MLS – Major League Soccer – is the highest level of professional soccer in the United States and Canada. It has 29 teams competing for the prized MLS Cup, 26 in the US and 3 in Canada.
MLS had its first season in 1996 with ten teams and has regularly been expanding ever since. With the latest addition of St. Louis SC for the 2023 season, the league has reached its most-ever number of teams with 29. In 2025, with the addition of an expansion team in San Diego, the league will reach 30 teams.
This expansion, combined with the arrival of Lionel Messi, has brought MLS’ popularity to new heights. Messi recently signed a two-and-a-half-year contract with Inter Miami. Since then, he has completely taken the league by storm, helping his team win the Leagues Cup title, their first-ever trophy.
What Is the Leagues Cup?
The Leagues Cup is a separate tournament from Major League Soccer. Teams from MLS and Liga MX of Mexico participate in a tournament-style competition, with the winning team qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League.
Usually seen as not as prestigious as the MLS Cup and more like seasonal matches during a pause in the regular season, Messi put the Leagues Cup on the map single-handedly. His performance with Inter Miami could be a sign of what’s to come.
How Popular Is MLS?
The league’s expansion and Messi’s arrival naturally resulted in increased popularity and attendance. MLS stadiums are impressively over the 20,000 average fans per match threshold, with teams like Atlanta United pushing a 50,000 average. The league just started its massive 10-year broadcast rights deal with Apple TV, with every match available to stream for the first time with MLS Season Pass.
How Does the MLS Regular Season Work?
Fifteen teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 in the Western Conference compete for a playoff spot after 34 regular season games. The regular season runs from late February to October.
Each team plays two matches against every team in its conference and one game against most teams in the opposite conference. The first seven of each conference make it directly to the first round of playoffs, while 8th and 9th-seeded teams play a wild card game.
How Do the MLS Playoffs Work?
For the first time, the first round will consist of 16 teams and be a best-of-three series, while the rest of the playoffs will be a single-elimination game format. Traditionally, the entire playoffs were a single-elimination game format, ending with the MLS Cup Final. This season, the game will be played on Dec. 9, 2023.
What Is the Supporters’ Shield?
The team with the best regular season record wins the Supporters’ Shield. This annual award has been given since 1999, and many believe that it is a fairer way to determine the champion rather than a single-game elimination tournament.
It is not as coveted as the MLS Cup, but teams still care about it for prestige and a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. This also echoes the way soccer seasons work in European competitions.
What Is the US Open Cup?
Like the FA Cup in England, the US Open Cup has been the country’s oldest ongoing national soccer competition. In addition to the MLS regular season and Leagues Cup, teams participate in the domestic knockout-style competition.
Approximately 100 teams across all professional leagues in the United States – MLS, USL Championship and League One, NISA, and MLS Next Pro – compete in its current format. The competition is a single-elimination tournament, and naturally, MLS teams usually dominate it. The winner gets an automatic berth to the CONCACAF Champions League.
What Is the CONCACAF Champions League?
CONCACAF is the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football. Like the UEFA Champions League in Europe, they organize an annual continental soccer competition that includes teams from the region.
Starting in 2024, the name will be changed to CONCACAF Champions Cup, with 27 teams participating. MLS is allocated five teams: the MLS Cup winner, the Supporters’ Shield winner, and the following three teams in regular season standings. However, this number will increase with allocations to the Leagues Cup winner (Inter Miami) and runners-up.
Who Are the Most Successful Teams in MLS History?
The most successful teams in MLS history remain the two teams that have been a part of the league since the beginning.
The Los Angeles Galaxy have won the MLS Cup five times, while DC United took home the trophy on four occasions. The reigning winners are the Los Angeles FC, who beat the Philadelphia Union in the MLS Cup final last season. They had also won the MLS Supporters’ Shield for the season.
Major League Soccer is growing in popularity every day. Lionel Messi’s domination will only increase the attention the league is getting. Understanding all the nuts and bolts of the MLS season might be challenging, but you may want to learn all of it because MLS is here to stay.
Kenneth is a an avid soccer follower, fan and writer. He is a consistent follower of the sport and is a fan of Chelsea FC.