber, took the reins and with some added financial support from owners took a new path.
The first decade of this century saw MLS become a more traditional soccer league. They dialed back the silly rule changes and went to adopt a more traditional play style. With the US’s success at the 2002 World Cup, attendance and viewership grew. Some players, Tim Howard and Landon Donavan in particular, gained a bit of stardom. But the league was still plagued with inconsistency. New teams were formed (Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake), old teams were folded (Tampa Bay and Miami), and others moved cities (San Jose became the Houston Dynamo). That inconsistency has been the monkey on Don Garber’s back for the last 15 years.
Around 2007, things began to change for Major League Soccer. Garber instituted new strategies focused on a new growth model. Promising slow, measured growth of viewership and attendance, protecting investors money, and allowing teams to begin operating outside of the salary caps already in place. That year also saw the introduction of the Designated Player, which allowed a team to pay a player any amount and not have it affect the team’s salary cap. The most famous DP in league history was David Beckham in the same year. A slow trickle of new teams also began in 2007, and within 16 years there were 17 new franchises with only one going defunct (Chivas USA).
Weird Roster Rules
Now, the league is synonymous with growth but also plagued by the odd roster financial rules Garber instituted in the early 2000s. Salary caps are fairly common in the US major league sports, but very rare in global soccer. With the sport not controlled by a monopoly of teams, talented players are happy to travel abroad to make as much money as possible. Major League Soccer currently allows teams to have 3 Designated Players, 1 under-22 Designated Player, a limited number of international players, and teams can receive discounts for “homegrown” players who came from their development system. MLS does hold an annual draft like other US sports, but it rarely contains can’t miss talent. For most of the world, Soccer players are purchased or developed. MLS likes to make that much more complicated.
When an international player signs from overseas, teams have to purchase the rights to that player to sign them and pay the purchase price from his former club. There is an allocation order to purchase these players (similar to a draft position). Within MLS, current players and international roster spots can be traded to other teams in the league for “Allocation Money” of which there are two kinds. “General Allocation Money” also known as “Garber bucks” which can help teams improve their draft pick, allocation order spot, or a handful of other odd intra-league financials. “Targeted Allocation Money” can be used to pay a player over the salary cap, but not have them count as a DP.
MLS is easily the hardest to understand league from a roster building perspective. It is important to remember that these rules are constantly evolving. Don Garber has been focused on growing the league both financially and by reputation. To do that, he has to protect the owners money so they continue to invest and ensure no team gets too far ahead of the others. These rules may be absurd, but it makes betting on Major League Soccer a fool’s game. I do not know of any league with as much parity as MLS.
Who to Support, Who to Hate
I will try to keep these arguments succinct, but in all honesty I could find reason to support or vilify just about any franchise. The easiest route to choosing a team is locality. Who is closest to you? This is much easier than when I first started following the league closely in 2005, when there were 12 teams and none in the Southeast. If you would rather get creative, I encourage you to select your team by their branding. Inter Miami’s pink flamingos, LAFC’s black and gold, Seattle Sounders Jimi Hendrix kit, and Portland’s Timber Joey are all easy choices. Be warned, rebrands happen quickly in this league. My wife was on the fence between Seattle and Kansas City until they were rebranded FC from the Wizards. She’s been a Seattle fan ever since.
If you are an originalist, might I recommend DC United or Chicago Fire? These are the league’s early champions and while they have not hit such heights in the last decade, their history is undeniable. If you prefer the consistent winner, either LA team, Seattle, Toronto, and Atlanta are probably for you. Atlanta and LAFC are more recent than the others, but have owners willing to spend big and are very dangerous. The final category worth mentioning are the teams who play a particular style. If you like defense, then Nashville is your team. If wide open play is more your style, San Jose should be your weekly watch (though be warned, they lose a lot). If you are an experienced fan who likes to follow tactics, then Montreal and NYCFC should provide plenty for you to study.
I recommend choosing a team to support before settling on a rival. Most of the league has developed a top 2 or 3 rival, so your new team should give you plenty to hate. But if you have an affinity for boo-ing, I have some recommendations.
“The expansion teams that are successful tend to overspend and their supporters are inauthentic.” If that statement makes sense to you, you should hate NYCFC, Atlanta, Nashville, and LAFC.
“Teams that win all the time are boring, I don’t like the Yankees or Alabama Football.” If that statement sits well with you, you hate Seattle, Toronto, and the LA Galaxy.
For anyone else, I recommend you hate Houston. They just signed Hector Herrera who has the most punchable face in Major League Soccer and has an affinity for choking US players. Ok, that may be a bit personal as a US soccer fan, it is my duty to root against whichever Mexican international player has been the most annoying recently. Now is the best time to get interested in Major League Soccer. The season has just started so you can learn as the season progresses, the summer transfer window is soccer’s version of the off-season and the roster changes are always exciting, and the upcoming world cup will let you hope your favorite players can make the leap from your favorite team to represent their country at the biggest stage.