We pretty much all agree that football is the biggest sport in the world, right? There are more countries recognised by FIFA than there are by the United Nations (209 vs. 206 just in case you were wondering) and more people play football globally than any other sport, but there’s one major nation that has never quite taken to the beautiful game. America.
But that’s changing. Just like in it’s 1970s heyday, football is taking off and attracting some of the biggest names in the game to try convert the American public from their hand-based version of football. Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole join David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco as some of the major European stars turning out each week in Major League Soccer; the top division in the American and Canadian game.
With over three million young players registered across the United States and attendances regularly averaging above those of Major League Baseball & Hockey, there is huge appetite for the game across the Atlantic and MLS is looking to capitalise on that. Interest has also surged following the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, as well as the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada which was won by the United States; cheered on by an incredible 23 million US TV viewers.
Now entering it’s 21st season, the MLS is a bit different from most European leagues. With two conferences, no relegation, a weirdly unbalanced schedule and the most bonkers transfer rules imaginable, the “Commissioner” doesn’t make it easy for the casual fan to quickly know quite what’s going on.
In fact, before we go on, I should make a confession. There are times when I don’t know what’s going on and I’ve been following closely for years.
Running from March through to November, the competition is split into two parts. The regular season and the post season. For anyone who follows any other American sports it’ll all make perfect sense. For those that don’t, let me explain.
The regular season is the league part. Teams play each other and get points for a win or draw. Just like everywhere else so far. The teams are split into the Eastern and Western conferences and play 34 games over the course of the regular season. After 34 games the top six sides from each conference qualify for the post season.
Oh yeah, and to give it a slightly more “normal” feel, there is also a regular league table. The team who tops this after 34 games wins the Supporters’ Shield; the first piece of a potential treble.
Each conference has it’s own two-legged playoffs, with teams seeded based on their finishing position in the regular season, until there is both an Eastern and Western Conference champion. So, the team who finished sixth in the regular season could be champion. Once the respective conference champions are crowned it’s time for the main event. The MLS Cup. A one-off game to decide that season’s champion.
Not quite the Premier League, is it?
The 20 clubs have a very varied history. Some can find their roots in the 1970s soccer boom which saw Pele, Beckenbauer, Cruyff and Best strut their stuff stateside while others are much younger and trying to create links with communities now which will see American soccer, finally, have a sustainable, long-term future.
The Eastern Conference is made up by:
New England Revolution
New York City FC
New York Red Bull
The Western Conference is made up by:
Real Salt Lake
San Jose Earthquakes
Sporting Kansas City
Portland Timbers (Reigning MLS champions)
Because no one is relegated, teams are added, or removed, at the league’s discretion with a further three new clubs (Los Angeles FC, Minnesota United and Atlanta United) confirmed to be joining by 2018 and a proposed Miami-based side led by David Beckham taking the total to 24. Over the years, teams have also been closed with Miami Fusion, Tampa Bay Mutiny and Chivas USA all lost.
Then there’s transfers.
This is where everyone, even guys paid by Major League Soccer to write about Major League Soccer, sometimes get confused. Because of something that’s incredibly unique to American sports – the clubs are all owned by the league. Since the clubs are all owned by the league, the players are all owned by the league and that means that the league can make up any rules that it wants for player transfers. And it quite often does.
Take Jermaine Jones. After agreeing to move to MLS in 2014 both Chicago Fire, who had done most of the work on the transfer, and New England Revolution wanted to sign the player. The player himself had posted several times on social media indicating he was headed to Chicago. Chicago Fire thought they had their man, a contract was agreed (with the league, crucially) and New England decided they wanted in. In the end the player went to Boston. A “blind draw”, reportedly involving someone picking one of two envelopes, took place, Chicago lost out and everyone was confused.
That’s just one example but there are a few other things to look out for when it comes to players. The SuperDraft, which takes place in early January, gives each club the chance to sign the best young talent from, generally, US colleges. Teams pick in reverse order of their league position, so the worst team goes first and so on, and the players are on show during the MLS Combine a few days earlier.
Teams also have restriction on how many international (non-domestic) players they can have so American, and Canadian, players feature heavily. US Internationals including Tim Howard, Mo Edu, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Carlos Bocanegra have all played in MLS at some point in their careers while Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, Carlos Valderrama, Hristo Stoichkov and Alessandro Nesta are among the league’s international alumni.
Adding to Lampard, Gerrard and, very soon, Ashley Cole, as faces familiar to British fans are Bradley Wright-Phillips (more on him another time), his brother Shaun, Robbie Keane, Liam Ridgewell, Nigel Reo-Coker and Giles Barnes.
More and more players are heading across the Atlantic and MLS is going to go from strength to strength. Despite a reputation as a retirement league the quality of football is much higher than many, including a certain former Liverpool captain, give it credit for.
With regular games on UK TV, familiar faces, good football and some world class players, there’s worse things to do of a Sunday evening than watch Pirlo, Lampard and Villa vs Gerrard, Gio Dos Santos and Robbie Keane (he’s a goal machine over there).