A British guide to MLS rules and terminology for new fans

Major League Soccer is the fastest growing sport in America and the support for the game in the US is constantly increasing.

It may be called soccer on the other side of the Atlantic but more and more football fans from the UK are now also taking note and watching MLS from across the pond.

This guide is meant for those who are new to MLS and want a quick introduction to some of the rules and regulations, as well as the terminology used.

Rules of competition

Major League Soccer is split into two conferences – the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference – which are unsurprisingly filled with teams from either side of the US and Canada, depending on location.

The 2015 season will be the league’s biggest ever as 20 teams will take part in MLS. There will be ten in each conference. All teams play 34 games in what is known as the regular season, which is the standard league format seen across Europe, but MLS has a second phase of a season in the playoffs.

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This is where it gets a bit confusing so stay with me. In 2015, clubs will play each team in their own conference at least twice (one home, one away) making up 18 of the 34 fixtures. They will also play six additional intra-conference games – three home and three away versus different opponents. That takes the total number of games up to 24, so where do the other ten fixtures come from?

The other ten games will be played against all ten teams from the opposing conference. Those teams will only be played once. Five will be at home and five will be away matches.

The top six sides in each conference will then advance to the MLS Playoffs at the conclusion of the regular season (after 34 league games).

The playoffs are again split into two conferences until the best in the East and the best in the West meet in the MLS Cup final after 12 teams compete in a knockout tournament to reach the season finale.

That does not mean the regular season is not at all important however, as the team with the most points after 34 games from both conferences will claim the MLS Supporters’ Shield, which is effectively the league title.

It’s just that the playoffs then add heaps of excitement as 12 teams will battle for the championship title. Some might say it’s slightly unfair on the team that picks up the most points in the regular season but hey, it’s entertaining throughout.

Other key points:

  • Familiar points system – Three for a win, one for a draw and zero for a loss.
  • 18 players named to matchday squad. Three subs allowed.
  • Tie-breaking procedure if teams are level on points at end of regular season are similar though the total number of wins is the first port of call, followed by goal difference and goals for.
  • The away goals rule is used for two-legged ties in the MLS Playoffs.
  • The MLS Cup Final is a single game that is hosted by the finalist that finished the regular season with the most points in the regular season standings.

Squad rules:

MLS clubs are allowed to have up to 30 players in their squad (known as a roster in the US) but only 18 can be included in a matchday squad. There are lots of different rules that clubs must follow to fill a squad and the terminology used can be confusing for those just getting into MLS. Here is a quick run through of what certain terms mean:

Salary Cap: Each team must ensure that do not go over a salary cap set by the league at the start of the season. That means that each team can only spend a certain amount of money on player wages and the total amount spent on a squad is the same for every team in the league, creating a level playing field.

International Slots: Each team is allocated eight international slots, which means they can have eight players from anywhere in the world on their team. International slots are tradeable between MLS teams and can be given away as part of a deal to acquire players or other squad mechanisms. All remaining slots in a squad must be filled by domestic players based in the US (for teams based in the United States) or Canada (for the three MLS sides based in Canada). That does include those who are deemed as permanent residents (green card holders).

Allocation Ranking: A system used to allocate US Men’s National Team players who have been playing abroad or a former MLS player who is returning to the league after originally leaving for a transfer fee. The system sees teams ranked in an order that means the top club gets priority on those players. Rankings are determined in reverse order of finish for the previous season and rankings are reset at the end of each year. An allocation ranking can be traded or swapped but each club can only have one ranking at any one time.

Allocation Money: Each team is given allocation money by the league as an extra resource to salary budgets and the money can be used to sign players or “buy down” players salary budget charges. Allocation money is often used in player trades and can be considered as a sort of transfer budget (an amount of money that a club has to spend on the squad). The league does not reveal the amount of allocation money each team has.

Designated Player: The Designated Player rule, or Beckham rule as it’s also known, is a vital one for all MLS clubs. It allows each team to have a maximum of three players whose salaries do not fully count to their salary caps. Only a certain amount of each DP’s salary counts towards the cap – $350K is roughly the number (thanks to Lank Neshevich in the comments section). This means star players can be signed and the club bears all financial responsibility for those three players. It has meant huge names like David Beckham and more recently Kaka, Sebastian Giovinco, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard have all been lured to ply their trade in MLS. Designated Player slots cannot be traded and each team can only use a maximum of three.

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SuperDraft: The MLS SuperDraft sees clubs sign young players, usually out of colleges across the United States, in the draft format seen used across American sports. Teams each have the chance to pick any eligible player at the draft one by one. The order of draft picks is decided by a team’s past season as those who picked up the fewest points have the opportunity to pick earlier on than those who did better, making the playing field a bit more fair. However, draft picks can be traded to move higher up the order or to sign other players from MLS teams. The SuperDraft is a perfect chance for club’s to improve their squad before the start of each season. Each draft usually consists of four rounds.

Generation Adidas: The Generation Adidas scheme is a partnership between the league and Adidas and is there to help develop young talent across the country, with a selection of the best talent each year signed to the league and placed in the MLS SuperDraft through the scheme.

Trades: Trades are the most common transaction MLS clubs use to sign players. Players, SuperDraft picks, allocation money, allocation rankings, and international player slots can all be traded between teams as long as they take place in the valid trading period. Clubs can trade players away to free up space on the salary cap but all squad rules must still be met at the end of any trade.

Discovery Signings: Discovery signings allow MLS clubs to make claims on players who do not yet play in MLS. All clubs can make up to six discovery signings per season, though expansion clubs can make 10 in their debut season. If a player then comes to the league through the allocation ranking or lottery system, the club that filed the claim has the right to sign him. If more than one club files a claim for the same player, then the club that first made the claim retains the rights of first refusal should the player later be signed by the league.

2015 MLS Match Ball Nativo

Homegrown Player Signings: A club may sign a player to his first professional contract without the player having to go through the MLS SuperDraft so long as the player has trained for at least one year in the club’s youth development scheme and has trained for 80 days with the academy during that year. Any players who are signed this way are known as Homegrown Players and there is no limit to the number of these players a club can sign each year.

Re-Entry Draft: The Re-Entry Draft is held at the end of each season and give a chance for players who are out of contract with their clubs to be selected by another team. There are two stages to the re-entry draft and any players not selected in those stages will be available to all MLS teams on a first-come-first-served basis.

Waivers: A team can waive a player at any point in the season at which time he becomes available to all other teams. Teams will still be charged the salary of players with guaranteed contracts, subject to any settlement.

Transfers and Loans: Any MLS player can be transferred or loaned to a club outside of the league as long as any deal is agreed inside the transfer windows. Players under the age of 24 can be loaned to another club in MLS but the deal must take place inside the first transfer window of the season. Clubs can only loan one player per season.


6 thoughts on “A British guide to MLS rules and terminology for new fans

  1. The DP rule part needs to be changed. The DPs salaray is not totally off the books for salary. The rule allows the club to pay these players (Giovinco, Bradley, etc..) whatever they wish and only have a certain amount count towards the cap. $350K is roughly the number.

  2. Playoffs vs Relegation, champions etc.

    The New York Red Bulls, or “New Jersey Energy Drinks” as their known by their detractors, won the Supporter’s Shield. That is equivalent to EPL champions but there are 2 conferences (east & west) that don’t have fully interlocking schedules so if you are in the weaker conference your path to SS is easier. The last several years the west is the best. NYRB are in the east. 3 games against those in your conference and one against each team in the other conference.

    While there is no relegation to speak of the bottom 8 teams are “relegated” out of the playoffs. Think of the playoffs as the season ending tournament with the best 12 teams. The top 2 teams in each conference get a bye as the bottom 4 in each play a one game elimination at the home field of the higher placed team (1 & 2 = bye, 3 vs 6 & 4 vs 5). After that it is home and home until you have 2 conference champions who play one game for all the marbles.

    Clear as mud? Good.

    • I have to contradict your point, because yes, while you’re right that the Western Conference has been stronger, being in the weaker East does not give those teams an advantage for the Supporters Shield as 4 out of the last 6 SS Champions have been from the west.

  3. A strong team in the east gets to play weak teams more often. The fact that 4 of 6 SS champs have been from the west shows just how strong the west is. In spite of tougher competition they still win it. The inter-conference games are in the west’s favour every year so far.

    Anyway it changes every time the league expands. I can see MLS eventually going to 2 leagues with 16+ teams in each. At that point the only cross over games would be the playoff tournament.

  4. To elaborate more on Generation Adidas contracts, one of the key things is that it encourages players to forego or leave college soccer by paying for them to get or finish their college education in their spare time. This is key because the best players in the US and Canada are offered college scholarships and traditionally that has been the path they take so they have a degree as a back up in case a professional career doesn’t pan out. Gen adidas contracts allow promising players to turn pro in the 18 – 21 age range but still get a free college education.

  5. A key point about GA contracts – they are salary cap exempt, making a GA player even more enticing as a draft pick.

    Also, a player can “graduate” from a GA contract by become an established first-team player (thereby losing cap-exempt status). Otherwise, GA status is lost when signing a new professional contract. Either way, GA contracts are a one-time deal via the SuperDraft; nobody can be signed to a GA deal while playing in the league.

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