February 2011: Football in North America: the MLS set-up

The Major League Soccer (MLS) is gradually becoming an established part of the North American sports scene and the standard of football is top class. But the MLS has few similarities with European leagues. It is based more on the commercial US professional leagues in basketball, American football, baseball and ice-hockey. The clubs belong to franchise holders and there is no promotion or relegation. However the MLS is recognised by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) and its clubs play in the competitions organised the continental federation for North and Central America and the Caribbean (CONCACAF). The confederation is the American equivalent of the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations).

The Major League Soccer (MLS) is the professional league in which 18 clubs from USA and Canada will be playing in the 2011 season. (Photo: GettyImages)

Pre-season, the number of clubs in the league was increased from 16 to 18. The two additions this year are the Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecapes FC. Kansas City Wizards have also been renamed Sporting Kansas City. Now with a new name, the club also has a new ground as they will move to the newly built KC Soccer Stadium in summer.

The MLS is expanding and the crowd figures have increased to an average of 18,000 per game. Football is now rivalling ice-hockey for fourth place on the list of the USA’s most popular sports behind American football, baseball and basketball.

Another franchiser from Montreal is expected to join the MLS in 2012. They are expected to replace the Montreal Impact who play in the North America Soccer League (NASL).  It is planned to increase the number of clubs to 20 in 2013. A bidder from New York is the favourite to be given the new berth. A group of investors has already bought the name of the former NASL team, the New York Cosmos.

Regular season leads to Champions League

The regular season runs from March to October. The opening game is scheduled for 15 March when the Seattle Sounders take on Los Angeles Galaxy. Though the league is split up into the Western and Eastern Conference, the teams play each other twice no matter which conference they are in. The top placed team after the preliminary league matches wins the Supporters’ Shield. However it has no bearing on the championship title.

David Beckham is the best known of the several international stars in the MLS. The Los Angeles Galaxy player is expected to end his career in the league. (Photo: GettyImages)

Once the 34-game regular season has finished then it’s time for the play-offs. In the past only eight teams qualified for final stages. Play-off places went to the top two clubs in each conference plus the regular season’s top four clubs no matter which league they were in. Last season six western and two eastern sides qualified for the play-offs. To balance things out, the Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes were assigned to the Eastern Conference championship play-offs.

The Western Conference clubs: CD Chivas USA, Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas, Los Angeles Galaxy, Portland Timbers, Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps FC.

TheEastern Conference clubs: Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, D.C. United, Houston Dynamo, Sporting Kansas City, New England Revolution, New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union, Toronto FC.

The play-off quarterfinals (Conference semifinal) will be played over two legs whilst the semifinals (Conference finals) and the final will be one match affairs. As there will be more teams in the MLS, ten teams will contest the play-offs in the upcoming season. A decision has to be made before the start of the season as to which system should be used for the play-offs.

The top placed club after the regular season will win the MLS Supporters’ Shield and qualifies, as does the winner of the MLS Cup, who to all effects is the champion of USA and Canada, for the CONCACAF Champions League. Qualified for the coming season are the champions Colorado Rapids after winning the MLS final and Los Angeles Galaxy as the regular season’s best club. This means the regular season is highly attractive for every club involved. What’s more the losing finalist and the winner of the US Open Cup go into the qualifying rounds of the CONCACAF Champions League. Next season it will be FC Dallas and Seattle Sounders FC.

Casey Conor won the 2010 MLS Championship with Colorado Rapids. The former Dortmund, Hanover, Karlsruhe and Mainz player is seen here proudly showing off the trophy. (Photo: GettyImages)

Lots of cup competitions during the season

The US Open Cup is contested by the six top teams in the regular season. With the exception of the Canadian teams, the rest of the MLS teams will play-off for the final two places. Real Salt Lake, the New York Red Bulls, Columbus Crew and the San Jose Earthquakes, the teams in the next four places, will participate in the Super League, which is a competition involving MLS clubs and sides from Mexico.

The Canadian clubs, Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps FC have to qualify via the Canadian Championship for the CONCACAF Champions League. The competition was created in 2008 and is organised by CONCACAF and the Canadian Football Association. Up until now, the two MLS clubs and Montreal Impact from the North American Soccer League have contested the title. They will now be joined by FC Edmonton (NASL) in 2011. Instead of the previous league style system with each team playing each other home and away, there will now be a two-legged semifinal and a straight final.

The regular season is made even more attractive as the clubs will simultaneously play for numerous cups. The cup competitions can be seen as minor regional competitions with a derby feel. They are decided by the league standing after the end of the regular season. The additional cups will be between:

Atlantic Cup: D.C. United and New York Red Bull

Beimstone Cup: Chicago Fire and FC Dallas

California Cup: Los Angeles Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes

Cascadia Cup: Seattle Sounders FC, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps

Heritage Cup: San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders FC, Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps

Rocky Mountain Cup: Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake

Honda Super Clasico: Chivas USAaund Los Angeles Galaxy

Texas Derby: FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo

Trillium Cup: Columbus Crew and Toronto FC

“The Stampede”: the pitch side advertising in the match between Spiel Seattle Sounders and Kansas City Wizards in October 2010 (2-1). Continental is one of the MLS sponsors. (Photo: GettyImages)