The United States is coming off a World Cup hangover in which they didn’t even qualify, but that doesn’t mean that soccer fever hasn’t spread across the country. Every four years, we gear up for a thrilling international competition, and then after it’s over, we forget that soccer is evena real sport, opting to focus more on America’s “Big 4” sports leagues: the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL. But, there is a young league that has now inched its way over hockey, slide tackling the hearts of sports fans: Major League Soccer (MLS).
Fueled by the popularity of the USA-hosted 1994 FIFA World Cup, the MLS was born in 1996. At the time, only 10 teams competed for the coveted Rothenberg trophy (now called the Anschutz Trophy), but today, in their brief 22-year histroy, the MLS has fielded 23 teams and counting, making soccer America’s second-fastest growing sport.
Okay, so clearly you’ve probably heard of the MLS, or even watched a game or two as you catch a slow Tuesday evening broadcast on ESPN, but this isn’t your typical UEFA soccer league. Unlike the Premier League, or La Liga, Ligue 1, or Serie A (that should be enough examples for now), the MLS has branched off from its brethren across the pond, and formed some odd system of it’s own.
Let’s go for goal, and not only kick around some badly formed puns, but dive into weird rules most soccer fans didn’t know existed in the MLS.
22 Single Entity Business
Unlike the other major sports leagues, Major League Soccer operates as a single entity corporation. Unless you're a business major, you are probably scratching your head right now. Basically, the single entity structure means that each franchise is owned by the league themselves, and is backed by group of investors.
Rather than the typical association structure, clubs have a financial stake in the entire league, not just their squad.
Due to this, Major League Soccer technically owns all the teams, and owns the contract to all the players on said teams. Doesn't sound that bad, right? Well, one major process that has suffered under this business structure is that fact that free agency is a lost dream.
21 No Promotion/Relegation
In the Premier League, and most other soccer leagues, there is a promotion/relegation system in place. At the end of the season, whichever teams have the least amount of points get relegated into the lower tiers, while the best teams from the lower tier gets promoted to the big time. When you think about it, the promotion/relegation system ensures constant interest, credits the underdogs, and brings in a new batch of fans every year, so why doesn't the MLS adopt it? The short answer: to protect the owners/investors.
The MLS had a golden opportunity to implement the promotion/relegation system a few years ago. Television networks would have given the league four times their current contract value, as long as they had the structure in place. But, unfortunately, commissioner Dan Garber chose to stand firm against it. Perhaps he needs to get "relegated" soon.
20 International Player Limit
There is no denying that soccer's level of competition outside of the Unites States is much better than within it. Therefore, to ensure that a few blue-blooded locals get the chance to grace the pitch on the national stage, the MLS has implemented a maximum amount of international players within the league. The policy, which only allows 184 international player slots to be divvied evenly between the 23 teams (yet can also can be traded for), seems a little exclusionary. The league hopes that born and bred players will help increase the popularity of the sport in the states, but we'll get more into that later.
19 Low Salary Cap
In most major sports, we see athletes signing multi-million dollar deals, but since the MLS is still in its infancy as a sporting league, their maximum salary cap is on the bottom end of the spectrum.
While there are certain salary cap rules and regulations, basically, each team only gets $4.035-million to finalize their rosters (among several other exceptions).
According to ESPN, the low salary cap leaves the average MLS player salary at approximately $316,777.33, which doesn't seem that bad at first glance. But, when you compare this amount to that of the other major sports leagues (NFL is $2.1 million, MLB is $4 million, and NBA is $6.2 million), it's mere chump change.
18 Garber Bucks
To really understand the salary cap, you need to know that the $4.035-million is supplemented by an intangible, made up currency to allocate finances to the league's assets, colloquially known as Garber Bucks. This money is allocated by the league's commissioner, Don Garber. Think of it like monopoly money with real world value.
Pretty much, if a team wants to sign a certain player for "X" amount of money, but doesn't want to take "X" amount of cap space, they can use some of their Garber Bucks (GB) to restructure their cap hit, which would now be equal to "X-GB." Did you get all that? Good, because this is just the tip of the iceberg of all the MLS's wacky finance rules.
17 General Allocation Money (GAM)
Breaking down the Garber Bucks further, each team is given an annual allotment of General Allocation Money, or GAM. This money can be used for a multitude of things: reducing the amount a player counts against the salary cap, signing new players in the MLS, and even being used as additional incentive to trade with another squad.
While each team receives the same amount of GAM from the MLS (typically around $150,000), some get a little extra help.
Teams that fail to qualify for the playoffs receive additional incentives in order to balance out the competition. Other reward-based ways to receive extra GAM are to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, or to transfer a player to another club outside the MLS.
16 Transfer Allocation Money (TAM)
So now that you (sort of) understand GAM, the next tier of allotted money is known as TAM, or Transfer Allocation Money. This middle-ground investment was first implemented in 2015 to help franchises bridge the gap between GAM and Designated Players (which is what we will get into next).
In 2018, it was announced that each squad would receive $1.2-million of TAM, but have the ability to shell out a little extra dough, up to $2.8-million per year, in order for teams to have more flexibility with adding high-caliber players that don't have to take up Designated Player spots. Does your head hurt yet? Because mine does!
15 Designated Player (DP)
In order to get more stars from the European leagues, the MLS implemented what is known as the Designated Player (DP) Rule (or the David Beckham Rule) back in 2007. Through this loophole, teams are able to sign soccer's aging superstars to high-dollar contracts without taking a hit on the salary cap.
Each squad can have up to three of these roster spots, but can also leverage them in certain trades. Even though this rule may seem a little unfair to the hardworking athletes who are under the umbrella of the salary cap., the DP rule has been able to attract superstars like Beckham, Henry, Villa, and Keane to all lace up their cleats in America.
14 Special Treatment of Stars
Speaking of Designated Players and superstars, the MLS has a habit of giving these athletes preferential treatment on the field. I mean, you could argue that LeBron draws an extra foul or two in the NBA, but the MLS puts their franchise faces on a whole other pedestal.
It's been noted that players like David Villa rarely ever get carded, and if legends like Frank Lampard trip on a blade of grass, someone is getting a penalty.
While it's understandable that the MLS wants to protect the assets that are bringing in the most money, it's a little ridiculous how far they will go to tailor the game to these players needs.
13 Penalty Shootouts
We can't talk about MLS rules without going back to some of the weird rules the league had in its early years. Back when the MLS was first formed, the league wanted to make an effort to make the sport a little more appealing to the U.S. market. So rather than trying to introduce the country to the way the game is meant to be played, they introduced a ton of wacky rules.
For example, the MLS used to hold penalty shootouts to decide ties at the end of a game. But not the traditional penalty kick shootout fans are used to. Instead, players would start from 35 yards out, with five seconds to put the ball past the goalkeeper. It essentially worked the same way a hockey shootout would.
12 Countdown Clocks
Part of the beautiful game's charm is that the clock is progressive and the game flows a lot more freely than in other sports. However, given that fans in the United States were used to countdown clocks in their other major sports, the MLS had a clock winding down, which would stop on dead balls. The half would end when the clock hit 0:00, rather than at the referee's discretion.
The MLS eventually conceded that a lot of these rules had alienated traditional soccer fans from embracing the league and they eventually adopted the game's traditional rules and regulations.
11 Homegrown Player Rule
How do you get local fans to engage in with your team? Put some hometown heroes on the roster. That's why the MLS created the Homegrown Player Rule back in 2008. Teams can sign a local player to their roster without having to go through the entire allocation process. While the financial mechanism of this rule is a little gray, basically these homegrown players salaries don't count against the salary cap.
Can you imagine if other professional sports leagues implemented this policy? You'd have KD in a Wizards uniform, Tom Brady rocking 49ers gold, and Aaron Judge bombing homers out in L.A.!
10 The Discovery Process
It pays well to be a scout in the MLS, especially when they have rules in place like the Discovery Process. According to the league, teams may place players on a "Discovery List" pending that they aren't under any current MLS contracts or on the Allocation List. Basically, if a team finds a player that they really want, they can just file some paperwork with the league and add them as a potential signee. Each club can only have seven players on their Discovery List at a time, and there are some age requirements, but this gives incentives for teams to search high and low for some of the best talent in the world.
9 Transfer Process
Unlike the other soccer leagues in the world, the transfer process is a bit complicated in the MLS.
Since the league technically owns each player's contract, the final transfer approval has to go through the front office.
If a player does get approved for transfer, there are even more crazy rules that come into play. For example, if a played has been with the club for only a year, the club itself only gets 1/3 of the transfer fee, while the MLS banks the rest. If they have been with the team two years, it bumps up to half the transfer fee, and then 2/3 for three years on the roster. Pretty much, the MLS is trying to get their franchises to pay for loyalty, rather than turn a quick buck.
8 Expansion Franchises
As previously mentioned, the MLS started with 10 teams in the mid-90s, but has now ballooned up to a total of 23 squads, with an ultimate goal of 28. Yet, as opposed to other sports leagues, their expansion process is run by the MLS itself, not individual entities. Therefore the MLS has placed certain criteria on its investors (like owners) to host a franchise: the local fan base must be pre-established, the stadium must already be in place, and the size of the metropolitan market must be large enough to be profitable.
There are pros and cons of the rapid MLS growth. For those of you that are interested, the league is planning on expanding to Cincinnati, Miami, and Nashville over the next few seasons.
7 Franchise Relocation
Relocation of a professional sports franchise is always bittersweet: the hometown fans are angry that their beloved owner just jumped to a new city, while the team's new fanbase is ecstatic to have a new squad in town. For the MLS, many of these decisions are based on the front office's financial analysis, rather than on the team itself. So far, the only team that has relocated is the San Jose Earthquakes, who became the Houston Dynamo in 2006, yet they still ended up maintaining the team in the Bay Area the following year.
Although recently, Columbus Crew fans have been up in arms about potential talks of their beloved squad relocating to Austin. We'll have to wait and see how this situation plays out in the near future.
6 Conflicting Schedules
The Premier League plays its season from August to May. La Liga plays its season from August to May. Ligue 1? August to May. Serie A? August to May. The MLS? March to December! Leave it to the U.S. to have a different soccer schedule than the rest of the world (I mean, look what we did to the metric system).
Okay, so you may not think that this is a very big deal, but the conflicting schedule with the rest of the world's super leagues is detrimental to the sport's overall popularity, and causes the MLS to take a huge financial hit on the transfer market.
5 Unbalanced Schedules
Logic would have it that with 23 teams in the MLS, everybody would play each other at least twice, home then away, or at least make the amount of games even within the division, but the MLS isn't always about logic.
The regular season schedule for these squads is completely lopsided.
So, the breakdown is as follows: there are 23 total teams and 34 total games each season. Every team plays once against the other division (about 11 games) and then there is a home-home matchup against in-division clubs (about 20 games). Therefore, there are still three games that are totally up in the air, and are typically scheduled based on a team's geography, which you will soon see, may give certain squads an unfair advantage in the long run.
4 First Tie Breaker: Wins
So, since we've already covered those three randomly scheduled games (about 10% of the season), you'd think the MLS would break playoff ties by goal differential to even the playing field, but again, that's not the case. Sure, to make the playoffs, there is the typical points system (3 points for a win, 1 point for a tie, and 0 for a loss), but instead of total goals or goal differential, the MLS's first tiebreaker is total number of wins.
So, in conjunction with the lopsided schedule, a team could get three "gimme" games against lesser competition, and sneak into the playoffs over a better squad. Is it fair? Personally, I don't think so, but hey, I'm not the one making all these weird rules.
3 Away Goals Rule
It pays off to be a road warrior in the MLS playoffs. Since the Conference Semis and Conference Finals are played on aggregate (two games home-home with total scores determining winners), there needs to be a way to break a potential tie. For example, if Team A wins against Team B 3-1 at home, but loses 2-0 away, then the aggregate score would be 3-3, and we'd have a tie. Now typically, this may go into a nerve-racking shootout, but instead, the MLS uses the away goals rule, which means that the team with the most goals on the road are the victors. So, in our scenario, Team A would be packing their bags. It's truly an odd, and highly-controversial rule that should be tweaked in the future.
2 Weird Playoff Structure
Okay, there is a bunch of weird rules when it comes to the playoffs. First off, let's look at how many teams actually make it to the postseason.
In the MLS, 12 total teams, six from each conference, have the chance to vie for the cup. That's over 50% of the clubs!
Second, the top two seeds get a bye, which like the NFL, is not uncommon, and the bottom four playoff teams duel it out for a single elimination game in the knockout round (also, not uncommon). But, as previously mentioned, the Semis and Finals are played on a two-game aggregate! And the worst part is...
1 A Single MLS Cup Final
There is only a one-game MLS Cup final! So instead of going back and forth, allowing for each team to play on their home turf (like the rest of the world does), the MLS has condensed their championship match into one final spectacle, probably to increase suspense, gain viewership, and boost their wallets with advertising dollars.
In 2017, Toronto FC edged out the Seattle Sounders 2-0 to win the cup at BMO Field in Toronto, but who knows what would have happened if they played a second match in the Pacific Northwest. Clearly, this weird rule is unfair to any away squad in the final, and for the soccer Gods' sake, should be changed up in the future.